Couturier JJ Valaya talks about collaborating with ace costume designer and Academy Award winner, Ms. Ruth E. Carter for the Eddie Murphy-starrer comedy Coming 2 America that releases on Amazon Prime today.
Designing clothes for an imaginary kingdom is an arduous task, specially when tasked with creating a modern aesthetic of a non-colonised African nation filled with royals, courtiers, politicians and dancers. So for director, Craig Brewer was looking for a costume stylist for his African extravaganza, ‘Coming 2 America’, Academy Award winning costume stylist and designer, Ruth E Carter seemed like an obvious choice. The stylist behind the American superhero film, ‘Black Panther’ is no stranger to creating a larger-than-life aesthetic but it was this new Afro-futuristic one that had her scouting for length and breadth of the world.
In her bid for finding authentic African textiles and embroideries, she and her team stumbled upon the works of Indian designer, JJ Valaya. Valaya who has incorporated African patterns and colours into his work over the years, brings his nomadic aesthetic to over a set of 18 outfits for the likes of celebrated actors such as Eddie Murphy, Shari Headley and Arsenio Hall in Coming 2 America. Imagined by Ruth Carter and executed by Valaya with his signature trademark prints and embroideries, this wonderful symphony lends character to this vibrant movie.
For the uninitiated, the original 1988 classic movie ‘Coming to America’ is set in New York City with a fresh-off-the-boat Prince Akeem Joffer (Eddie Murphy) of Zamunda in search of an American bride. His encounter with Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley) of Queens is a hilarious coming of age comedy. The sequel, which releases on Amazon Prime today, is set in the imaginary kingdom of Zamunda with the newly-crowned King Akeem and his trusted confidante Semmi (Arsenio Hall). A hilarious adventure that takes them from the palaces of Africa to the suburbs of New York. We confabulate with Indian couturier JJ Valaya on his Hollywood design debut and the intricacies of creating the outfits.
How did the collaboration with Ruth E. Carter come about?
A collaboration with someone as illustrious as Ruth is a once in a lifetime opportunity and it came upon as a surprise when she approached me for this association as the only designer from the Indian subcontinent. With the magnificence that this movie required, not only in terms of spectacular sets but, also glorious costumes, a conscious effort had to be undertaken to maintain the splendour. The House of Valaya has always been synonymous with a certain degree of panache and elan and therefore, Ruth and her team had been following our work on social media and through numerous other mediums. Hence, due to the grandeur and regality that we bring in terms of our work, Ruth felt that I would be an apt choice for this film, Coming 2 America.
What was the design brief given to you for the costumes?
Ruth and her team were extremely clear in their objectives as to what they wanted to achieve in terms of costumes for this film. My team and I were provided with directional sketches for each and every character in the movie, Coming 2 America and the sort of nuances and personality that they wanted to depict in terms of their clothing. We were also given a select few designs from the House of Valaya’s social media pages that Ruth’s team scouted and felt were apt for various on-screen characters. After that, mating the directions and the selected images was my team’s work and we were given full creative liberty of deciding the fabrics, colours, techniques, embroideries and crafts and curating outfits which were aesthetically pleasing and functionally representative of the kind of look required.
Tell us about the various outfits you’ve designed for the movie – what were their inspiration, styles and techniques used to create the same.
This movie along with Ruth, had a wide assortment of 38 designers from around the globe coming together to design a profuse range of outfits. Extremely elated to be chosen and representing India in the same, I had the honour of designing 18 of the most sought after and glamorous looks for this film for the likes of eminent stars such as Eddie Murphy, Shari Headley and Arsenio Hall. As aforementioned, we were provided with the initial designs which were subsequently reinterpreted by us using our trademark embroideries and prints. Even though the film depicts a fictional African kingdom by the name of ‘Zamunda’, however, it also showcases a glorious mix of a number of cultures. Due to this movie being a fictional tale, not succumbing to any particular society, we were incredibly blessed to bring to the forefront numerous Indian styles, techniques, fabrics and inspirations.
What was a standout piece/your favourite style from the collection? And what makes it different?
I would not really want to pick out one standalone piece as there has been a lot of hard work and effort that has gone into each and every garment that has been curated. Additionally, we design for the Indian wedding circuit which in itself is a huge theatrical production. However, doing so for a mainstream movie, that too a Hollywood movie was extremely interesting and an adventurous journey for us. Also, when you have someone of the acumen of Ruth Carter, who is the second costume designer to have her own Hollywood Walk of Fame star approaching you, you can be certain that the output and end result is going to be magnificent. Each outfit is different from the other with the technique used and embroidery done in accordance with different nuances and characteristics of various cast members. I have seen the trailer which looks tremendously promising and cannot await the movie now.
How was your experience working with Ruth E Carter? And what was the takeaway from it.
Working with someone as distinguished as Black Panther fame, Ruth Carter has been incredibly enlightening and an enriching experience. I felt exceedingly comfortable with her due to the passion that we share for our work along with how grounded and humble she is, even though she has received all these accolades over the years that she has been actively working as a costume designer. She makes one strive to give their best and projects the importance of sincerity and punctuality in the workplace. I could not have asked for a better debut for my Hollywood journey.