In celebration of International Women’s Day, we’re launching a new series highlighting the real women whose style, creativity and unique paths inspire us. First up, filmmaker Stephanie Wang-Breal who directed and produced the Emmy award-nominated 2010 documentary Wo Ai Ni Mommy (I Love You, Mommy), and whose next film, Blowin’ Up, is set to debut at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. She shared how her personal aesthetic translates to her films, the books and films that inspire her, and why she’s the only person she’s trying to please when it comes to what she wears.
What drew you to making your own films? My parents are both from China so growing up, film was something you did on the side. It was a hobby or an extracurricular activity, not something you could actually go and study. It wasn’t until my junior year in college when I was studying abroad in London and was dating a fashion photographer that I realized you could actually do something with the arts as an actual career. At the time I was studying history and economics at the School of Oriental & African Studies in London and all of my history classes required I read these beautiful, rich, textured stories about Asia and the Chinese immigrant story. I felt like I had to figure out a way to visually bring these stories to life.
Does your personal aesthetic translate to your films? Yes. I’ve always been attracted to different textures and patterns and shapes. I have bits and pieces in my wardrobe from consignment shops so that I can have fun mixing and matching old and new styles together. But because I make documentary films, and I’m going into communities where fashion is the last thing on my mind, I pretty much wear a uniform of a black t-shirt and jeans, which makes it easier for me to approach people to start a conversation, so I can listen and learn from them.
Right now, I am in love with jumpsuits. If I could only wear jumpsuits, I would. I’ve just written a sci-fi narrative script where I got to imagine how technology will influence and shape the forms, textures and colors of fashion in the near future. For this fiction project, I am excited by the opportunity to bring my personal aesthetic and play with this more decorative but also fantastical world. I want to throw as much magic dust as I can on each scene. The more magical and transportive it is, the more I can transport and immerse people into this world I have created.
How does your style fluctuate between all your responsibilities and roles, whether it’s as a mother, a filmmaker or just in daily life? My style does not fluctuate much in my daily life just because I don’t have much time; I am constantly juggling the demands of running my own production company, directing films, doing freelance directing jobs and raising two children. I just try to dress for myself. I’m not trying to please anyone or fit in in any way. I just want to make myself feel good, and comfortable and practical but also to not exactly blend in. Another creative mom friend of mine once told me, “people are always shocked that I’m a mother,” and she asked me if I get the same. I do, but I think it’s so ridiculous. With the barriers in our patriarchal society there’s this conception that once you’re a mother, you’re supposed to behave and look a certain way, and I definitely don’t ascribe to that notion, nor will I ever want to. I seek to break down labels in my films, and however I can do that in my own personal aesthetic, that’s what I strive for.
Do you feel like working in a creative industry lets you take more risks with your style? Absolutely. I don’t have to wear a certain uniform to work. I work for myself so I can be in ugly yoga clothes to motivate me to take a lunch class, or dress in a really simple but cute top and jeans if I have to go to a meeting in two hours. I’m my own boss so I don’t have to look a certain way for another boss.
How do you keep a fresh perspective and stay creatively inspired when you have so much going on? There are two things that continue to inspire me. One is my kids. They’re constantly keeping me grounded in terms of my own ego and the way the world works. They tell me stories about things that happened at school or on the playground, and their perspective is actually really funny, because they have this wondrous, nonjudgmental way of looking at people and things that always makes me smile.
Also, I read a lot. I don’t consume much media, but I read two books a week. Reading inspires me; it introduces themes, concepts, ideas, and worlds that I’m trying to better understand for my work. I also try to take advantage of New York City’s cultural landscape. I try to attend theater or dance performances or go to a gallery at least a few times a month… that’s one of the main reasons I stay put in this very expensive city!
Do you have any book recommendations? Yes, I have so many books to recommend! I just finished Pachinko, which is told from the perspective of three generations of Korean women living and surviving in colonial Korea and then war-torn Japan. I think most Americans don’t know much about the history of Asians hating on other Asians. It was excellent and it reminded me of all those books I read in college for my history classes and the plight of Asian women. I would also recommend Roxane Gay’s body of work. She’s a non-fiction writer, and the author of Bad Feminist, Difficult Women, Hunger. I would definitely start off with Bad Feminist. I also really love Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth and Bel Canto.
You talked about how your kids inspire you, and your films really focus on the relationship between children and adults. Do you feel that research for your films has changed your perspective on motherhood and how you interact with your own children? Absolutely. My films have taught me not to be so judgmental towards other parents and, especially, mothers. There are so many different ways to do this job. Depending on your child, no one way is right. As a society, we are so judgmental on parents and children; everyone’s supposed to behave a certain way, when that’s just not our reality.
Do you have specific designers that inspire you? I’m a really big fan of Dries Van Noten. The materials, colors and patterns he uses I find so weird and wonderful and mismatched. Most people wouldn’t put those things together, but he does it in such a beautiful, deconstructed sort of way. I also really like Rachel Comey — great jumpsuits! I’ve started following her on Instagram and I like the androgyny and gender and age-neutral looks of her campaigns. I also am a big fan of A Détacher; I really appreciate the way she uses her designs to shape and re-construct women’s bodies to have new forms and meanings. And then of course there’s Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, all designers I would love to have in my closet. Miyake’s pleats look great on any woman’s body, no matter what time of day. I think clothing that can transcend age and time is really cool.
Do you see your films as focusing on the present moment, or referring to the future or past? The work I make is really about institutions and deconstructing the institution, whether it’s family, marriage, the criminal justice system — I’m really fascinated by the human relationships that are at the core of these institutions. I’m really interested in these core ideas that are built into the fabric of our society and breaking them down so that as we move into the future we have a better understanding of the world and people surrounding us. I hope my films are timeless, in the sense that you can watch them at any time and still learn something new.
Do you have anything in your closet that you really treasure? I have this one Steven Alan jumpsuit that I can wear day or night and always get men and women stopping me on the street to compliment this look.
Which films inspire you or have inspired you recently? I just saw Black Panther and the costumes were so amazing. Oh my god, so beautiful and so thought-out and so rich. I’m so happy that this moment is happening in cinema right now; it’s so overdue. I’m really inspired by the French filmmaker Agnes Varda. She has a body of work in both documentary and fiction and that’s something that I aspire to as a director, to go seamlessly between the two mediums. I think that we often get pigeonholed into one. In terms of documentary form, I am a follower of Albert Maysles’ pure observational, cinema verité-style filmmaking. As for fiction, I love the work of Paul Thomas Anderson. Phantom Thread was a visual masterpiece. I definitely recommend seeing it in the theater so you can fully experience the cinematic sets, storyline, acting, costumes, lighting, score, I could go on and on! — I think you’ll miss out on a lot of wonderful moments if you watch it on your HD or 8K television screen at home. There’s a submersive, letting-go quality that happens in the cinema that we’re losing when we watch things in the comforts of our own home.
What’s next for you? My new film, Blowin’ Up, is having its world premiere on April 21st at the Tribeca Film Festival! Come and see it and you’ll get to see women of all races and ages on the BIG screen doing incredible work and breaking down conventional, patriarchal labels.