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A Conversation with ‘Dear White People’ Costume Designer, Ceci

Thirty years later, A Different World still has a major influence on fashion. We’ve “iconicized” the youth-centric, unapologetic, cultural contributions that the show’s wardrobe made to the world.

Men and women alike show their loyalty to the factitious HBCU Hillman College by wearing sweatshirts, dressing as college-love interests Dwayne Wayne and Whitley Gilbert for Halloween or flower-child Freddie Brooks at Coachella. Very similar to today, hip hop culture intersects high fashion. Co-eds are defining street style with high pony-tails, fun frames, abrasive prints, the mixing and matching of patterns, textures and bold jewelry.

The woman responsible for setting the still-relevant trends is Costume Designer Ceci, a saucy Black and Hispanic American woman with an impeccable eye for fashion and resumé that will make your head spin. Her previous projects include I’m Gonna Get You Sucka, Living Single and Sister, Sister. Now, she has taken her fashion-forward designs to the set of Netflix’s hit series Dear White People.

Fascinated by one show’s impact on fashion for the last 30 years, I was excited to sit down and talk with this design icon to discuss her latest work and the impact it will have for the next 30 years.

Jazmine: Congratulations on the premiere of Dear White People Season 2! What can we look forward to this season?

Ceci: Thank you! Justin (Simien) has taken the series to a new level. He has an amazing creative eye and film sensibility. Each of the 10 episodes are shot like beautiful mini movies. It’s fantastic!

We had an amazing cast and crew this season including Yvette Lee Bowser (A Different World, Living Single, Girlfriends), Lena Waithe (The Chi, Master of None) and many others who helped bring the scripts to life.

In terms of wardrobe, I recently watched the first two episodes at the L.A. premiere party, and I can say…I did that!

Everyday on set was exceedingly challenging and magical. We had a busy set with lots of last-minute casting, flashbacks from the 1800s, 20s, 30s, 50s and 60s. I had an incredible team that worked seamlessly with a can-do attitude.

I’ve always believed in manifestation through the power of words, and I exercised that a lot this season. I like to think of words as fairy dust that we can sprinkle over absolutely everything in our life. So that even when things look like they’re not going right, they are.

I was able to foster that thinking amongst my team. It’s important to know that things are always working in your favor. 

Jazmine: I love it and can’t wait to watch what you’ve created! You mentioned Yvette Lee Bowser, who you also worked with on the set of A Different World (ADW). I’ve always considered Dear White People (DWP) the modern-day version of A Different World. How would you describe it?

Ceci: I call it A Different World 2.0.

Jazmine: That’s perfect. What are the differences?

Ceci: The biggest difference is in producing a show for network vs. Netflix. A Different World was on NBC. As ground-breaking as the show was, mainstream networks are more bureaucratic. Dear White People is on Netflix, which allows writers to create characters that are much more full. It also allows writers to cover topics that are, in some instances, taboo for network TV. When designing, I have much more flexibility when selecting looks for each character on Dear White People.

image-6Jazmine: Some of the characters from DWP may mistakenly be correlated to those on ADW. Do you consider that when designing looks?

Ceci: What I create comes directly from the script. Each of the cast members on A Different World had a signature look and their identity was largely based on their wardrobe. On Dear White People, there’s no Whitley Gilbert. Sam is bohemian and eclectic like Freddie, but their character descriptions are different. So while I may be shopping at the local swap meet or thrift store for both, the looks are informed by the individual character.

Jazmine: Do we see the evolution of any particular character through their individual style this season?

Ceci: In Season 2, we see the evolution of Lionel (DeRon Horton). Last season, Lionel was initially written to look like he shops at thrift stores, but doesn’t quite know how to put things together. He’s purposely mismatched so that nothing he wore during the first season was crisp and pristine. As his character develops, he’s growing, expanding and cleaning up nicely.
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Jazmine: It’s like you’re visually building Lionel’s confidence. I think that’s so dope!

Ceci: Exactly! Lionel starts to care about how he looks as the script evolves. It is beautiful!

Jazmine: Did you shop retail, thrift or both for the show?

Ceci: I have a preference for vintage shopping. I like thrift stores, the Rose Bowl Flea Market and swap meets.

