Interview: Costume Designer Michelle J. Li, On Designing the Timeless Costumes of ‘Meet Cute’

Photo Courtesy of Peacock

Infinite time loop stories are everywhere these days? So how do you stand out from the rest, for Peacock Original film Meet Cute, a time-travel romcom starring Kaley Cuoco and Pete Davidson, one approach was through the costumes. Michelle J. Li, a Chinese American Costume Designer and Production Designer brought her extensive graphic and fine arts background to director Alex Lehmann’s film.

The results speak for themselves, especially the instantly recognizable yellow gingham dress worn by Cuoco throughout the film, back and forth in time. Awards Radar spoke with Li about her work on the film and some of the finer details she incorporated into the time twisty romantic comedy. Read our conversation below and watch her work in action in Meet Cute, streaming exclusively on Peacock.

How did you decide being a costume designer was what you wanted to do?

In some ways, it was a happy accident! I didn’t grow up knowing that being a costume designer was a viable profession – being from a first-generation family, the traditional trajectories one might be pushed to pursue would be something more stable like business or STEM. I rebelled a bit and found that being an artist was the only career choice that could bring me true joy. Costume design is such a deeply satisfying practice for me because it combines all aspects of creative living: deep diving into research, sketching and painting, a tactile process of work, listening and observing critically, and collaborating with partners. 

What was your initial read of the characters and how was it reflected in their clothing?

My first impression of Sheila was that she was well, emotionally unhinged, ha! But she’s really trying to keep it all together on a surface level. I knew I wanted to play with this juxtaposition in her costume. As for Gary, he read to me as a character who was neurotic and nervous, but also trying hard to keep it together (albeit in a different way than Sheila). I chose a very predictable pattern for that reason – stripes!

Kaley wore one dress throughout the entire film. How did you decide on this look? What direction were you given when creating it from director Alex Lehmann?

Alex and I went back and forth a lot on what dress would be “the dress”. I shopped many different choices but nothing we were finding in-store worked, so my team and I decided to build it from scratch. Alex told me that no matter what, the dress Sheila wore had to be iconic – instantly recognizable, like Lola’s red hair from Run, Lola, Run. I settled on a canary yellow because it would pop against the red/blues of the sets and it was a delightfully cheerful color for someone who was having a life crisis.

The yellow gingham dress certainly had some Dorothy in Oz type vibes or even a picnic. It brings our guard down before some of the darker elements of the film are exposed. Was that intended? If so, what can viewers take from the choice? If not, was there other inspiration you looked to that helped define the look?

It was intended– thank you for noticing that! Clothing is armor, and how we decide to dress ourselves can convey a lot of emotional information. In the case of Sheila, her bright dress serves as a direct contrast to how broken she is on the inside– it’s her last ditch effort.

You also had to dress Sheila (Kaley) in a less flattering outfit that we saw her get slammed into while wearing from the other Sheila. What do you feel the costume says about her? Did you have anything built into the costume to help with the stunts?

Sheila’s hungover and at her wit’s end, so I designed a costume that mimics that emotional state. What says that more than a pair of baggy sweats and yesterday’s shirt? I did also consider the fact that there was a major car stunt involved; we hid a lot of padding underneath it all for our stuntwoman!

For Pete there was the more passive Gary and also the alternate Gary with a much different attitude. Are you given a lot of direction for the alternate Gary or do you get to fill in some of the blanks of the character through his clothing? If the latter, what do you feel his costumes say about him? 

I was able to help inform those character choices of alternate Gary through his costume, which was a fun task! He’s dressed in suit separates, loafers, and an Issey Miyake inspired plissé shirt. However, there was a touch of douchey-ness we wanted to also incorporate, and that was achieved with the help of Pete’s input – he wanted a popped collar and a pair of sunglasses even though it was clearly evening. 

June has a very original, confident style. How did you decide on it and is there any collaboration/input from the actors when dressing them?

I had a really nice time collaborating with Deborah Craig, who plays June. We discussed how important it was to represent June as a three dimensional character, especially because it would’ve been so easy to fall into the trope of an Asian woman working at a nail salon. I translated this conversation through her costume by thinking about what June might buy herself from a strip mall in Queens. It’s not the most expensive piece in a closet, but it’s nice, put-together and a good deal!

Tell me about Uncle Charlie. That had to be fun. 

Sooooo much fun. Kaley and I had such a ball discovering this character together and were practically in tears during the fitting process. I think we tried on exactly one combination and it was perfect!

What is the process like when designing costumes for funny people like Kaley and Pete? Are there a lot of laughs? Any funny stories you can share? 

Costume designing for comedy is interesting because you either enhance or juxtapose the action of a scene, whether it be to accompany the absurdity of a moment or to ground the reality of situations that make us laugh. However, at the end of the day, well executed comedy makes you think. The character discussions between myself and the actors are quite serious because a successful joke requires meticulous planning, and that translates into their clothing too.

Are there any easter eggs within the costumes?

Yes! If you watch with a careful eye, you’ll find that Sheila’s jewelry and hairstyle changes between the different date timelines. So what at first glance seems like the same night over and over again, is actually many different evenings.

Besides Sheila’s dress did you have a favorite costume to design? If so, why?

This is sort of a bonus, but we also designed and made a little matching dress for Kaley’s beloved pup, Dumpy. He was the real behind-the-scenes star of the show.

 What challenges did you come across when working on this film that people would not expect?

The main challenge for us was the fact that the majority of the movie was entirely filmed on location. That meant we often had to set up the costumes in tight spaces or be uber prepared for anything that could come up on set. For example, when we were filming in the LES at Panna II Garden, video village was near the bike lane and the street, which were all active. So it was an olympic effort amongst us all to stay safe and keep doing our job between takes!


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Written by Steven Prusakowski

Steven Prusakowski has been a cinephile as far back as he can remember, literally. At the age of ten, while other kids his age were sleeping, he was up into the late hours of the night watching the Oscars. Since then, his passion for film, television, and awards has only grown. For over a decade he has reviewed and written about entertainment through publications including Awards Circuit and Screen Radar. He has conducted interviews with some of the best in the business - learning more about them, their projects and their crafts. He is a graduate of the RIT film program. You can find him on Twitter and Letterboxd as @FilmSnork – we don’t know why the name, but he seems to be sticking to it.

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