Costume designer Aieisha Li on movies, clothes and styling Charlize Theron in 'Tully'

Li talks about what it is like working with stars, her not so glamourous job and why designing is more than just shopping.

                            Costume designer Aieisha Li on movies, clothes and styling Charlize Theron in 'Tully'
Charlize Theron (Source: Getty Images)

Being a costume designer in Hollywood is no easy feat, especially when you're working on a film set with one of the biggest names in the industry. But Aieisha Li, the costume designer behind Charlize Theron starrer 'Tully' that hit theatres just last month, makes it look so easy.

All the totally relatable mom clothes that you saw Theron wearing in the movie, Li was the brains behind it. 

For Vancouver based Li, being a costume designer is a culmination of her twin passions -- clothes and movies. But the job entails more than just passion, and Li says that a lot of thought goes behind who wears what.

Unlike us mortals, you can't just throw something on screen characters just because you like the color. There's a study of the character, their ups and downs and who they are evolving into as the plot reveals itself - and a lot of questions.

"Who is this person and what do they do, why and how do they wear their clothes? Body type? Color and pattern and how they relate to the sets they play in as well as the skin and hair tones they play against. Special features, alterations, dyeing, ageing, and breakdown as needed. Are there stunts involved? How many pieces of each will we need and can afford from a budget standpoint? How do they costumes work with the other ones on the set? I am sure I am missing something...." she says, speaking like a true professional. 

Dealing with designer garb all day must be amazing, you'd think, but surprisingly, it's not the case -- the job is anything but flashy.

There's personal time consumed and it's like creating art, she describes.

"This process is not glamorous. It is tireless work and a collaboration of ideas that finally bring a vision to fruition. The hours are long and you do not have a life outside of work. Family and relationships suffer as a result. The job is a 24/7 process that means you eat drink sleep the project. After every show, I need a de-load period to refill the creative coffers so to speak. This can be months at a time."

Her creative vacation has paid off from the looks of it, because 'Tully's designs were absolutely on point.

We see Marlo's character going through a difficult motherhood and as the story gets darker, her clothes reflect her journey. Li confesses that working on the movie was a one of its kind experience.

"Tully was unlike any film I have worked on as the process is unique to every Director and the individual ways we connect artistically. Working with Jason Reitman was an inspiring empathetic process that encouraged insight, honesty and emotional truth in the characters."

"Marlo required that I go against my natural instinct when it came time to put together an outfit or a find a piece of wardrobe. I had to select pieces that made me uncomfortable and outfits when combined felt unharmonious. This discordance could be a play on pattern, texture, silhouette, style or color. We put on clothes to make ourselves feel a certain way. Sometimes we need to hide our bodies, other times to comfort ourselves, and times it is to protect ourselves. The sheer exhaustion that Marlo feels needed to be conveyed in her wardrobe," she explains.

The whole concept of decoding motherhood, what it really looks like needed to come through, she continues. "With Marlo, it was of crucial importance that the audience identifies with her sense of sheer exhaustion both physically and mentally and the shell-shocked state that comes with being the mother of two young children and a newborn. We needed to capture her ambivalent zombie day to day routine where her own personal needs were non-existent." 

Marlo's world needed to feel like as if she was trapped in it, with her hormones raging and she being emotionally drained.

"Clothing was purely functional and basically the first thing she grabbed and often the same thing day in and out. The stains or baby vomit, food on her clothes also reflected her own self-neglect. Even looking in a mirror took too much energy."

Theron's character's clothes are always wrinkled, dirty, dull and dated.

Li says that she was so into the zone that she herself felt tired just watching Charlize in fittings and walking to and from the set.

Li says that Theron was as committed as the rest of the team in making 'Tully' happen. She gained 40lbs for the role.

"Jason and I discussed transforming Charlize Theron from the supermodel into a pregnant and then post-partum mother of three, whose body and mindset had long forgotten the pre-childbirth vitality of her youth. In essence, we had to dim her light."

She is referring to Jason Reitman, the director of the film.

Apart from Tully, Li has also worked with stars like Kate Upton and Alexandria Daddario in 'The Layover' as well as films like 'The Birth of a Dragon' and 'Into the Forest'.

"Alexandra’s character started as an uptight teacher that became unraveled in the film. Her clothes and the way she wears them became her weapons as she battled with her best friend for the attention of a man. Kate Upton is no stranger to fashion neither is her character; so Bill (William H Macy) and I chose a classic direction for her. So when Kate's character doesn't get her luggage right away she is forced to improvise her clothes in her antics in order to one-up her friend," she says talking about her experience with the movie. 

While 'Tully' was a success, Li had to actually make a tough choice to stay onboard.

"Prior to Tully, I had been asked by Roberto EP from Riverdale to design Season 1 -- now a successful show. I had a difficult decision to make... I prefer to make choices based on this feeling rather than on timeline/economics and it can be tough. Of course, it was not always this way when I was starting out, but nowadays I am privileged to be able to say no more often than yes to projects," she says.

Her connection to clothes is very old - and they have been thrilling her since she was a little girl.

"I have sewn clothes all my life starting in elementary school. Fabrics, color harmony, design and construction of garments was always easy and exciting for me, so I pursued an education in Fashion Design with the dream of my own line," she says. 

She also had another passion - films. So becoming a costume designer was like a match made in heaven.

"I started out studying as an actor and eventually directing many short films in the course of my film degree completion. It seemed a natural progression that led me into a crossing of the two paths - film and fashion into Costume Designing, working in every position in the Costume Department until I made my home in the Designer's chair."

And from the looks of it, it seems that Li made the right decision.