How the Costume Designer from A Different World Brought '80s Magic to Mixed-ish
First there was Black-ish. Then came its spinoff, Grown-ish. And now, at long last, we have a prequel: Mixed-ish.
The newest series created by Kenya Barris premieres Sept. 24th at 9 p.m. EST on ABC. Executive produced by Tracee Ellis Ross, the show is set in 1985 and follows the 12-year-old version of Ross’s Black-ish character, Rainbow “Bow” Johnson. Having just traded life on a commune for a more “normal” existence in the suburbs, Bow and her mixed-race family are trying to figure out their place in the real world. And we get to witness the trials and tribulations as they leave their hippie days behind them.
Naturally, that involves quite the fashion transformation for the characters. That’s where costume designer Ceci comes in. Having created the wardrobes for iconic shows like A Different World, Living Single, and Sister, Sister, Ceci (who goes only by her first name) is a pro at styling sitcoms — especially when it involves some good old vintage shopping. “Authenticity is the most important thing to me,” she tells InStyle. “And because this is a period piece, I wanted to really use pieces that were expressive of the ‘80s and would be recognizable and reflective of that time. There are a lot of very bold colors, color blocking, geometric shapes, peplums. It’s all very playful and detail-oriented. Going back and revisiting the ‘80s, there’s so much detail. It’s unbelievable, what those silhouettes look like versus contemporary clothes in terms of the craftsmanship. The handwork, the beads, the studs, the silk! You’ll see a lot of that in the show.”
After all, it’s all about the nostalgia factor. “I want people to look at the whole show it its entirety and become immersed in the ‘80s,” she says. “I want everyone to be like, ‘Oh my god, look at those shoulder pads!’ And to remember jellies and white tights and leg warmers and say, ‘I remember when I used to wear that!’” Here, Ceci walks us through the costumes on the show, plus what it’s like to work with Tracee Ellis Ross, how things have changed since A Different World, and what it was like to have Mariah Carey sing the show’s theme song.
What was the biggest challenge in creating costumes that felt truly ’80s?
Well, even though the ‘80s and ‘90s are experiencing a resurgence, I think it’s cheating to use any remakes! I really want it to be authentic and stick with the period, and that means finding pieces that come from the 1980s. So I stayed away from contemporary items and just scoured places all over the world — from costume houses and thrift stores to online. It’s not like I’m going to go to a retail store and ask, “Where is your 1985 section?” It was also challenging because a lot of shows now are either doing flashbacks to the ‘80s or are set in the ‘80s, so there’s competition to grab up whatever you can find. But when you do find it, there’s this amazing golden moment of, “I’ve discovered the treasure!” Sometimes you can’t believe that it actually still exists.
What were some of the best treasures that you found?
I jump up and down for any find, quite frankly, because there are so many things that are so great for each character. For example, I just found this Escada jacket for Auntie Denise [played by Christina Anthony]. And when you revisit the ‘80s and you are looking for funky, cool urban wear, this Escada jacket always pops up on a Google search. So I recently found that exact same one at a thrift store and was like, “Oh my god! This is the jacket.” It’s all just happy coincidences, finding everything from the high-waisted Gloria Vanderbilt jeans to some glossy-looking jacket.
When you’re creating looks for a character like Bow, how much do you think about the way she dresses as an adult on Black-ish?
I do think about who their characters are when they grow up. So that’s why the story arc and the journey of Bow is important, because we want to see her progression. This season, you’ll see the evolution of her going from strictly a commune-hippie-ish dresser to gradually finding her own identity and coming more into 1985 looks. I’m trying to convey a subtle transition for her; we don’t immediately take her to this high fashion sensibility. Part of the story arc of her trying to fit in is that she’s holding onto the values of how she grew up in the commune. When I am going to put together a costume for her, I think "Okay, what can I put on that’s kind of hippie-ish?" Layers, textures, and cool and hip [pieces] that kind of harken back to when Cree Summer was so eclectic [as Freddie Brooks] on A Different World.
I also wanted to do some things that were contemporary for 1985, because she may have gone to the mall with her friends and picked up a colorful skirt or sweater since she’s also trying to fit in at school. You end up with a very self-expressive wardrobe that is not off-the-rack from the ‘80s. It’s very layered and complex because she’s grappling with her own identity. And then her mother, Alicia [played by Tika Sumpter], is very fashionable on Black-ish. So I want to make sure we see where that aesthetic comes from. You’re fabulous now, but have you always been fabulous? I want to stay true to that.
You mentioned Cree Summer from A Different World. Have any other characters from your past work influenced the style of these characters?
Well with Tika Sumpter’s character, Alicia, there’s definitely a nod to Jasmine Guy [who played Whitley Gilbert-Wayne]. But the thread throughout all my work is that I look at what we’re working with, so for Mixed-ish, it’s 1985. That means anything that was created before 1985 is fair game. I can use things that existed in the ‘50s and the ‘70s, which expands my wardrobe palette and my choices. With Alicia, even when she’s wearing a 1985 suit, I might marry it with a 1940s peplum blouse that she could have found in a vintage store. In real life right now, people are not just exclusively wearing 2019. I have T-shirts older than some people I work with!
