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‘The Chi’ Costume Designer Reveals Secret Inspiration

From hip-hop style to high fashion, Nancea Ceo finds an endless wellspring of ideas at a favorite spot in Culver City.

Costume Desiger Nancea Ceo walks through
Michael Buckner/Variety Content Studio

“Everything here feels inspiring,” says costume designer Nancea Ceo, scanning the shelves at Arcana: Books on the Arts. “It is like a museum.”

The Culver City, Calif., shop is much beloved by artists and designers, and when Ceo begins a new project, she says, “I always start here.”

Lately her career has been thriving, helped along by her costumes for Lena Waithe’s critically acclaimed Showtime series “The Chi,” the CW’s popular “Vampire Diaries” spinoff “The Originals” and the coming-of-age Netflix series “On My Block.”

But she is on hiatus now, so she has time to visit favorite places, including Arcana. She’s a regular here. The owners know her by name and greet her as she enters the store.

Arcana is a 4,500-square-foot modern space in the historic Helms Bakery complex. Built in 1931, the Helms building has been converted to upscale retail shops and now anchors an entire district of hip stores and restaurants.

The shop’s stacks are arrayed with out-of-print, rare and collectible books on art, photography, design, architecture, culinary and cinema. Ceo says the store’s curation, displays, and even its “beautiful” furniture help fuel her creativity.

“Let’s go down here,” she says, eyeing a shelf that includes books by fashion photographers Helmut Newton and Matthew Rolston. Ceo then points to a hardcover fashion design tome that sits beneath a plexiglass tabletop. “That’s a good one, baby.”

Ceo knows fashion. She started as a painter, became a sportswear designer and a designer of glass jewelry before finding her way to costumes. She says she’s passionate about storytelling and creating characters through apparel. “You see who [the characters] are before they even speak a word,” says Ceo, “That excites me.”

Her process begins with researching the project’s genre and putting together a file for each character. “I look for a color theme or an image that sets a tone for the story or a place or a character,” she says. “And it may not be clothes. It may be architecture. It may be art. It may be a word or saying or poet or a poem.”

It’s a warm spring day, with the first hint of summer in the air. Ceo has assembled a stylish seasonal look for herself: A western-themed denim-on-denim look with a custom-made wide brim hat, a crystal belt from Bali, and taupe suede shoes featuring fringe, studs, and a synthetic python print.

She can make style seem effortless, but the road she’s travelled hasn’t always been easy. “When you start a career,” she says, “you make a decision: ‘This is who I am and I’m not going back.’ And then you have to hope that that takes and then do everything you can to do that, and make calls, hope you get a lucky break.”

Her break came while working on 1997 action film “Con Air” in Park City, Utah. “The supervisor liked me,” she explains. “He said, ‘I think you should get in the union.’” He helped make it happen. She became a costumer, responsible for organizing a show’s costumes — in a sense, ensuring the designer’s vision is executed on the set. She says it was a huge step toward becoming a costume designer. “I was very lucky.”

She moved to Los Angeles, but like many, found that a humbling experience. “I had to start from the bottom again,” she says. “I was cleaning shoes. I was hanging stuff. I was steaming [clothes]. I was running errands. If I was lucky, I was on set. Because [Los Angeles] was a much bigger pool. I realized what I didn’t know, and so I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to learn it,’ and I stuck it out.”

While working on another project, she was approached by a producer, who asked her to design a short film for free as a favor. She was already exhausted, but took on the short with writer-producers David Katzenberg and Seth Grahame-Smith anyway. It led to MTV’s 2010 comedy series “The Hard Times of RJ Berger,” her first major credit as a costume designer.

The constant travel, the long hours, the pace and the instability can be challenging for her. “I still have to overcome things — all of us do,” she says. “The schedules are tighter; money’s tighter; more people are involved in having opinions.”

Ceo is a longtime vegetarian who went vegan, and she is enthusiastic about bringing environmentalism into her work. “I tend to reuse clothes,” she says. “I’ll treat an episodic TV or TV episodes as if it were one film. So, the clothes move in and out of the show, rather than just buying new, new, new.” She also tries to shop locally and even cuts paper tags in half so her team can use them twice rather than once.

After spending a couple hours at Arcana, Ceo heads around the corner to a small eatery. Over coffee, she explains that the area holds a special place in her heart because it’s where she spent hours prepping for “The Chi” and “On My Block,” both projects that meant a lot to her. It’s here that she found “Hip Hop Stylography” by Arianna Piazza, “here / still / now” by photographer Paul D’Amato (about the west side of Chicago) and Caroline Cox’s “The World Atlas of Street Fashion” while prepping for the projects.

“I really got to know the culture,” she said, noting that both series featured strong culturally relevant stories. “I felt I had a responsibility to try to make it as real as I could within a framework of ‘It’s got to look good on screen.’”

After so much talk about her journey, Ceo is feeling reflective. “I didn’t think I’d be doing costume design,” she admits. “I thought either I was going to be a fashion designer or I was going to write poetry.” She pauses for a moment to think. “I create a visual poem,” she says, satisfied. The best of both worlds.