|Movie costume designer Vanessa Lee makes one of her designs using a sewing machine. For the last 15 years, Lee has been designing, making patterns, suit draping and fitting, foam fabricating and sewing. She is now the owner of Super Suit Factory, which designs and produces specialized costumes. Courtesy of Vanessa Lee|
By Kwak Yeon-soo
"Pattern maker for movie costume needed."
That job posting in a local newspaper in the United States started Vanessa Mi-kyung Lee, 49, on her career in the Practical FX industry, a special effect produced physically without computer-generated imagery or other post-production techniques.
Ever since she joined Hollywood 15 years ago, Lee has designed costumes for several movies, including "Thor" (2011), "Star Trek Into Darkness" (2013), "Darkest Hour" (2017) and a Korean adaptation of "Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade" (2018).
Lee is now recognized as one of Hollywood's most successful and highest-paid movie costume designers ― known as fabricators within the industry. Fabricators are artists with a wide range of talents, including patterning and sewing, sculpting and mold-making. Lee specializes in producing lightweight, flexible fat suits and armor suits.
In her book "Korean-American Fabricator Takes over Hollywood," Lee elaborates on her decision to leave her home country at age 26 by recalling Korean society back then, which didn't accept diversity and framed her physical disability as a setback. She has suffered from polio.
"I got fired from workplaces for having a disability. It's true that I was crippled by polio at the age of two, but I was still able to work full-time," Lee wrote in her book.
However, Lee's migration to America didn't help her escape discrimination. "Before moving to the States, I was physically handicapped, short and a poor high school graduate who was not so beautiful. After arriving in the United States, I realized I have even more disadvantages ― I am an Asian, unable to speak English fluently," she said.
|Book cover of "Korean-American Fabricator Takes over Hollywood"|
Trial and error awaited her in her new career in Hollywood. There were times when she wanted to give up. But she didn't.
Building up over a decade of extensive experience in costume fabrication, Lee has worked on some of the most popular superhero costumes and character body suits for iconic actors. "Costumes make or break the entire image of the film," she wrote in her book.
Lee recalls turning Gary Oldman into historical Winston Churchill in "Darkest Hour" one of the most remarkable and rewarding experiences in her career. "On the first fitting day, Oldman told me 'Vanessa! This is not a fat suit. This is craftsmanship!' His words touched me so much I burst into tears," she said.
Most recently, Lee produced armor suits for the Korean movie, "Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade." "I've been looking forward to working on Korean movies, and it was a privilege to take part in this one," she said. "Due to a tight schedule, I wasn't able to reduce the weight as much as I had wanted. But overall it was a pleasing experience to work with Korean actors, including Gang Dong-won and Jung Woo-sung," she added.
In her book, Lee also shares her secrets that have helped shape her success in Hollywood. She advises those who want to "make it" in Hollywood to lead goal-driven lives. "There are two types of people in the world: the ones that wait for the luck to come their way and those who make things happen. I belong to the latter," she wrote.