Laurence Xu’s sumptuous, handmade costumes are among the many pleasures of Cinderella Moon. Mixing traditional Chinese styles from many eras and regions and embellishing them with his own imagination, Xu evokes the splendor and the formality of ancient China in his costumes, with a sprinkling of fairy dust to go with the film’s magic realist style. (You can see some of his concept sketches for the costumes below.)
Laurence took some time out to answer our questions. We asked him about the creative process involved in producing this film’s gorgeous costumes; what it was like to work with a western director; what his favorite Cinderella Moon look was and much more. Check it out, and be sure to see our slideshow of his fantastic and otherwordly costumes.
Q: Cinderella Moon is set in ancient China. In keeping with the film’s style of magic realism, director Richard Bowen didn’t want you to simply reproduce authentic costumes from that era, but rather to pick and choose a pastiche of styles in order to keep one foot in realism, and another in fantasy. Can you tell us how you approached that?
LX: Whether it’s magic or realism, it all has to be based on humanity. Characters can’t be vivid unless they’re real. I loved using Chinese fashion elements and researched many minority groups. I picked out the best parts and left out the unnecessary ones. I wanted looks that were simple and vivid yet fashionable. Richard wanted the audience to be able to identify the Chinese elements in these costumes right away, and to be ethnic, but not to be limited to one ethnicity. It was bold move.
Q: What different eras did you choose styles from, and can you give us some examples of how you mixed them up for one look? (For example, was there a hairstyle from one period, and jewelry from another?) Was this stylistic mix a challenge for you? If so, why?
LX: From cave art in ancient times to the most fashionable elements now, I used them all. For example, some minority tribes are still wearing the Shaman’s leaf hat. The cape he wears is a kind of raincoat ethnic people Yi of Daliangshan wear, but I designed it as his everyday look. As for the fish hat I made for him, the minority people only wear those hats during sacrifice, but I merged it into a daily look. (The hat, by the way, was decorated with real fish! I told Richard he only had two days to shoot it… before it would start to smell to bad, the actor would refuse to wear it!)
For Mei Mei’s daily look, I made a fashionable mini-skirt, and I even used a midriff-baring blouse. Actually, young girls in the Ghizou province wear them. All these looks are part of minority life; all I did was add more artistic-looking silver accessories.
Q: What other films have you worked on? Have they mainly been with Chinese directors? Was it different collaborating with a western director for Cinderella Moon? If so, please describe the differences.
LX: I’ve worked mostly with Chinese directors, but I have contact with directors from all over the world. There aren’t that many differences, really. Whether Eastern or Western, everyone’s just looking for the beauty in their mind. I believe art is without borders. Habits of life and cultural differences make the angles of beauty different, but it all comes to the same point.
Q: What’s your basic approach when you’re hired by a director to design costumes for a film. Walk us through your creative process.
LX: The director is the core of the film. As costumers or stylists, we are his supporters. We created based on his thoughts. We help him to complete his dream. First, I analyze the script and characters, then study the main personalities and then flesh them out with clothes.
Q: How many people did it take to create the wardrobe for Cinderella Moon, and how long did each garment take to create?
LX: There were about 30 people creating clothes for the Cinderella Moon wardrobe. We had only 45 days to prepare! Even though it was a big challenge, and quite stressful, I was happy when Richard liked my designs.
Q: Did you consider the 1950s Disney Cinderella at all when designing the costumes for Cinderella Moon?
LX: I didn’t consider the 50s Cinderella at all. That story is not the soul of this movie. Richard is not trying to tell a simple version of the Cinderella story, but reach for its deeper meaning. I’m very proud the Chinese Cinderella has a very different message from the western version of the story.
Q: Where did you get your materials?
LX: I got elements of the garments from minority tribes — specifically Yunnan, Tibet and Sinkiang. I took several trips to various parts of China to collect the authentic minority materials that would be both beautiful and real and have rich texture.
Q: How did you get into costume design? Has it always been something you gravitated toward?
LX: My major was costume design, and my father was an architect. When I was little, I used to watch how he designed blueprints and paid attention to the steps it took for the buildings to actually get built. I found it interesting and magical and wanted to do something similar — create something beautiful that originated in my heart.
Q: The details in the Dowager’s costume and headdress are incredible. How did you come up with that look?
LX: During the feudalism of ancient times, the Dowager figure was a powerful figure, so I decided she needed a big headdress. As a dowager, she certainly doesn’t work, so the big headdress would emphasize her royalty. The headdress design was influenced from similar pieces in Mongolia, and her robe from was inspired by Tibetan dress.
Q: I also love the fabric on Mei Mei’s skirt when she goes to the dance. What is that material and how does it have that sheen?
LX: Mei Mei’s skirt is influenced by the Miao tribe. Her dancing skirt looks nothing like traditional Chinese costumes, but young Miao girls wear them because they’re simple and tough. As for its sheen or glow, I took that element from the Dong tribe of Guizhou. The sheen comes from a mixture of egg white and pig’s blood that’s pounded into the fabric with large wooden hammers over several days.
Q: Some of your costumes for Cinderella Moon almost look contemporary in their boldness. Why do you think so many western designers like to borrow from traditional Asian costumes and style? What do you think is the appeal?
LX: It’s not surprising that fashion designers have borrowed elements from traditional Chinese fashions for their contemporary looks. After 5,000 years of civilization, there’s a lot to pick and choose from. Lots of designs have been lost, but I think the best of all of it remains. The way the colors match and the techniques of their production are the result of the intelligence of many generations. No wonder it’s a favorite. Traditional Chinese fashion is a thick fashion bible.
Q: Other than Cinderella Moon, what film are you most proud to have designed?
Jiang Wen’s The Sun Also Rises.