We all buy clothes, but no two people shop the same. It can be a social experience, and a deeply personal one; at times, it can be impulsive and entertaining, at others, purpose-driven, a chore. Where do you shop? When do you shop? How do you decide what you need, how much to spend and what’s “you”? These are some of the questions we’re putting to prominent figures in our column “How I Shop.”
A national treasure, BD Wong was also a legend in my Chinese-American household, from the moment he made his historic Broadway debut in David Henry Hwang’s Tony-winning “M. Butterfly” in 1988. Excited for the cultural moment, my parents even took a way-too-young me to see the groundbreaking play, examining the intersection of racism, Orientalism, politics, sexuality and gender identity, by a Chinese-American playwright and starring Wong. (As my dad recently told me: “Well, mom and I really wanted to see it, and we couldn’t leave you in the hotel by yourself.”) He became the only actor ever to receive a Tony Award and four additional theater honors for a single role.
In the decades since, Wong became a huge part of my formative years — and life, really — playing a wide range of recognizable characters: his Critics Choice Award-nominated dual roles of Whiterose and Zhang in “Mr. Robot,” as supervillain Hugo Strange in “Gotham” and as psychologist Dr. George Huang for 16 seasons (and infinite reruns and marathons) on Liza‘s favorite show, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” He’s been equally prolific in film; most recently, he reprised the role of Dr. Henry Wu in the “Jurassic Park” franchise, all while doing a very impressive job knitting a chunky cardigan in quarantine before filming. (I also highly recommend a listen to Wong’s guest spot on on-screen nephew Bowen Yang‘s podcast, “Las Culturistas,” co-hosted with Matt Rogers.)
But Wong’s latest role in “Awkwafina is Nora From Queens,” as the titular star’s chilled out, earnest gym-bro dad, may be my favorite of them all.
Named after Awkwafina‘s real dad, Wally is unconditionally loving and forever supportive of his still-living-at-home daughter’s winding career track and resistance to his new relationship with Brenda (Jennifer Esposito). His endearing steadfastness — and seemingly sole hobby — are illustrated by his signature bicep-baring muscle shirts, athletic shorts and trackpants by costume designer Staci Greenbaum.
“Sometimes he works out at home. Sometimes he goes to a gym. With a character like this, you sometimes want to ride a wave of consistency and iconography that makes the character identifiable to the audience,” says the thoughtful and reflective Wong, comparing Wally’s relaxed vibe with another memorable costume situation: “The obvious example would be Patricia Field and and all this stuff that she did for those four ladies in in ‘Sex in the City.'”
Wally does nail some comedic fashion outlier moments, like his thirst-trap attempts on the ‘gram, resulting in a viral wardrobe malfunction — which, in real life, involved a fake peen sewn into boxer shorts by Greenbaum. This season, when Wally revisits his carefree college days and, in a ’70s flashback, he looks pretty damn sharp in his cropped patchwork leather jacket, belted flares and chunky boots (above), boosted by Wong’s swagger.
“Like RuPaul says, ‘Everything is drag,'” says Wong. “So Wally’s period drag was a way for me to look in the mirror and say, ‘Okay, I see. I know how I’m supposed to walk in the shoes and flip my hair, because it’s so long. So it’s great.”
The veteran actor actually pulled double-duty in the episode, requiring even more commitment to the throwback ensemble: “I was directing, so that was really challenging, because I’m walking around directing the show in these platform shoes and dressed like that whole time.”
Further adding style cred to the episode, Wong had the pleasure of working with 8-year-old style icon Alan S. Kim. The “Minari” breakout plays young Wally, in natty ’50s-era ensembles and a jaunty caps, bringing his Thom Browne modeling aesthetic to mind.
“We were also happy when he said, ‘yes’ and he could come and play with us,” says Wong, who was also impressed with Kim’s flossing skills. “He turns out to be such a little pistol — and so naughty. We all just loved him so much and and I felt particularly proud that he was playing the me character. It just warms your heart.”
Ahead, Wong discusses taking fashion inspiration from friend and co-star Bowen Yang, shopping for kicks for a “Shang-Chi” event and being “traumatized” by amateur red carpet pundits, who really should be ashamed of themselves.
“As I get older and as I make my way through fashion trends, I go through a lot of different, really introspective feelings about my own personal style. I love bright colors — I’ve always loved bright colors, since I was little. If I’m in a store and I see something out of the corner of my eye and it’s in a bright color, I really gravitate right towards it, almost regardless of the style of it. I have had to learn over the years how to integrate color into my life and my wardrobe. Because if I’m not careful, I will dress like a clown. I say this all the time to my husband, and to other people that I’m close to: ‘Do I look like a clown? Because I feel like I’m like leaning into clown territory here. Is it too clown-y? Is it too match-y? Is it too busy?’
