When I heard there was a new romantic-comedy film starring Kaley Cuoco and Pete Davidson, I was in! But while these two lovebirds fell in love over and over again, I fell in love with the costumes. The costumes for the Peacock Original film, Meet Cute, were designed by costume designer Michelle J. Li, a Chinese American Costume Designer who just premiered her first project as an IATSE USA 829 Costume Designer! Further credits include designing costumes for Comedy Central’s Awkwafina is Nora From Queens; Theater Camp with Molly Gordon and Ben Platt; and Bea & Sofia with director and actor Victoria Pedretti. I was honored to speak with Michelle about designing the costumes for Meet Cute.
Spencer Williams: Hi Michelle, welcome to The Art of Costume. Congratulations on the premiere of Meet Cute. I loved it! Overall, how was your experience working on this film?
Michelle J. Li: Hey Spencer, thank you so much for featuring me and my work! The making of this film was special to me in a few ways: Meet Cute was my first job as an IATSE USA 829 Costume Designer, which is significant because up until then, I was cutting my teeth designing non-union independent films. The skills I picked up along the way came in handy because of the limited resources and short prep on this project. I also adored working with the crew as there were folks on the job that came from Acidman, a feature that I had finished previously with the same director, Alex Lehmann! Working on this film was a great big reunion, and it makes a world of difference when you’re able to collaborate with colleagues you trust.
Spencer: Oh wow, even more congratulations are in order! This film is unique in that it involves time travel to a specific date night multiple times! Sheila and Gary’s looks had to be instantly recognizable. Since these looks were so prominent, was there extra pressure in deciding on these looks?
Michelle: Yes, there was! As you can imagine, the looks had to be SO right for the characters because, well, it was pretty much the only costume you were going to look at for the next 90 minutes! I can laugh about it now, but Sheila’s yellow gingham dress almost didn’t happen. We shopped so many different yellow sundresses in a variety of styles – stripes, floral prints, solids – but nothing I was finding on the retail level had that “it” factor. It was scary and risky, but we ultimately decided that the right move was to design and build the dress from scratch – a decision that was made 72 hours before filming! I had a small but incredibly mighty Costume Department without which the yellow gingham dress would not exist. For Gary’s costume, we also went through a roulette of striped sweaters until we settled on the right one – a sweater that was just interesting enough for you to notice but just boring enough that it blended into the background.
Spencer: I loved Sheila’s look that she wore for the majority of the film. She wore this iconic yellow gingham dress. What was your concept behind this bold costume?
Michelle: When I began to examine Sheila’s journey through her date nights with Gary, I started to understand that the reason why she continues to play out this same evening night after night is that she’s lost. She’s afraid to discover what tomorrow may bring because there’s uncertainty about her fate – why see what tomorrow looks like when you have total control over what happens today? I started doing visual and emotional research based on this thread, and it led me to a parallel in Dorothy’s journey through Oz. Dorothy is desperately trying to find her way back to Kansas, which is similar to what Sheila goes through. Sheila’s the only one who has the power to bring herself home metaphorically speaking, which we witness when Sheila gains the courage to see the sunrise the following morning. So to sum it up, Sheila’s yellow gingham dress is in many ways paying homage to Dorothy and the journey she embarks on to find herself.
Spencer: Gary (Played by Pete Davidson) went between casual and semi-formal looks. They worked perfectly for a date night in the city. What was your inspiration for this look?
Michelle: Like all great research, you have to go right to the primary source – I people-watched! I observed the outfits of real people walking around Manhattan during dinner times, especially individuals who hung around fancy high-end restaurants. You’d always have to have a blazer/jacket on, or at the very least, a collared shirt.
Spencer: I love that! The best kind of research. What was your collaborative process like with main cast members Kaley Cuoco and Pete Davidson?
Michelle: Absolutely dreamy! Kaley is such a pleasure to work with because she’s incredibly engaged and interested in the design creation – we kept very close contact during the build process for the dress. Pete and I also had quite a bit of fun figuring out Gary’s looks; I knew I hit gold when he’d try on a pair of loafers and he’d tell me they were horrible (in the best way possible, of course). It’s important to me as a designer that my actors believe in what their character is wearing because the work begins there. Clothing has the power to change the way you move, the way you perceive yourself, and the way you speak—which is evident through the different changes seen throughout the film.
Spencer: You’ve worked with Director Alex Lehmann before, specifically Acidman starring Dianna Agron. How did this prior partnership influence your costume design process for Meet Cute?
Michelle: I have an infinite, endless amount of good things to say about working with Alex Lehmann. If he asked me to come onto another project of his, I’d drop everything to work with him again. Alex is the kind of person that sees you as a human and an individual first before your job title, no matter if you’re the PA or the producer. It is this very ethos and energy he brings onto a film set that makes working on a Lehmann film so attractive. He makes you feel seen, heard, and appreciated as a crew member working alongside him. On top of being good pals, we have such trust in each other as creative contemporaries that it makes the stressful times easier, which is worth its weight in gold in this industry! What other director would look you in the eye, knowing that you want to build 8 dresses from scratch for your lead with only 72 hours before principal photography begins – and let you pursue it? That’s the kind of director Alex Lehmann is, and damn, is he good.