For Helen Huang fashion isn’t only about clothes—it’s also a vehicle for learning about history and thinking about potential futures.
The costume designer behind Station Eleven and Beef keeps her creative vocabulary fresh by devouring visuals of all kinds. A favorite place to do that this past year has been the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Before the writers’ strike put filming on hiatus, she had been in New York to work on a Max mini-series The Penguin, starring Colin Farrell.
Huang is back home in Los Angeles now, where she just heard of an Emmy nomination for her work on Beef. I’ve known Huang as a friend for many years now but hadn’t stopped to properly talk about her career. One of my favorite things about her is that she does not do small talk. We got right into it over a Zoom call.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Alborz Kamalizad: As a wardrobe and costume designer, you’re controlling the look of a project but you also have to stay open to the unconscious and accidental. It feels like maybe that's the difference between a fashion designer and a costume designer.
Helen Huang: Yeah, I'm not making a collection, I'm not looking for things that make sense. I'm looking for things that don't make sense. And I think that mirrors what's good about film and well-written stories. It’s about nuance and history.
The way I like to approach character, regardless of what project I'm on, is to make someone look alive and like a real person. And the most interesting element of a person is that there's always something unexpected and something that's "wrong." That's a big part of it, you know? So when I ask my shoppers to go out and get me what I need, I tell them what I need to create this character, but also to find something that inspires them, that doesn't fit this character at all and bring it back to me. Oftentimes that's the thing that makes the character.
Life is always stranger than fiction. You will always see someone walking down the street or in a subway or something and you'll be like, “I couldn’t ever put that together in my head.” That's the feeling that I want—something that I have not thought of.
AK: When people think about fashion, they think on some level about “looking good.” How is that related to your work? And when you're working with actors who maybe on some level do want to “look good,” how do you navigate that?
HH: I find that with actors, yes, you're right, some of them really do want to look good. And it's about earning their trust by showing them what they think looks good on them and then sort of opening them up, like adding more things into the vocabulary about clothes and slowly introducing different things. So it's a compromise, right? It's what you want them to be and what they allow you to put them in. But with actors, and even directors and producers, it depends on how much trust they give to your craft.
All I do is look at fashion, history, and even technologies that have affected clothes. This is kind of weird to say, but I get to do all these projects and yes, I have to produce a result for all these individual projects. But I like to think of myself as a creative person and curious, so the long-term goal of my life is using these jobs to further knowledge on top of producing something for a production. The coupling of the two makes the work more interesting.
I'm interested in people and how interior psyches and outside forces manifest into something that they're wearing. That's what I like about it. And the more projects I work on, the more I get to learn about how it affects people and societies.
AK: I imagine that some of what that has to do with is the fact that for each person, clothing is very specific and personal. But other people's clothes are sort of invisible. You don't necessarily know how someone else's clothing is affecting how you're thinking about them.
HH: Yeah, that's my job. You don't know how a person's clothes are making an impression on you, but it's my job to study that psychology. That’s why you have to really understand materials, proportions—just regular things like how you would make a sculpture or how you would make a painting. Proportion is the same thing as composition in a painting.
AK: Balancing the interior psyche and outside forces running parallel…can you say more about that and what that means?
HH: So for example, mall culture in the United States didn't exist until the late ‘70s, right? Because the common household didn't have the economics to buy things. But in the late ‘70s into the ‘80s because families have more disposable income, malls were built to satisfy that disposable income and you ended up with mall culture. Those are external forces. In the 1800s, white fabrics became really, really, really popular but it was because the British Empire began sourcing all those fabrics from India. So it's history and external forces that are dictating the aesthetic values that people like. People think that they're picking, you know, and they're being individuals, but it is about the historical events that surround things.
AK: Yeah, like you're kind of picking but it’s just within a certain bandwidth.
HH: Yeah, and the bandwidth has to do with historical events basically.
AK: With that in mind, when you're walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, what are you looking at? What are you looking for?
HH: I mean, you know how sometimes you just need to disconnect from the actual thing you're doing? If I have a project, I just look at whatever images at first and try not to limit myself. And so at the Met it’s just sort of about sitting and being inspired by things that people have made.
And so you're just looking at the objects, looking at the stories behind the objects. In general, the only way that I could do what I do is to just look and be interested in things that have nothing to do with clothes. Because I really believe that clothes are an accumulation of ideas, right? Whether it's environmental or psychological. And so it's very important for you to like other things or else you have nothing to contribute to it.
AK: I don't know if this is correct, but isn’t all clothing on some level utilitarian—versus, say, a sculpture or a painting that is purely aesthetic? So when earlier you said that you think of clothing as sculpture, what did you mean?
HH: I compared it to sculpture because it's three dimensional. But if you compare it to anything that you make, for example a painting, it's like having to get the composition right. You have to know about color. The fabrication of something is comparable to if you're using oils or acrylic or if you're using watercolor. All of these are mediums. The end result in the feeling of the painting or illustration that you're doing is vastly different because of the medium that you're choosing. Same thing with sculpture. If you pick metal, it's automatically going to look more futuristic than if you use stone, which is automatically very organic because it’s from the earth.
