Awkwafina's self-named television show, "Awkwafina is Nora From Queens," tackles that transitional period of young adulthood in that personable-but-hilarious way that made the Golden Globe winner a massive breakout star after "Crazy Rich Asians." But it also captures a very specific — and close to my second generation Chinese-American heart — culture and community of the New York City borough in uniquely funny, heartfelt and authentic ways.
On top of being its star, Nora Lum — professionally known as Awkwafina, of course — also co-wrote and produced the series loosely based on her own life. In the throes of a quarter-life crisis, 27-year-old Nora Lin lives at home in Elmhurst, Queens with her widowed dad, Wally (Asian-American and N.Y.C. icon BD Wong), and paternal grandmother (Lori Tan Chinn). In between gaming and unwinding with recreational pursuits ("it's sativa; it's daytime!"), the fictional Nora hustles to find a viable career path — and overall direction in life.
The episodes made me LOL (and feel weepy) relating with my own experiences: taking the Chinatown bus ride to Atlantic City (which culminates in a cross-cultural Asian-American geriatric showdown), managing familial expectations while flailing in life, contending with very N.Y.C. tribulations (and media landscape callouts) and appreciating the spot-on costumes by Staci Greenbaum seen on multiple generations.
Greenbaum's work has captured a number of distinct N.Y.C. sub-cultures already: downtown (and Brooklyn) millennial dysfunction for fives seasons of "Broad City" and Upper East Side yuppiedom on Bravo's "Odd Mom Out." For "Awkwafina is Nora From Queens," the costume designer did her homework, people watching, studying street photography and scouring Instagram for real-life inspiration. But most importantly, she consulted the expert.
"Since Nora is actually from Queens, she was an invaluable source and helped us set the tone," says Greenbaum, over the phone, noting she also poured over Awkwafina's family photos from her days of growing up in Forest Hills.
"We were very specific about making sure that, culturally, we were accurately representing traditions that would be visible in an older generation, plus [being] respectful of how those elements of Chinese culture are passed down to younger generation," explains Greenbaum, pointing to Grandma's jade bangle bracelet that she never takes off and coordinating yellow gold pendants of Buddhist deity Quan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion. "Grandma wore a bigger one, but she gave Nora a smaller one." Greenbaum also designed a necklace featuring the star's name in Korean characters to celebrate her late mother's heritage.
Seattle-born Chinn, who paved the way for Asian Americans on stage and screen since her 1970 Broadway debut (and recently starred as enigmatic crime boss Mei Chang on "Orange is the New Black"), served as "such an incredible resource" for the utmost authenticity," says Greenbaum. "She said it was super important that the chain be 18-carat gold or more, and the yellower the gold [the better]. Yellow is an imperial color." I nod on the other end of the call, thinking of all the jewelry passed down to me from my family's previous generations.
Awkwafina, Chinese-American co-creator/writer/producer Teresa Hsiao and Greenbaum also worked in tandem to acknowledge an integral cultural custom that's often sacrificed for the sake of pacing on-screen: the house slipper. Because shoes would never be allowed indoors in an Asian household.
Obviously, Nora's house slippers are especially swaggy. "'I just want something so weird,'" recalls Greenbaum of the lead's request. The costume designer created a pair featuring photos of her own baby son and her assistant's daughter and Chinese characters reading, "I'm so cute!"
"[Awkwafina] thought it was so funny," she adds.
As Nora dabbles in various professions, both legit or not, she experiments with "occasional dressing," if not outright disguises. For her day-to-day, though, Nora maintains a "relaxed street style vibe with a little bit of hypebeast thrown in," plus a touch of "nerdy gamer," according to the costume designer.
Greenbaum looked to labels that speak to the character's sensibility and limited budget, like the striped pajama top from Madewell she wears to hit the A.C. blackjack tables (below) and the adorable paint-splattered shorteralls from NSF she dons on a thankless quest to cash a check. Expressive graphic t-shirts, including vintage or custom-designed styles with Queens references (like a tie-dye one reading "Elmhurst"), populate her wardrobe. Outside the house, Nora cycles through commute-friendly sneakers by Nike, Converse, Reebok, Fila and Golden Goose, plus Dr. Martens boots.
