Recasting the Spotlight: Meet Laura Wong

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When we think of the entertainment industry, the directors, producers and celebrities are often what first comes to mind. But what about those who work behind the scenes to turn visions into reality? This is the first installment in our “Recasting the Spotlight” series in which we will be highlighting people of color in roles that are often under-recognized in the industry.

Being spotlighted this time is Laura Wong, a Los Angeles-based costume designer, costumer and kimono specialist consultant who has worked on various projects such as “Our Flag Means Death,” “Westworld,” and “Interstellar.” She is also the owner of Boro Boro which sells curated Japanese kimonos, haori, and textiles. 

Q: Please tell us about yourself and what led you to your interest in costume design?

A: My name is Laura Wong and I have always been interested in the idea of clothing as a form of personal expression. I love the collaborative nature of costume design and how it exists to tell a story. I went to undergrad at Occidental College where I majored in Costume Design with an emphasis in Japanese Textiles, and afterwards got my MFA in Costume Design from UCLA. 

Q: How did you land your first job and what helped you grow your career most?

A: Before I graduated, I interned at the research library at Western Costume. During my time as an intern, I helped Mary Zophres when she was researching for the film “True Grit.” Upon my graduation, she hired me as a PA on her next feature which was “Gangster Squad.” The film industry is very much a series of coincidences as far as you get ahead. It can be frustrating, but half of the battle really is just being at the right place at the right time. I was lucky enough to meet a whole crew of extremely talented and encouraging costumers on that job, most of whom I’m still in touch with today. It’s important to maintain connections with [the] people you like and get along with, because most of the time, your next job will come from a friend or colleague who recommends you. 

Q: Are there any obstacles or challenges you faced when beginning your professional career that you feel comfortable sharing?

A: I identify as Asian American, and one of the most frustrating things for me is just how few of us there are in this industry and how limited our opportunities are both behind and in front of the camera. The film industry is still very much a white and male dominated field, despite recent attempts to make progress. Even in instances where Asian people and cultures are being depicted on screen, we are not being hired in positions of power to be a voice in that process, which I find extremely frustrating. 

Q: For those interested in costume designing as a career, do you have any tips on how they can start their careers and what are some necessary skills they should have for this career?

A: A foundation in costume design through a university can be helpful to get the fundamentals down of design and how to work as a collaborator and storyteller. Most people tend to work their way into the business as a PA for a costume department until they can get enough connections to get into the union, but other people go the non-union route as well. I designed a lot of short films during my time in school and I felt like saying yes to a lot of things at that point was a great help in helping me feel comfortable on set and figuring things out in a lower pressure environment than a studio film. 

Q: Do you have full creative liberty of your designs? Or is there a lot of collaboration when it comes to the process of bringing a design from idea to the final product?

A: I work primarily as a costumer these days, but when I am the designer I would say it greatly varies based upon the director and the project. Some directors are incredibly collaborative as a part of their process and some are not. 

As a costumer, I am working to execute the vision of my designer who is subject to the vision of the director. These days, I primarily work as a fabric buyer where I purchase and source all the materials for the custom built costumes and work with the workroom and custom made costumers who are building them to ensure everything is running smoothly and on time. 

Q: Are there any projects that you’ve been most proud to have worked on?

A: I have had the opportunity to design several short films that had primarily AAPI casts and crews. As representation and diversity is something I am very passionate about I feel very lucky to have worked on them. Most recently I designed “Luna,” a short film directed by Xu Zhang about a political spy in 1930s Shanghai as a part of WB’s Emerging Directors program. Getting to depict that place and time was such a treat, and we were able to shoot on the WB lot which was a wonderful home base. 

Also, [another] highlight for me was working with director Daryn Wakasa on the film “Seppuku,” which was a surreal exploration of the intergenerational trauma of WWII for Japanese Americans. We shot in Los Angeles as well as on location in Manzanar, the historical site of one of the Japanese internment camps. Both short films had crews full of extremely talented artists, including a lot of AAPI folks, which is not common [in the industry]. 

Q: People often overlook how costume is just as important of a storytelling tool as the dialogue and set. How do you think costuming can facilitate the communication of a character’s story to the audience?

A: The reality of the matter is that no one is making films about empty rooms. We watch films for the stories, and stories are about characters. With costume, you can communicate a great deal before a character even opens their mouth. Their age, socioeconomic status, how they carry themselves, how they feel about themselves — it’s the little details that communicate so much. Invariably, when you are watching a film, most of the time there are people on the screen — [meaning] that you are watching a costume designer’s work whether you notice it or not. Some movies you are supposed to notice the costume, and some movies you are not because it would distract from the story. Both kinds of films are very hard for their own reasons!

