The new ABC show "Fresh Off the Boat" should be on your radar for a few reasons: Not only does the freshman series prove that good comedy transcends cultural and ethnic boundaries, but it's also filled with awesome '90s fashion, which has turned out to be surprisingly timeless. Well, if costume designer Debra McGuire is in charge, that is. You're most likely very familiar with McGuire's work from the actual '90s, as she created the iconic wardrobe full of baby tees, maxi-dresses and pivotal leather pants ("The lotion and the powder have made a paste!") on "Friends."
But what's really notable about McGuire's millennial re-imagining of the era for "Fresh Off the Boat" is that the results are surprisingly subtle — there are no obvious '90s references like distracting scrunchies or "Blossom" hats — and it's all thanks to her signature design philosophy. No matter the time period, the veteran costume designer, whose resumé also includes "Freaks and Geeks," "New Girl," and "Superbad," makes sure to use wardrobe to reinforce the story, not punch the viewers in the face with nostalgic sight gags. "I really felt that I didn’t want to create any clichés or do anything too noticeable or dramatic that would take away from the writing and the humor," McGuire says.
Even more interesting — not to mention, incredibly coincidental — McGuire was also the costume designer on the groundbreaking (but short-lived) 1994 series "All-American Girl," which starred Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho, and featured an all-Asian cast.
Two decades later, the same pressure was on "Fresh Off the Boat" to pave the way for Asian representation in media and to diversify the television landscape — and McGuire is thrilled to be a part of it again. "Now you see 'Black-ish' and 'Empire' and 'Fresh Off the Boat' are the three biggest shows, it’s pretty fantastic to think about," she says. "There is a social responsibility [in working on these shows], and that’s one of the reasons I didn't want to go too far in any direction [with the period costuming.]"
The wardrobe does play an essential part in telling the story of a Taiwanese-American family living in the non-diverse Orlando suburbs — especially for 11-year old, hip hop-obsessed Eddie, whose wardrobe largely consists of t-shirts featuring his favorite artists in the genre. However, there's an art (and lawsuit-avoiding strategy) when it comes to outfitting actor Hudson Yang in his baggy Tupac and Beastie Boys tees. Producers need approval from the artists to feature their logos on the show, which was not so easy to obtain. "Most of that stuff is original art or manipulated [artwork], just trying to get the vibe across, but not the exact t-shirt," says the ever-resourceful McGuire. But thanks to the current resurgence of '90s trends, she was able to snap up Eddie's "Wu-Tang Forever" t-shirt (above) from Target.
Turns out that dressing Eddie is quite personal for McGuire, too, as her own son came of age in that decade. "He had this big t-shirt and big shorts and big sneakers and the hat and the sweatshirt, everything matched. So, I love Eddie's character because he reminds me of my son." Along with authentic (or authentic-seeming) t-shirts, Eddie's sneakers need to be on-point, too. (This is referenced in episode three, "The Shunning," when the middle schooler is mocked for wearing "nurse's shoes" instead of trendy Air Jordans.) Because of this, McGuire is constantly scouring Ebay, collectors' stockpiles and thrift shops for the perfect era-appropriate kicks. "The show is very sneaker focused," she says.
Of course, Eddie Huang is also a real person — he's the author of the book on which the show is based — and he has been somewhat vocal in expressing his feelings about the network television adaptation of his memoir. (Extremely vocal.) It's no surprise that the best-selling author and culinary enfant terrible was quite involved — but also helpful — in dressing his mini-me for the pilot. "[Huang] has very, very good insights and feedback; he miraculously knows where to get stuff that we can’t find," McGuire says. "I think he’d like us to be a little more on the edge with his parents, and to be a little more realistic from his perspective. But I think he gets that we’re on a network, and we have a broader responsibility. I think that was kind of hard for him to get at first."
Speaking of Huang's on-screen parents, stay-at-home mom-turned-real estate agent Jessica's '90s wardrobe wouldn't look out of place if the actress who plays her, Constance Wu, wore her printed shifts and fit-and-flare dresses off the studio lot. McGuire frequents vintage and thrift shops for Jessica, but gives herself some sartorial leeway, too. "We also go to ModCloth," she says. "There are some contemporary lines that we can cheat [with] because there’s a lot of ‘90s looking clothes out now." Besides, as many of us can attest, authentic '90s clothes just sometimes aren't that appealing.
"I want Jessica to look great. Because, if you look at 'Friends' in the beginning, like ‘94, ‘95, ‘96, the fit was really weird," McGuire admits. "Things were really oversized and weren't very flattering. Phoebe used to wear those big floral dresses and they tied in the back. I mean, we thought they were cool then. I have to say, we did. But they’re really not cool."
Nice-guy dad Louis (Randall Park) also enjoys a mix of retro and contemporary outfits. But surprisingly, his cowboy-meets-business-casual suits aren't vintage or custom — they're off the rack. "Any of the western stores online," explains McGuire about where she finds Louis's Cattleman's Ranch outfits. " And I can find anything down on Santee Alley in Downtown L.A., where you can get all the black market Louis Vuitton bags." (His fabulous ties are vintage, though.)
While the Huang family enjoys a light touch when it comes to period costuming, those pushy neighborhood ladies have the privilege of going full-on, in-your-face '90s, like a pack of Clinton-era Stepford wives. McGuire intentionally created signature color palettes for each one of the gossipy neighbors to easily identify them in later episodes. "It’s so fun. As you’ll see, I’ll do more of the period in the background than I will in the foreground."
After finishing up the debut season of "Fresh Off the Boat," McGuire is still keeping insanely busy — starting season five of "New Girl, " an upcoming movie, two TV pilots, plus her fine art work on the side. She barely has time to sleep, much less soak in the glory from all those "Best Fashion Fashion Moments on 'Friends'" round-ups that blew up the Internet during the show's 20th anniversary last fall.
"I don’t think I saw it or heard it," McGuire says. "That’s how busy I am."