How does one look as stylish as possible while serving the most unforgivable road rage at the same time? Look no further than Netflix’s new captivating series, BEEF. Beef follows the aftermath of a road rage incident between two strangers, Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) and Amy Lau (Ali Wong). While this dark comedy illustrates the unraveling of these two characters, the deeply moving storytelling is being supported by costumes that speak to the character’s individual backgrounds, who they were, and who they want to be. Costume designer Helen Huang designed the costumes for Beef and talked in an exclusive interview with The Art of Costume about her personal connection to these characters, Amy’s adorable hat, and the rapid breakdown of the costumes in that final episode.
Spencer Williams: I’m so excited to introduce costume designer Helen Huang. Today is all about Beef, which I am obsessed with. It’s a wild ride… literally. My first question is, what was your initial reaction to the story? Not just as a costume designer but as a creative.
Helen Huang: Well, to start off, I was looking for a project being headed up by an Asian showrunner or director with a predominantly Asian cast. Then Beef came along, and I knew creator Lee Sung Jin through his work on the second season of Dave. I love the second season of Dave because it had such a great balance between humor and really grounded emotion, with a philosophical sort of questioning and unreal texture to it. Beef was just like that. There are some very grounding elements to it. It has this existential questioning of our lives, and I feel like that’s very relevant today. And, of course, the writing is extremely tight. There’s a lot of dark humor to it. I find it fascinating too with these characters, these Asian American characters, I like them being kind of bad people because I feel like that equalizes the storytelling in a way. We get to be in a story of bad and good and everywhere in between. There’s a very modern feeling about what they’re going through and the questions that they’re asking themselves.
Spencer Williams: It was such an interesting story, and I feel like everyone, no matter who you were watching this story, was able to take something away from it and speak to everyone’s lives in a way. Let’s dive into the costumes. Like you, I also have grown up in Los Angeles, being a Pasadena, San Gabriel Valley resident myself… I definitely understood what was happening here in terms of the costumes. I was very reminded of the Pasadena moms I run into at Trader Joe’s. Let’s start with Amy. Walk me through her upscale, sophisticated wardrobe and the white-cream color palettes.
Helen Huang: With Amy, I started by looking at the different types of plant stores on Instagram because I feel like there’s a component to Amy that’s very controlled and very knowledgeable about what she’s putting out into the world in terms of branding her store and herself. I lived in Silver Lake for a very long time, and I just know these types of people. They would do boutique shopping, and their whole aesthetic would look a certain way. It’s very specific, and it is upscale. The main thing I wanted to do with the two worlds is… you could say Amy’s world has good taste and Danny’s world has zero taste. But I think it’s more about how these two people are just in their own world. They’re both aware of themselves and also yet not aware of their own bubble. For me, that was the most interesting component about dressing her is that she is very aware of the taste level that she’s putting out but sort of very unaware of how someone like her would look to someone like Danny.
Ali Wong is such a dream to work with. With her costumes, we did want to look very creative and artsy. We did use a lot of boutique labels, and we played a lot with shapes because she’s not afraid of wearing things that are a little bit boxier or bigger. There wasn’t this element of trying to make her more form-fitting.
Then with the color palette, when I do contemporary television or film, I always try to think of what could be a surreal element. Something that kind of messes with the audience a little bit! Having Amy in her creams, neutrals, and things that feel put together and curated, yet relaxed, juxtaposes a lot of her actions and emotional conflicts underneath. It’s a big contrast to how Danny dresses. I also think there’s something about people who wear whites and creams… these are people who are very sure of themselves. They’re pretty sure they’re not going to fail throughout the day. To me, that psychological confidence that she has in her aesthetic and her ways has this undercurrent of being totally out of control.
Spencer Williams: That’s so interesting. Funny enough, using hats in costume design isn’t super popular. I feel like Beef is a masterclass in hats. Everyone is obsessed with Amy’s hat at the beginning of this series.
Helen Huang: The outfit could be really simple, and your accessories could sort of direct the character in one way or another. But I am very careful because, as you said, directors and producers have their own aesthetic biases against hats.
Spencer Williams: Hat beef…*laughs*
Helen Huang: Yeah! *laughs* When I tried it on, it really did feel that it was right for this character. In the beginning, she’s in the car so much, and you just want something that sort of speaks to her aesthetic sense. I also really like the texture of it because it’s this very warm knit that has a warm optimism to it. It really contrasts against how she is in that scene, which is just full of rage.
Spencer Williams: The hat’s taking the world by storm. Let’s talk about Danny a little bit. As you mentioned earlier, Danny is the opposite to Amy in terms of at least costuming. I feel like I know Danny personally and what he chooses to wear. I do think that there is a little bit of a taste level.