So it's about knowing the materials that you're working with and then what the outcome to someone else who's viewing it is going to be.
If you're doing a villain costume, the stereotype is that everything is smooth and monochromatic. If you're doing someone who is sort of more of a hero character and less together, you're going to have more colorways because that signals to someone that they're not fully together. You would use fabrics with a bit more texture because more texture to an audience is more warmth.
The thing that I always challenge myself with is like, this is what the audience knows, now can I surprise them somehow?
Like in Beef with Isaac, everyone thinks he just wears a tank and he's a "thug," you know? And there are certain vocabularies that people conjure up when they think "thug." But for me, the challenge is whether there’s something else that he's interested in that could make his clothes more of a surprise for people.
So with Isaac, we didn't do, like, big heavy gold chains. I was thinking, he went to prison but maybe he's really into therapy and crystals now, and he could still be a creative dresser. So we put him in a lot of pure periwinkles and blues. Maybe he is the type of guy that brings home a rock from Singapore and he’s like, "This is the best rock." So there is a standard for how audiences view certain characters, and it's about breaking those—knowing what signals those standards visually and then breaking that expectation.
AK: Yeah, it’s very easy to use problematic stereotypes because they kind of work really well—by reducing someone to a symbol.
HH: Yeah. But you have to understand what the things are that go into that symbol that automatically make viewers recognize it. If you don't know that, you can't break it. That's why I look at a lot of films and art in general because you realize, oh, the symbols change over time.
This is very funny but if you look at Pride and Prejudice movies, men in that period were in a lot of tights with shoes. But in all the Pride and Prejudice movies now, if you're the heartthrob, they'll give you a boot. They won't give you tights and a shoe because a boot to modern day audiences, even though it's a period piece, signals masculinity and therefore “heartthrob.” Whereas If you really think about the time period, they didn’t have the same connotations.
AK: OK, I feel like we've covered how you think about historical and contemporary projects, but how do you wrap your mind around sci-fi or fantasy like Station Eleven or even, in a way, Penguin?
HH: Well, since it can all be so different with a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, it depends on what the director, the producers, and production designer have to say. But for me, I really want to do sci-fi and fantasy because not only do you get to make everything and world-build and think about theory, but I feel like sci-fi and fantasy appropriates a lot. And it especially appropriates Eastern ideas because it's the lowest hanging fruit in terms of creating a "foreign" looking world. I hate that. I think it's super easy, and I think it's done without any thought and regard to history.
And so for me, it's about, "Is there another way we could do this that's more interesting?" And if we are to take iconography, fabric, and silhouette from another culture, can we do it in a more elegant, thoughtful way? Like learning from people who have done artwork or design based on their own ethnic identity. Like those things are more interesting to me rather than taking.
So that's why I really want to get into it, because I feel like I have a lot to say. As someone in the room with a little bit of control over the outcome, to say “Can we just stop doing this?”
Especially with sci-fi, which has always been a tool in imagining the future while discussing current world problems. That's what good sci-fi really is, you know? But I feel like that's usually absent and disconnected from the clothes. As we keep evolving in those discussions, so too should the aesthetics of sci-fi.
But when done wrong, sci-fi has a tendency to repeat the design aesthetics of sci-fi tentpoles that came before. For example, like Star Wars. It’s iconic. It defined the look for sci-fi as a genre many years after. The Asian design influences in the movie stemmed from George Lucas’ love for Japanese cinema, but it was also a clever solution for creating an original aesthetic on a smaller budget. But when later sci-fi movies borrow that particular design language without reverence for its original intent, it then becomes more about utilizing aesthetics from other cultures as a signal for foreignness.
I think we can do better. I think it's too easy in terms of the narrative and it's offensive in general. (Laughs) I have a lot of feelings about this!
AK: I imagine that has something to do with being an immigrant…
HH: I think it has something to do with being a minority in this country. I don't think you have to be an immigrant. There are a lot of second or third generation people who sort of feel intensely the same way. But I wouldn't say that, you know, my feelings are everyone's feelings because I can't speak for other Asian designers. It's just the way I feel about it.
I feel it's important for me to at least be in the room to be like, "Hey, things that people have done, they've been sort of hurtful to different communities." And I think that conversation is important. You can't really fake that because appropriating hurts me when I watch a movie. Having stereotypes of people that I see every day affects me. Having people take from your culture to represent foreignness—it’s hurtful.
But you don't have to go around calling people racist. It's more like, "This is your objective and I understand what you're doing, but this is another way that we could channel this."
I don't think people are necessarily doing things because they're racist. I think these are very unconscious things that happen. It's their default, you know. And I'm just saying now we have an opportunity. Let me show you something else.
Published on August 3, 2023