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How the Costumes of ‘American-Born Chinese’ straddle Fantasy and Reality

The new Disney+ show, “American-Born Chinese,” based on Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel of the same name, fascinates viewers to two distinct realms, Heaven, via iconic Chinese mythology, and Earth, via an American high school.

For series’ costume designer Joy Cretton, that meant creating ensembles that were both grounded and otherworldly.

In an interview, she said, “You’re going back and forth between two insanely different worlds.” “Is it a hoodie? A blinged-out lotus crown? It was interesting to have such a drastic contrast in the costumes that we were always working on.”

The American-Born Chinese series follows three distinct storylines. The first centers on Jin Wang (Ben Wang), a Chinese American teenager at a mostly White high school. Jin just wants to make the soccer team and fit in, but his plans are derailed with the arrival of Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), a new student who lacks the anxiety that comes with being “the other.”

The differences in the two boys’ personalities are made more apparent through their clothing. Jin, who doesn’t want to stand out from his peers, dresses in muted hoodies and T-shirts. Wei-Chen, meanwhile, is much more confident and has a unique sense of style. He wears bold-colored graphic tees, a woven leather belt, and socks with sandals. Cretton said she and her team drew inspiration for Wei-Chen’s outfits from elderly men on the streets of Chinatown in Los Angeles, as well as the art from the original graphic novel. They wanted his clothes to have a thrown-together feel that at first glance, “may seem nerdy or not cool.”

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“But once you meet him and you see the way he carries himself with so much confidence, you realize that he is cool and that look is cool, and it’s something that other kids might want to wear too,” she added.

He’s the son of Sun Wukong (Daniel Wu), or the Monkey King – a hero from the classic 16th-century Chinese novel “Journey to the West.” Enter the second storyline. Wei-Chen, having stolen his father’s magical staff, is in California in hopes of defeating a celestial uprising.

Sally Woo, a Chinese American customer on the American-Born Chinese, told Cretton stories about the Monkey King she heard from her mother and grandmother, and shared other media adaptations of “Journey to the West” for inspiration. Cretton also spoke to the actors playing the gods and goddesses about their characters, which informed the costume design.

Crettin said, “We wanted the audience that knows these gods and goddesses to recognize them, but we wanted it to be a really new take on them as well.”

Striking the balance between traditional and modern was a daunting prospect, but Cretton said showrunner Kelvin Yu gave the team “permission to play around.”

Cretton collaborated with designers Phillip Lim and Prabal Gurung on costumes for two key characters: Sun Wukong and Guanyin (Michelle Yeoh), the Goddess of Mercy. Lim brought his signature silhouettes to the look of Monkey King for an end result that is regal and sleek. Gurung, known for styling celebrities in glamorous gowns on red carpets, was behind Guanyin’s ethereal ensembles.

The costuming process throughout the show was highly collaborative, Cretton said. Yeoh provided constant input on Guanyin’s costumes – from the shape of her light blue, lotus headpiece to her gold diamante face covering at the heavenly party.

“That was something she grabbed in our fitting room,” Cretton recalled. “We just had all these gold accessories and fabric and cords and things. We were just playing and putting things together, and she put that over her face. And we were like, ‘Yes that’s it!’”

Between the actors’ input and the close collaboration with designers and the costume department, which Cretton described as a “little family,” the team behind “American Born Chinese” was able to bring these fantastical elements – rooted in real-life histories – to life.

“Everyone was so excited about the story of the ‘American-Born Chinese’ that we just put in so much extra than we normally would because we were so determined to get it right and make something really beautiful.”

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