Fashion tries to mimic an authentic look and then mass manufacture it. Guatemalan print isn’t authentic if it did not come from Guatemala, hand-woven by a brother and sister there. 

So it makes it,in some instances, really hard because I’m really trying to get an authentic vibe on the look I’m designing. But the treasure hunt is fun, and when I find “it”, I’m over the moon!

When I find a fabulous, true vintage blouse from the 40s or 50s…Oh my God! It makes my day! Then going into a fitting with an actor who loves it is the most amazing feeling. We’re both excited and celebratory.

Jazmine: Do you do any vintage shopping online through sites like ModCloth?

Ceci: No, I’m a touch it, feel it designer. I need to see and measure the garment because vintage sizing is much different from contemporary clothing. It’s almost impossible to shop vintage online.

Texture and quality are important. And then it comes to vintage, you want to make sure there are no minor damages, frays or discoloration.

I don’t do a lot of returns!

Jazmine: I used to manage the Studio at Bloomie’s. No returns makes you a designing and shopping champ! (smile)

Ceci: Yeah, as a designer I don’t need four different sizes of a garment. Once I have the actors measurements (bust, waist and hips), I’m set to shop for the right sizes with minimal to no returns.

Jazmine: I’m starting to see more brick and mortar thrift shops pop up in Atlanta. Is that the case in LA?

Ceci: A lot of vintage shops didn’t survive when the economy went down in 2008-2009. The market is still really tight and it’s harder to find precious jewels. It’s truly a hunt. The stores that do a great job of curating have some of the more inflated prices, which makes my job even more challenging.

image-3Jazmine: Right! There are very relatable characters on Dear White People and their wardrobe reflects that.

Ceci: Exactly! Real people don’t look like they came dressed like the mannequin in a department store each day…new from head to toe. There are layers, nuances. We pair new pieces with old pieces. And we wear our pieces in many different ways. The wardrobe on Dear White People, similar to A Different World during its time, is creative and unique like nothing else on television.

In fact, if I absolutely have to buy a contemporary piece, I’ll have is washed down so that it looks like the character has had it for a while.

Jazmine: The idea of “real people” brings up an interesting point. We’re starting to see more celebs re-wear garments on the Red Carpet. What are your thoughts on Tiffany Haddish and her now famous white Alexander McQueen dress?

Ceci: She is the perfect example. She wore the dress on the Red Carpet twice and then again when she hosted SNL. More celebrities should embrace the concept.

It’s time to focus on the work of actors and less on what they’re wearing. On the Red Carpet, I would love to see reporters ask less about what someone is wearing and more about how the wardrobe helped the actor get into character. Style is wearing the same pieces in many different ways.

Dear White People’s Sam is hyper stylized and fly, but also has signature pieces. image-1That’s why it’s important to choose garments that are more unique and eye-catching.

 

Jazmine: There is a big misconception about what costume design is. People automatically think stylist or shopper. One of the things, I aim to do with my blog is to really establish the difference, and to shine light on designers of color like yourself. I’d love to have you – a frontrunner, influential, costume design legend – explain what a costume designer is to this audience.

Ceci: Costume design is about creating a visual representation of the character vs. a fashion-based look that a stylist would create for an editorial.

A lot of people have a misconception and say, “Oh you must have so much fun shopping”. But I’m not shopping like they think. I’m not going into a store pulling all of the things that I personally want. I’m building closets for each character from what’s written in the scripts. 

To be a costume designer is to understand the complexity of the art of costuming and wardrobe on stage, TV, film. It’s challenging, but my intent is to inspire young women and help them understand that’s it’s an attainable goal if you really love the art form.

dear-white-people-reviewJazmine: There will be some young woman of color reading this blog who wants to hear your personal story as much as I do. Do you mind sharing?

Ceci: I started sewing at the age of four. I made dresses for my dolls out of socks and spare pieces of fabric. My father set up a sewing room in one of our bedrooms with wall-to-wall shelves filled with fabric that we’d shop for at a local store each Saturday. By middle school, I made a new outfit for myself everyday. I’d distress my jeans and when I outgrew my Keds, I’d cut the toe and back off of them to make sandals. There’s always something good that comes out of being poor (even though I didn’t know we were considered “poor” until college). That something is the creative ingenuity I’ve been expressing all of my life.