Helen Huang: For Steven Yeun’s character Danny, I went into the fittings keeping in mind the people I grew up with in San Gabriel Valley. I did want Danny to look kind of like he did have some taste. I wanted him to feel like he belonged to some subculture at one time or another. He just kind of stopped buying clothes around the age of twenty-five and then just kept wearing the same thing. He doesn’t really move forward in terms of taste. With Danny, we did so much goodwill shopping and working with costume houses.
I knew a lot of men that wore free t-shirts, and we were saying that Danny probably got a lot of t-shirts from job fairs. I actually had a vintage Sprint t-shirt that I couldn’t use. We ended up buying another t-shirt and printing this Sprint logo on the chest because I felt so strongly that we needed to use it for the scene. But in many ways, I feel very close to Danny because there are a lot of shows where they want to show only rich Asians. I really wanted to show Asian men that I knew growing up. They deserve a character that represents them and a character that they can see reflected back.
Spencer Williams: There definitely was a different perspective that we don’t really see too often in film and television, and I really appreciated it. Also, I didn’t notice the Sprint shirt until prepping, and I thought he either worked at Sprint or got it at a job fair. Either way, it’s perfect storytelling through costume.
On the other hand, we have George… I am obsessed with this man and his sweaters. I love a comfy sweater, and honestly, this is one of my favorite parts of this entire series. I also can’t help but think the sweaters kind of describe his character. George is a soft guy. But he’s also strong in passion and still maintains that chic personality because he is Amy’s husband.
Helen Huang: With George, we really did want to do an artistic perspective because he came from an artistic family. I really do believe that when couples get together, there’s usually sort of a cohesive sensibility that they both share, In George, I wanted a character that represented an Asian man’s interest in fashion, but I didn’t want the fashion to be suits or anything of that nature. I wanted to show more like quiet wealth.
Spencer Williams: Fumi was an instant style icon in my eyes. I was obsessed the moment I laid eyes on her. You must have had just so much fun crafting these looks!
Helen Huang: Yeah! The brief said that they wanted her to go for a Rei Kawakubo look. We wanted to go all the way with this look, and I didn’t really want to do a watered-down version. In the beginning, we pulled a lot from The RealReal. We were looking for a one-of-a-kind vintage at a good price while making things more unique. We did shop a lot of Comme des Garçons. All her rings and jewelry came from Palace Costume & Prop. I really didn’t imagine her being this person who likes gold or silver. She would wear resin, things that feel a little bit more like art pieces.
Spencer Williams: I am a big fan of the breakdown of costumes. It was so much fun seeing all of these fun, colorful pieces throughout the show. But then, in the last episode, it’s almost like everything falls apart. The characters really go through some things. How did this episode come together with breaking down all these looks?
Helen Huang: It was hard as we didn’t have a lot of time. I think Amy and Danny each had seven multiples in different stages. But even the process of finding their costume, especially Amy’s costume, because we wanted a costume that could do a lot. When I found this Tori Burch blouse, it actually had all the components where she could be at Jordan’s house and be really put together. Then when we get to the wilderness, everything can sort of untie and look like she’s been through the wringer. Danny’s wearing that specific hoodie because I had to research how one could make a sling. Then she falls down a cliff, and even at one point, you probably can’t tell, but they pooped on their pants. Those are…the glamorous parts of costume design! *laughs* We had to think about all of these things before putting those outfits together.
Spencer Williams: I’m obsessed! So this was a very intimate series. I imagine there must have been a lot of collaboration between you, Ali and Steven especially.
Helen Huang: I felt like everyone wanted to come in, and they wanted to transform. I was very lucky with them! I stated before Ali’s kind of a dream to work with. She’ll put on anything and is very supportive. It’s amazing when you get actors that come in that open. Steven was also into the process and was very open to trying everything on. You have to try on everything. We had three or four racks of clothes. A lot of times the more subtle work is the more paired-back stuff.
Spencer Williams: Helen, everyone is obsessed with this show. Me being one of those people, it was so much fun. I loved it. My final question to you is, what did this project mean to you?
Helen Huang: It meant quite a lot to me. It’s one of the more personal projects that I have done. Since I started my career, I’ve dressed Asians as day players on TV shows, and you can never give them a full story just because they’re there to serve the main story. You usually have to dress them like a teacher or as a mom, they have to have a really quick read. With something like Beef and the Asians they had on the show with different economic backgrounds, interests and different perspectives… I thought that was very fun. To break down the thought that we are a monolith to show that there are barriers and there are different experiences in the Asian American community.
These characters represent what they go through and the mistrust and misunderstanding. Beef was a real privilege and I was very excited as soon as I read it… I thought, “oh my God, I’m actually going to get to do this!” I felt like I really had something to say. I really wanted to tell a particular story and this was my opportunity to do it.