“My own tendency to want to match everything tends to be not ‘chic,’ actually. I have to force myself to counter-match or juxtapose, and I’ve been enjoying that more and more recently. I used to match everything, and it was really dull and really predictable.
“I went into one of those New York sneaker stores, Lace Up. It has super expensive $3,000 sneakers — like Swarowski sneakers and all that stuff — in a glass case in the middle, but the rest of the store has not as expensive, but more-expensive-than-I’m-used-to-paying sneakers on the shelves. I was looking for a pair for the ‘Shang-Chi’ screening. I wanted to wear a pair of good kicks, but I didn’t want to spend $5,000 or even $300. [I thought,] ‘Let me see if I can buy a budget pair of good kicks that will photograph well,’ so I went in there and I found one. It’s that whole thing of trying to find something that catches the eye, without overdoing it and without spending too much money. That’s tricky.
“I like to observe other people’s fashion — and I like to observe fashion and trends in general — and not be stagnant. I don’t want to be that guy that’s dressing like he did in high school because that was what he felt was popular.
“My friend and cast mate Bowen is really chic. He just knows what’s chic. He’s of the moment. I often think, ‘Oh, wow, I wish I could be like that in some ways,’ because he’s in tune with all things cultural in a way that’s really quite profound. I mean, he actually makes his podcast based upon his innate ability to channel the culture, to understand, to identify it and to be on top of it. He doesn’t appear to be researching anything — he seems to know, and part of that is the way he dresses. He has an ability that I envy, in some ways, because he ends up looking very chic, individual, fashion-forward and always, somehow, him. It’s distinctive enough and he has a look for himself. And I love it. I want to try to channel that more and more. I don’t think I’m unsuccessful at all, but I do have more of a thought process than other people who are fashion icons do.
“I remember, [Yang] came to a photoshoot once and he was not sure about what he was wearing. I was like, ‘How can you not be sure about that? That ‘ so fantastic.’ It was a jumpsuit in a wild, wild pattern that was so distinctive, of the moment and just just really great, but it was a really strong choice. You make strong choices. I talk about this in therapy a lot — I always say, ‘Why is it so easy for that person?’ It feels so labored for me to get to this place of acceptance. I’m sure that fashion is as hard for most people as it is for me, and I just perceive it to be hard for myself. But I find it to be a certain pressure.
“There was one time when I wore something on the red carpet and it ended up on one of those [columns] ridiculed by standup comics, like an Us Weekly or something like that. I wore — it was actually from Patricia Field — these patchwork bell bottom jeans and this drape-y polo shirt top. They hated it and they made terrible fun of it, and it really traumatized me. Because you go out there and you get your picture taken and it ends up on the Internet and you can’t take it down. So it creates a pressure that makes you think you can’t always trust yourself. Again, it starts to play into my whole thing about colors and my tendency to want to be colorful, and a mischievous kind of thing poking you on the shoulder going, ‘Are you sure about this?’
“When I feel sure about it, I feel great. Then you get comments on some Instagram posts about how ridiculous you look or something — like I wore Thom Browne shorts to the Creative Arts Emmy Awards [in 2017] and the ‘Jurassic World’ premiere. I loved it. [Note: so do we!] But people were mean about it. It’s a legitimately fashionable look, right? It’s not just me making it up. It’s not like me wearing shorts to a picnic. It’s totally different.
“I just threw out a whole bunch of clothes — partly because I’m moving, partly because I feel it’s important to wear current clothes and look current, especially when you’re an actor or person in the media. You have to do it. [I asked myself, like] Marie Kondo, ‘Does it spark joy?’ I kept my blue velvet suit that I wore for my wedding rehearsal dinner, which has gold flowers embroidered on the blazer and on the pants. It’s very luxe-looking. That’s sentimental, also. And then I kept colorful stuff, like Jonathan Adler bow-ties. I don’t wear bow-ties that often, but if you’re gonna wear bow-tie, you might as well wear a Jonathan Adler bow-tie. It’s very vibrant, and it catches the eye. Alexander McQueen, I’m a big McQueen fan; some of that stuff is downright weird, but at the same time, you have to have courage. You have to have a spine and you have to have a sense of self-expression and that sense of who you are, in order to get away with some of that stuff.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.