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William Chang Suk Ping proved to be a 'Grandmaster' of costume design

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Designer William Chang Suk Ping creates a sumptuous Chinese sartorial palette as the costume designer (and production designer and editor) of Wong Kar Wai's latest film, "The Grandmaster." Set in Shanghai in the 1930s and beyond, it tells the story of Ip Man (Tony Leung), the kung fu master who eventually trains actor Bruce Lee. Chang's sets, which include a full-scale brothel and a train station, showcase his luscious clothing designs exquisitely.

The Hong Kong native has collaborated with the director on all his films and here gives viewers an authentic Asian feast for the eyes, something important to the designer. "I prefer working with Chinese films," he says in reference to possible future work on more traditional Hollywood fare. "Maybe it's patriotic, I don't know, but I think we need more people doing this. I want the world to see a certain period of China is like that; I was always hoping I could do it as authentic as possible, so people can see without a distorted idea of what China should be."

The fabrics and details of the costumes were so beautiful — even the shoes were amazing. What can you tell us about them?

We used textures and tones of a variety of darks and blacks to give life and balance to the fabrics. We used lots of different kinds of blacks: linens, wools, silks. The cheongsams [Chinese dresses] took a lot of time and work to create. And on traditional Chinese shoes, the bottom soles are made with layers and layers of fabrics. For the summers of southern China, we did very lightweight shoes with less layers of fabrics. It was different for the cold northern part of China, where we sometimes used fur inside the shoes. We quilted them first and then added the layers of fur inside.

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How many costumes did you make for the film?

Wow. Well, I had a group of tailors who only did the fabrics in the brothel. We took 11/2 years to produce 120 pieces because it takes a long time to do the embroidery and trimming and also the beading.

Do you have a favorite costume in the film?

I very much like Gong Er's [played by Ziyi Zhang] big fur-collar black wool coat, the one she wears during the fighting scene at the train station. Because she's a very petite person, for that she needed a very substantial thing around her to make her more fierce. I like that scene very much.

Was that beautiful black coat with the leopard fur collar vintage, the one Ip's first wife wore in the family photograph?

Yes, the collar of it, the fur, was vintage; the coat itself we made. I was buying a lot of vintage clothes on EBay and everywhere. Some of the items you cannot use because they're really in very bad condition, but we take out the parts of it that we need and then remake the whole thing according to the style we want. EBay is a very good source for Western-style clothing. I use it for production design too.

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How big of a surprise was your Oscar nomination, and how did you first learn about it?

It's really a surprise. It's still unreal to me. I'd never think that a foreign film can be nominated in other categories. I heard about it because it was all over the newspaper and friends kept calling me; so many phone calls that morning. It's so unreal. I don't know how to react.

You did not just the costumes but also the art production design as well as the editing of the film. That's quite a lot.

It makes it easier for me to control the whole visual style. And then with editing, it's another way of controlling the style and look and timing. So, yes, maybe I'm a control freak. [Laughs.] 

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As a visual artist, where do you get most of your creative ideas? 

It varies. If I'm starting to do a film, your whole mind is already about this film; you're thinking constantly about it in a general way. And then I'll see something that hits me, "This is the look for the film." Maybe it's sunglasses or a hat or a small detail on a pair of shoes .... and I'll work around that.

What are some of the challenges in making beautiful costumes that must endure such physical actions from the actors?

You know which scenes are fighting scenes, and you make things accordingly. Very carefully you choose the fabrics and you do the style of the costume in different sizes — for a double, or maybe a character will have padding. You have to prepare about seven to 10 pieces for the same costume.

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