Greenbaum also made a point to amplify Chinese-American designers throughout the series, dressing Nora in pair of joggers by Derek Lam and lots of Sandy Liang. She wears the black Congee Village T, which honors Liang's dad's popular Lower East Side restaurant, which is beloved by many a New Yorker, including myself, for much-needed sustenance in the early hours. (Similarly, Awkwafina's paternal grandfather opened one of Flushing's first Chinese restaurants, Lum's, in the '50s.) Liang's Lil Tour Polo sweater speaks to Nora's attachment to her car covered in flame decals (and her ride-share driver side-hustle). Greenbaum is also holding onto some unused gems by Yan Yan, the knitwear line by Rag & Bone alum Phyllis Chan and Hong Kong designer Susie Chan, hopefully to be seen in an already-confirmed season two.
Nora's eclectic aesthetic can probably be traced back to her F-bomb-dropping, zero-filter and social-media-savvy Grandma, who's the low-key fashion star of the Lin family. In episode two, she heads to the East Coast's Sin City for a multigenerational jaunt in a flashy matching set reminiscent of Versace (above).
"When you think of grandmothers in Atlantic City, one of our first thoughts was, 'Do we put her in a tracksuit?'" says Greenbaum. But after coming across the vintage 'fit in costume designer Ann Roth's rental collection, she took the concept to the next level. "I saw that sweater only to find out it was a sweatshirt cardigan and there were matching pants," Greenbaum laughs. She accessorized Grandma with a faux Burberry-checked iPad case and a rhinestone-studded denim hat, which also speaks to the intention of leaning into and blowing up what could be considered sartorial stereotypes.
"We were looking at those baseball caps that you can buy in Chinatown that are totally bedazzled or have the American flag or like latticework and [Awkwafina, Chinn and I] just thought, 'Oh my god, this is so absurd,'" says Greenbaum.
How 'Broad City' Costume Designer Staci Greenbaum Climbed the Ranks by Being Kind and Creative
The Fabulous Costumes of 'Crazy Rich Asians' Are Stacked With Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino and Tons of Asian Designers
How Kirin Bhatty 'Fell Into' Makeup Artistry and Landed Clients Like Awkwafina and Tessa Thompson
But that look is just a teaser of Grandma's drip, best showcased by a matching leopard print set — complete with tiny Runts-size banana embellishments along the collar, up the sides of the trousers and in coordinating earrings. "You're not going to believe where that came from — it came from Lori's closet," says Greenbaum. The ensemble originally featured just a few fruit adornments, so the costume designer decided to "enhance" the look with another assist from Chinn: "She comes in the next day with a bag of banana beads, mahjong beads, hamburger beads, croissant beads... She just is like the gift that keeps on giving."
To outfit Nora's work-from-home tech consultant dad, Greenbaum did look to the character's real-life inspiration — or tried, anyway. "I friended [the real] Wally on Facebook to get a collection of images, so I could be really informed on how he dresses," she says. "He did not friend me back, but it's OK. I got everything I needed from Nora."
To counter Nora and Grandma's flair, Wally's streamlined bro-y closet features gray and navy polos, sweat-shorts and loads of muscle Ts. "He's athletic, traditional, leisurely and there's a pinch of surfer dude and wise guy," says Greenbaum, who accented his look with a chunky silver chain, which is kind of like the Chinese dad jewelry version of the "Success Perm."
Greenbaum and her team did build some arm-baring tanks for Wong to wear, but had to accommodate some last minute changes: "Literally right before we shot, the director was like, 'I think we should cut [the sleeves off]. So when I say, 'Cut them on set,' I cut them on his body."
Endearingly smug cousin Edmund (the perfect Bowen Yang) — relocating from Palo Alto and not San Francisco, where he only ventures into for his Tesla servicing — also serves as the fashion (and everything) antithesis to Nora and Grandma. The overachieving striver wears a consistent "uniform" incorporating elevated minimalism and "a health goth thing" with Y-3 and Adidas.
"We were personifying the tech world in him," adds Greenbaum about Edmund's high-end athleisure layers, digitally printed shirts and collared knits detailed only with "cold and modern" silver zippers.
But, like Nora and Grandma, the prodigal Silicon Valley tech-bro does have some scripted fashion moments, including a pair of very Adam Sandler in "Uncut Gems" designer loafers, highlighted by black tapered ankle-length trousers.
"If he's got the Ferragamos, he's going to rock the Ferragamos," laughs Greenbaum. Because for a series with such a powerhouse comedic cast, "humor was a large part of how we were inspired."