Dressing the Crazy Rich Asians: how costume designer Mary Vogt shaped look of film’s stars – with help of Michelle Yeoh’s jewellery
Vogt had a daunting task on her hands dressing the stars of the much-anticipated film, but she successfully created a stylish high-society tableau rife with creations from brands including Elie Saab, Dior, Ralph Lauren and Chloe
Early one morning in Kuala Lumpur, costume designer Mary Vogt received a phone call from a Tokyo executive for Ralph Lauren in Asia, asking if she would consider any of the brand’s couture offerings for use in the movie she was working on, Crazy Rich Asians. She selected a few, figuring she would end up getting sent one or two.
“Two days later I received this gigantic box of dresses,” Vogt says. “They must have sent me 30.”
The enthusiasm shown by the luxury American fashion brand towards the film was not an exception. Once word got out that Crazy Rich Asians, based on the bestselling book by Kevin Kwan, was in production in Kuala Lumpur, “designers were clamouring” for the stars to wear their offerings, Vogt says.
For Vogt, who had just finished with the Charlize Theron film Flarsky due out next year, and Kong: Skull Island before that, working on a film with a high fashion quotient and a glamorous all-star Asian cast might have been a little intimidating. But she successfully created a stylish Singapore-set high-society tableau, rife with creations from Elie Saab and Dior – and hefty jewellery pieces from the personal collection of star Michelle Yeoh.
Dressing Yeoh and the rest of the Crazy entourage was a memorable gig for Vogt, who grew up in Long Beach, California, and would put on plays with family and friends in her backyard.
“Nobody wanted to do the costumes except me,” she says over an iced tea on a warm Los Angeles afternoon. “So I always had a job.”
The position of costume designer, she explains, is not just to find cool things for the key stars to wear. She is responsible for the look of every single person who appears on the screen – including extras – even if they’re in a blink-and-you-miss-it role.
In the film, directed by Jon Chu and out in US cinemas on August 15 (August 23 in Hong Kong), Yeoh plays the formidably elegant Eleanor Young, whose handsome son Nick (Henry Golding) flies home to Singapore from New York with girlfriend Rachel Chu (Constance Wu from the series Fresh Off the Boat) for his best friend’s wedding. Rachel has no idea that Nick’s family is ridiculously wealthy. Nor could she anticipate the level of disdain she would receive at the hands of Nick’s mother, and most of the clan; she’s an outsider, after all, and just not good enough to join this polished, old-money posse.
The inherent classicism in the story left Vogt a lot to play with – but not before she was able to sit down with author Kwan and explore what exactly might shape the aesthetic of Singapore’s most pedigreed denizens.
“It was like the flood gates opened,” says Vogt, who was told she had the job three days before she was scheduled to fly to Kuala Lumpur. “We started with photos of his family in China before they emigrated to Singapore, and everyone was very classy, very elegant.”
Using that as her launch pad, Vogt jumped into action. She called stylist Andrea Wong, former editor-in-chief of Elle in Malaysia, and enlisted her as consultant and senior costume buyer on the film. Wong helped Vogt navigate the Kuala Lumpur fashion scene, connecting her with local designers – most of whom relished the idea of having their pieces in the movie – and helping the costume team understand how a family like the Youngs, and their labyrinthine social network, would dress.
Gemma Chan, who plays Nick’s cousin Astrid Leong, was given the sort of wardrobe to consolidate her fictional status as Singapore’s chicest woman. Sonoya Mizuno, in her role as bride-to-be Araminta Lee, wears a highly memorable gold lace jumpsuit to her bridal shower. Rapper and comedienne Awkwafina, who plays Chu’s best friend Goh Peik Lin, sports a short blonde haircut and an unconventional wardrobe, befitting her status as scion of a brash, nouveau-riche family.
“Henry wanted to bring his own T-shirts,” Vogt says. “Or he suggested we go to Uniqlo. I said to him, ‘It’s OK, I think we can spring for some T-shirts for you.’”
Only Wu, who plays a young economics professor, had a down-to-earth wardrobe. Vogt imagined her as the sort of girl who “shopped in Macy’s rather than at Bergdorf”. Despite being among the lead stars, she had to look ordinary and blend into the background (Vogt credits simple pieces from The Gap for helping to make that happen).
