On the morning of February 8, 2022, costume designer Luis Sequeira watched the Oscar nominations announcement live while sitting on the phone with a friend. When he found out he'd been nominated for his work on Guillermo del Toro's Nightmare Alley, he was amazed, thrilled and honored—especially in a year filled with such remarkable work by his peers.
This nomination marks Sequeira's second, following one in 2018 for his work on The Shape of Water. That time, he says, "I could not watch the announcement. I just laid in bed quietly and my phone started buzzing." Being nominated to begin with was a big deal to a boy from Toronto who had watched every last Oscars ceremony during his upbringing. "Film meant everything to me," he says. "I remember seeing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Sound of Music every year. Film has been quite an integral part of my reality and so have the Oscars."
I just fell in love. It was a dream to be part of that make-believe. Fashion is here and gone tomorrow, and film is here forever. I really love that part of filmmaking."
That said, back then a career in the industry was far from his mind. Sequeira's mother was a wedding dress designer in Lisbon, so clothing had always been a part of the family. In his early 20s, Sequeira opened a store where he showcased young Canadian designers as well as his own line. One day, someone came in shopping for a David Cronenberg film and suggested that Sequeira begin taking on film work. He became a trainee on a TV series and worked his way up. "I was working with the factories and working with clients, and I was a busy boy full of energy," he says. "I took that energy and put it towards filmmaking."
Sequeira's collaboration with del Toro dates back to 2013's Mama, a film on which del Toro was executive producer; del Toro admired Sequeira's transformation of Jessica Chastain into a rocker. From there, Sequeira worked on del Toro's series The Strain for three years. Then came The Shape of Water and, most recently, Nightmare Alley, the story of a grifter (Bradley Cooper) who finds himself planning a bigger con after meeting a mysterious psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett).
Though each project brings its unique set of challenges, Sequeira's process is often the same. After getting a sense of the vision for a film, and discussing the characters and patina of the world with the team, he goes off and gathers research and visuals and fabrics. "I get my intel, I go out, I come back," Sequeira says. "Then, we just start layering those design elements together." The rest moves along organically.
With Nightmare Alley, Sequeira was tasked with creating costumes for two starkly different worlds. "The carnival world is full of nicotine-stained linens and coarse wools and canvases and broken-down leather. tThen, we move into the city and it's cashmere and worsted wool and silks and satins," he says. "It was really wonderful to have these two very distinct worlds that literally are butting against each other in time, but feel so distant."
The carnival costumes involved pre-washing and pre-staining garments to make them feel "a bit more lofty." In five three-inch binders, Sequeira collected imagery to inspire the looks, including photographs from 1930s carnivals and original catalogs of fabric swatches.
The city, on the other hand, needed to exude luxury and elements of film noir. For this, Sequeira referenced an Italian book from his own collection that details every aspect of menswear, from tie to shirt to hat. He bought it in Lisbon in the 1980s, only to use it for a project in 2020. "This is what you do when you're in love with design: You buy it when you see it and you hope to use it one day," he says of his collection of books and catalogs.
Roughly 90 percent of the costumes in Nightmare Alley were made by Sequeira's team from scratch. "It really was this odyssey of buying cloth in Rome and Spain and the U.K. and New York and Toronto and Montreal," he says.
Over three decades into his career, Sequeira is always learning, and always amazed by what you can achieve through collaboration. On this film, as on his other projects, he worked closely with production design, makeup and hairstyling, and cinematography to really immerse viewers in the world of the story and to allow actors to feel at one with their characters. "There's nothing that I love more than having an actor feel completely at ease in their costumes," he says.
From researching to sourcing to creating hundreds of outfits, costume design is painstaking work. For Sequeira, though, it's worth it. "I've always been with my feet on the ground, and we just do the work to do the work." So how does it feel to be nominated for an Oscar? "It feels amazing," he says. How does it feel to be nominated for a second time? "More amazing. It feels like it's not a one-off, a one and done," he says. "It takes it from being a flash in the pan and gives it a bit more substance."