I’ve always been entrepreneurial. I started an embroidery business at the age of 12 so that I would always have my own shopping money for fabric. I took orders from my friends at school. By the time I was done, everyone’s 501 jeans had things like “Lucious Leo” and “Flower Power” all over them!

Jazmine: Graffiti jeans, anyone?

Ceci: *Laughs* OK!!!!

I didn’t go to school for design. In fact, I double majored in Economics and Social Welfare at UC Berkeley.

Jazmine: Wow! So how’d you land on the set of A Different World?

Ceci: After graduation, I created an internship for myself at Xerox. There, I performed as the top salesperson for two years, but I always knew I didn’t want to follow the corporate path because I’m creative. I made a lot of money, but I was depressed. When you have something in you, not doing it is like a death.

So I moved to L.A. and I designed gowns for  a local networking organization’s fashion show gala. The day after the gala, I got a call from a friend who said one of the executive who attended the event loved the gowns and wanted to hired me for a promotional shoot. When I showed up, it was a Mountain Dew commercial featuring Janet Jackson and DeBarge.

During the shoot, the Art Director said, “You’re the best Stylist we’ve ever worked with.” Once he walked away, I whispered to the Photographer, “What’s a Stylist?” I had no idea there was a paid job for dressing people. And a lightbulb went off in my head!

At the time, there was a book that listed all of the stylist contacts in the industry. I reached out to 20 stylists, writing each a letter asking to gain experience, not money. I received a response from a stylist who needed my help designing 17 Christmas commercials for Broadway department stores.

During every gig, I talked to everyone. I talked to the sound engineers about what fabrics made too much noise. It was always important for me to be a fly on the wall and to learn while I worked hard.

I kept getting referrals for videos, album covers and plays. One day, while I was standing in my living room, season one of A Different World was on and I declared in that moment that I would work on that show. The following week, I got a call from a friend who was also the seamstress on A Different World. She said the show was looking for a new designer and she thought I’d be great for the job. I put a look book with prints of my previous work together and met with Debbie Allen. She saw my passion for design and desire to learn. That was the power of positive affirmations manifesting in my life again. 

Jazmine: It certainly has blossomed! Given that experience, the designer job at Dear White People was a no brainer, right?

Ceci: I manifested the opportunity at Dear White People through the power of words as well. In 2008, on the way to Las Vegas, I was in a tragic accident after the bus that we were on flipped over. There was one fatality. I broke one leg and several vertebrae in my back were shattered. I was in a halo for six months and then a wheelchair. It took two years to get back on my feet.

The last show I had done was Half & Half so I took the time to take up my second passion, which is organizing. I ran a successful organizing business with a great client base that included top executives and celebrities. During every organizing job, clients would ask when I was going to get back to designing, and I’d always say the opportunity would have to be ideal.

So in my “Lean In” moment, I started to set goals and visualize myself in the role. I made list of ideal circumstances that I wanted in my next design job. Principle among them was to be surrounded by joy and positive energy. After all, I believe that in our connectedness as citizens, it is our job to maintain the state of joy. Dear White People checked all of those boxes!

Jazmine: Oh my God! Ceci what a life you’ve lived so far! I’m in awe of what you’ve accomplished and how you’ve manage to fearlessly take life by the horns. Wow, just wow!

So to close out, I’d like to know who your favorite characters are from both Dear White People and A Different World and why?

Ceci: My favorite characters are those that multi-faceted, with many layers and have distinctive looks that lend beautifully to the creative process. On A Different World, I’d say Freddie Brooks’ character (Cree Summers). Lena on ADW (Jada Pinkett-Smith) was also a lot of fun. I would turn up the volume on the music in my kitchen and design all kinds of fun pieces by painting and cutting garments up for her. On Dear White People, I really love them all because they are very layered and have distinctive looks that lend beautifully to the creative process.  

Jazmine: What do you love the most about designing for DWP?

I love working with pattern play (to mix and match texture and patterns).  – even before it became en vogue a few years ago.  Also, I love repurposing and distressing. I also love playing with bold accessories like statement necklaces and head wraps. I love all of the characters because they require lots of vintage and eclectic shopping, which is what I love. 

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Check out Ceci’s PHENOMENAL designs in Season 2 of Dear White People on Netflix now! And follow Ceci on Instagram @my11mangos.

 

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