Wu says the fish-out-of-water sensibility of her character is not as far removed from her real-life persona as people might assume. When arriving in Southeast Asia to start filming, people expected her to be the luxuriously dressed diva. She was not.
“I don’t present myself like a huge star,” Wu says. “I like to present myself like a regular person. I’m very American and very middle class. I didn’t know all these fancy things that Singaporeans know. They all have Louis Vuitton bags. I’ve never had one. I’ve never wanted one. So sometimes I felt a bit like people would look at me and think, ‘She’s the one? She’s the lead of this movie? That’s weird.’”
Kwan was instrumental in helping create the look of the film, and was entrusted by the director and producers to make sure many of the details were correct. The Singapore-born author understands the peculiarities of a crazy rich Asian, which he says are substantially different from a “crazy rich” anywhere else. Consequently, they dress a particular way.
“They are a distinct species of people,” Kwan says. “People of different cultures handle money differently. When you see how the super rich live in Asia, it’s on a scale that’s almost beyond anything.”
Kwan, who left Singapore for the US when he was 11, says that on return trips home, his childhood friends “were getting richer and richer and their lives were becoming more ridiculous”.
“First, they’d come pick you up from the airport in the Bentley,” he says. “The next time you go back, they don’t bother coming to pick you up and instead send four maids in the Bentley.”
The lavish wedding scene in the film, he says, was modelled on his own experience of outrageously extravagant Asian society weddings, which can take place across three different continents in a week.
“Half of Asia would fly in to some European city, dripping with diamonds, and the natives are like ‘who are these people who have taken over our palaces for a whole weekend?’ I’ve been in houses with a pond in the living room and a baby shark swimming around,” he says.
“And I know the grandma billionaires, the ones who won’t let their chauffeur drop you off in town because they don’t want to pay the congestion charge, so you get dropped off by the highway and then walk in the heat. I know the people who pay a hundred million dollars for a painting but have supersaver coupons at the checkout counter. It’s the contrast that amuses me.”
The collective high-society fashion sense, he says, stems from the drive among wealthy Asians to show off what they have, instead of quietly enjoying it.
“Americans tend to value inner personal luxury. For Asians, a lot of the time it’s for show – they have the gigantic diamonds, the fancy car, the beautiful clothes. They look amazing. But then they go home to a tiny apartment in Mid-Levels [a wealthy area in Hong Kong’s Central district] where the toilet seat hasn’t been fixed in 25 years.”
Kwan drew on his background, as well as his contacts in the fashion world, to call in pieces for the film. His top-tier design contacts were only too delighted to send pieces his way (such as the Ralph Lauren cache, with many of the dresses used in a sequence around Rachel’s inevitable “makeover”).
From Carolina Herrera came a graceful black-and-white-striped palazzo pant ensemble, which Eleanor Young wears while having her friends over for Bible study. A gilded gown from Elie Saab was striking in a wedding scene. Pieces from Armani, Ferragamo and Chloe were evident throughout.
Yeoh, speaking a few weeks earlier, said she helped Vogt model her character’s wardrobe choices based on what her “tai-tai” friends (wealthy married women who do not work) in Hong Kong would wear.
“Eleanor is the most sophisticated woman you will ever meet,” she said. “It’s [Vogt’s] interpretation of the Singaporean and Hong Kong tai-tai, or those who ‘go to work for the family’. The way they are dressed, they are always immaculate, all the way from top to bottom.”
While Yeoh entrusted her wardrobe to Vogt, she didn’t want to take any chances with her jewellery. So she brought her own, including a long, lavish diamond chain necklace worn in one of the opening scenes, and a huge emerald ring.
A jewellery brand had sent over a US$100,000 brooch, but Vogt couldn’t find an appropriate use for it. That was until Yeoh had to wear a designer gown with a belt that didn’t fit. Vogt used the expensive brooch as a belt buckle.
“A US$100,000 belt buckle,” Vogt says with a laugh. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Welcome to the world of the crazy rich Asian.