Which character is the most fun to dress?
They’re all fun in different ways. Alicia wears clothes so well, and if you want sophistication, she’s it. She reminds me of the Ebony Fashion Fair, the annual high-fashion couture shows that Ebony would do for black women. I just found a fabulous suit for her that was two-tone green, and I teamed it with a blouse and shoes that are the exact same green. It came together like it was an absolute couture, perfectly combined outfit — but everything came from different sources, different times, different shopping trips. I’m really trying to strike a balance between not wanting her look to be too 1985, because then it means she’s already arrived, but I also don’t want it to be too commune since then she is still in the past. Bow is the most challenging character to dress, since she’s so complex. And then Denise is the most colorful and gets to be loud and expressive. Her colors and her patterns are all very bold and fun. All the funky stuff that you remember from the ‘80s, Denise is wearing it.
What’s it like to have the ultimate fashion queen, Tracee Ellis Ross, executive producing the show?
When we first had a meeting about the show, it was really great because she knew and respected my work. So she was banking on me bringing the same aesthetic and look that I created on other shows. Day one, when we got started, she goes, “You know what, Ceci? Do you. Do what you do.” She allowed me that creative freedom. She’s weighed in from time to time, but Tracee — I respect her so much for this — she really supports the creative people behind the scenes and allows them to do what they are hired to do. She does not tie hands. The number one marching order was that she wanted to make sure that Mixed-ish — even though it’s set in 1985 — retains the flavor of Kenya Barris’ shows in that they’re always high fashion and bringing the aesthetic that we, as black people, bring to the table with fashion. Everything I do is kind of through that lens that we’re going to level up.
Even when you look at Black-ish, it is so highly stylized. We think, “Where are these people going? They’re in the house, they’re going to wash dishes!” But they look amazing. And it might be a hyper-fantasy to live through with these clothes, because I don’t know who actually dresses like that besides maybe Kenya and his family [laughs]. But it’s fun and interesting to look at. Sometimes it may not be the real world, but that’s okay. It’s a TV show. So Tracee is 100% supportive of that, and she’s 100% wanting me to continue that legacy of how his shows look, even on Mixed-ish. So if I’m looking at something and think, “Oh, is this going to be too much?” Nope, it’s not too much! It’s right in line with how Kenya’s shows look.
Mariah Carey sings the theme song for the show, and her music video for it features clips from the show. Did you know that you’d basically be outfitting the cast for her music video, on top of the show itself?
It was totally on the fly! One of the producers came up and said, “Listen, we’re thinking about doing a video.” I was like, “OK, well we are in the midst of shooting this one episode; do we need to do another wardrobe?” He said no and that we were just going to shoot them in the wardrobe that they’re wearing in the episode, which was great. They all happened to have something great on — because they always are going to have something great on. That’s the goal! But it all just happened very naturally, and it worked wonderfully. Having Mariah sing the theme song is so exciting. It’s fabulous.
As someone who’s worked on quite a few major TV shows since the early ‘90s, how have you seen the industry change in terms of representation? 25 years ago, there likely wouldn’t have been a show on primetime TV called Mixed-ish.
When I started in television, you didn’t have as much diversity behind the scenes — and you still don’t. But I feel that a show like Mixed-ish, which features a predominately black cast or even a mixed cast, should have that influence. There are subtleties that someone who did not come from that background may not get, like the fact that we put a silk head wrap on our heads at night or that color combinations are bolder and brighter and our earrings are more flashy. Those are unspoken details that, unless you lived it, you’d have to research it — which is fine, too! But you’ll see those details and be able to relate to it. It’s so important now that we’re having a moment where there are shows like Black-ish, Mixed-ish, and Grown-ish. For me, it’s a great moment because I can continue to do shows where I can reach back to my own personal experiences with my culture and represent that on television in a way that is unique.
In terms of diversity, do you feel like Hollywood has come a long way?
Well, there’s still not enough of it. This is totally an aside, but I just did A Black Lady Sketch Show on HBO and kept telling the producers how historic it was to have an all black cast, all black writers, and a diverse crew. In my 30-plus years in this industry, it is unheard of! I guess you would assume that shows like In Living Color, Living Single, and Martin had whole lot of diversity going on. But no; not even on A Different World! Surely there were some diverse players, but not to the degree of A Black Lady Sketch Show. It is still very much needed, and I wish it was more important to more black producers and writers and directors, because we’re almost sidelined to a certain degree. We just don’t get the opportunities that we deserve.
The other sad part is that if they do get it and say, “We want to have diversity,” it’s always hair, makeup, and wardrobe. You couldn’t find a black editor? You couldn’t find a black cameraman? There are 100-plus people on the crew and you couldn’t find someone black, Hispanic or Asian? So it’s irritating, but that is kind of the nature of where we are in 2019. People talk the diversity game in public. But then when they go to crew up, where is that?