Lien See Leong on designing duds for film and telly

by Lisa Marie Corso, photography by Rebecca Mansell

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Think about Cher Horowitz’s yellow plaid skirt set or Kath and Kim’s fluoro trackie-dacks – what are their clothes telling us? Costume designer Lien See Leong says what we wear can say a lot about who we are, and it’s the same for our favourite on-screen characters. Lien See’s job is to make people on the telly feel like fully fleshed-out humans. Since graduating from Western Australian Academy of the Performing Arts (WAAPA), she has risen up the ranks from costume assistant to designer, working mainly in TV and movies. Her credits include Red Dog, Paper Planes, The Leftovers and Crazy Rich Asians, where she was the only one allowed to touch the super-duper expensive jewellery (under the supervision of a security guard). We chat to Lien See about her education, her career and her current gig as a costume designer on ABC’s The Heights.

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Hi Lien See! Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into costume design? I studied a lot of maths and science in years 11 and 12, so I chose an art and design elective because I thought it would be a nice, relaxing subject. To my surprise, I was quite good at it, and really loved it. It completely led me down a different path, so I decided to apply for Costume at WAAPA.

What did you learn at uni? I learnt that, to be a good costume designer, you’ve really got to have an understanding of how what you draw will look when it gets made. The costume course is where I learned everything from tailoring to art finishing, millinery and pattern-making for period costumes.

Lien See Leong costume designer WAAPA frankie sewing

How did you get your first professional gig (as a costume assistant on the kids’ show Lockie Leonard)? I decided early on I wanted to work in film and TV, as opposed to theatre. When I graduated, I did costume at a girls’ school, which was great because I had free range to develop my skills. I got to do the budget and design, source and make costumes. On the side, I was also doing a lot of work on short films and student films for free – or for not much money – so I could be on set as much as I could. Eventually, through lots of on-set experience, I was asked to work on Lockie Leonard, and that job led to the next.

What is the biggest misconception about costume design? It’s definitely not just shopping. There are lots of jobs within the costume department. As a costume standby, for example, you are responsible for continuity and all final garment checks. The costume designer really needs to trust you, as you’re the only person from the department on set to champion the costume vision. I did this for a number of years before getting an amazing opportunity to be costume designer for Paper Planes. Now I’m working on my second season of The Heights.

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How do you bring characters to life on The Heights? There’s an ensemble cast of 16 who represent a diverse range of our society, so I need to consider the type of people they are, where they would shop, and how they might integrate their culture into their wardrobe. One thing I love is the detail in a costume – viewers might not see it all – but it makes an impact. It could be something as simple as a character always tucking his shirt in and wearing a singlet underneath. I’m really conscious to make everyone look authentic and do a lot of people-watching.

The costume for every character is heavily researched to incorporate who they are and where they come from. The Vietnamese deli owner’s sass, for instance, is somewhat based off my auntie’s.

the heights

What was it like working on a massive Hollywood film like Crazy Rich Asians? Being on a huge international set was both challenging and amazing. Logistically it was so different, as we were always on the move, shooting in Malaysia and Singapore. The couture was so beautiful, it was everywhere – Louis Vuitton, Vivienne Westwood, Balenciaga – and it was all real. I loved Awkwafina's costumes. She wore everything from Stella McCartney PJs to one-off stuff to H&M.

The jewellery was all insured in my name, so a security guard had to follow me on set. And I was the only one allowed to touch it!

Awkwafina

What’s something you’ve learned about yourself over the years in this job? I’ve learned to change my opinion about luck. I now know that when I get offered a job, it has nothing to do with luck. It’s because I’ve worked really, really hard. You don’t want to believe your life is one big lucky draw.

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OK, here’s a costume design-themed quickfire round. What could you not live on set without? When I was a standby, it was definitely my tag gun, used to label clothes. We don’t use safety pins anymore.

What’s the best secret to fixing a costume mishap on set? It’s actually about having a really great relationship with the AD (assistant director), because they will buy you time if anything goes wrong.

And what’s the best character to design costumes for? The complicated ones! It’s always way more fulfilling to get those right.

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Are you fascinated by the duds in movies and on TV? Want to bring stories to life with clothes, props or scenery? WAAPA offers costume and production design courses to help you start your career. Applications for 2020 are open until January 28th. Pop over here to learn more.

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