Q: You run your own business, Boro Boro, aside from working as a costume designer. Could you tell us more about Boro Boro, as well as what motivated you to take the leap to create this business?

A: I have been passionate about kimono and Japanese textiles ever since I lived in Japan back in 2006 and have been conducting independent research on my own ever since. In 2007, I was awarded a research fellowship to spend a month in Okinawa and Hokkaido to study the textile traditions of the minority cultures there. After getting my kimono dressing license in 2018, I wanted to see if there was a way to take the skills I had learned in all of my studies and share them with the broader public. In combining my knowledge of fabric and sourcing from my film career, I found a great fit in starting my business, where I source and sell vintage textiles and kimono from Japan. So much work went into the creation of these unique textiles and I’d love to see them continue to be appreciated and cared for. I hope that in sharing this knowledge more people will come to love them the way I do. 

Q: What do you look for when selecting kimonos and textiles to sell in your shop?

A: I try to focus on early to mid 20th century kimono and haori as well as Japanese indigo and workwear. We have a wide range in the shop, but my favorite pieces are made of meisen silk from the 1920s-1940s. Meisen is a form of stencil dyeing on silk that became popular during that era, which made bold and graphic designs more affordable and quick to produce, so you often find some very unique and colorful patterns from that time period. It was a very unique time period in that it was a time of great cultural mixing, as art and design influences from the West gained popularity in Japan, and the motifs you see in meisen pieces often reflect this time of cultural mixing. 

Q: Both designing costumes and running your business require a love for design and textiles, what do you find is most different about these two roles?

A: My love first and foremost is for textiles and the work it takes to create them, which is something I think most people are very out of touch with today. The amount of effort and work required to raise and gather the fibers, process them into thread, weave them into fabric, and then stitch them into a garment is a years-long process that takes a great deal of time and skill. In our industrialized era, most of us no longer think about all of the people who had to play a role in creating the t-shirts and jeans we wear today.

In film, everything moves so fast that we hardly get any time to really consider the environmental considerations of what we are doing and there is a great deal of waste when it comes to materials. Also as a costumer for film and television, I am not making any design decisions myself as I am working under a costume designer executing their vision. For my business, it is nice to have some autonomy over my own choices, such as choosing to focus on vintage and antique materials rather than new to reduce textile waste and try to educate people about these materials. 

Q: Is there anything that you’ve learned from working behind-the-scenes that people should know about, but don’t?

A: It’s cliché, but they say “it takes an army” and it really does. The amount of people and time it takes to create any given costume you see on screen is so much more than anyone who hasn’t experienced it would think. I think most people would be shocked to find out how many pieces are custom made for each character and how many pairs of hands a garment often passes through before it makes it on camera. On “Our Flag Means Death,” we built nearly 1000 costumes over the course of Season One, and often on a completely grueling schedule that left us very little time. Once our designer had an idea for what she wanted, we had to source options for fabrics, buttons, closures, and trim. Then once decisions were made on those, we had to make the garment either in our in house workroom or often at a variety of outside workrooms, due to the volume we were dealing with. [When] the garment was completed, it had to be fit on the actor, and then often it had to be altered based on how that went, or we needed additional identical ones made if the actor was having to do any work with blood or stunts. Once that process is completed, the completed garments would go to our aging and dyeing department to get realistically “worn in” and often dirtied up so that it doesn’t look brand new. After it arrived on set, our set costumers would have to maintain the look on the actors and keep detailed notes about how it’s worn. And all of this was often taking place in the span of a week or two. It truly requires some particularly grueling hours for all involved. 

Q: What do you think are the necessary steps for there to be more inclusion in the entertainment industry?

A: The industry needs to come to terms with the fact that access is a huge hurdle to getting a more diverse workforce in film and television. It is a business that is hugely based upon nepotism and “who you know” which allows those who are already “in” — who tend to be overwhelmingly white, affluent, and male — to grandfather in those who are in their immediate circle who also tend to have similar demographics to them. Those who do not have connections often have to work long hours for minimum wage as a PA for years before they can get into a union, and with cost of living as high as it is in Los Angeles, that is a huge hurdle for many who cannot afford to do this indefinitely without even any guarantee of someday getting lucky. There has been a lot of lip service lately by studios but I have yet to see a lot of real tangible action beyond just optics towards achieving more diversity, especially behind the camera. 

Q: What has been the most rewarding part of the job, and are there any memories you’d like to share?

A: Especially when working on period films, it is always very satisfying to see it all come together with the period clothes and sets, it’s like being transported in time. I remember when we were filming “Gangster Squad,” we had a huge scene with a ton of background actors in front of Union Station, and it was like being transported back to 1949 when you saw everyone walking around with their period hair and clothes, driving period cars.

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