JJ Valaya designs royal costumes for Eddie Murphy’s ‘Coming 2 America’
The couturier joins 38 international designers in collaborating with Academy Award-winning costume designer, Ruth Carter
The reviews for Coming 2 America have been pouring in since yesterday, even if they are mixed. Do we really need Eddie Murphy returning as Prince Akeem Joffer from the fictional African nation of Zamunda, some critics ask. The Akeem from the 1998 comedy classic is now middle-aged with three daughters, but journeys to America to find the son he never knew he had. It has a similar template to the original. But one thing that is unanimous about this film that has landed on Amazon Prime Video is that it is a sartorial feast. Credit goes to Ruth E Carter and the 39 designers she brought on board. The Oscar-winning costume designer who was also behind the Afrofuturistic designs of Black Panther had told WWD recently, “If Black Panther’s Wakanda is Africa’s warring leader in technology, Zamunda is the fashion capitol, lighter and more artistic.” For Coming 2 America, she collaborated with fashion designers from around the world, one of them being JJ Valaya.
Indian influences in court
Delhi-based Valaya, known for his regal take on fashion for over 28 years, has contributed 18 costumes for the film. They are seen on Eddie Murphy, Shari Headley and Arsenio Hall, among others. While all interactions with Carter were virtual, the designer, 53, tells The Hindu Weekend he was given “full creative liberty to select the fabrics, techniques, embroideries”. The film, with its glittering landscape, has inputs from a diverse list of designers — be it LA-based Sergio Hudson, South African knitwear expert MaXhosa, Lagos’ House of Diola, or Valaya. And while Carter has encouraged the use of African fabric — from the Ankara that is popular in West Africa to Kente, a Ghanaian textile — Valaya has used fabrics and embroideries that are predominantly Indian.
“Working with someone as established and distinguished as Ruth, that too in my very first Hollywood collaboration, has been an extremely enlightening and enriching experience,” he says, adding, “What struck me the most about her was how humble and down to earth she was irrespective of the fame that she has achieved.”
Diversity as reward
Fortunately, the project was completed before the pandemic, but it comes on the heels of Valaya’s other accomplishments over the last year — an e-commerce website launched in August 2020, his participation in the virtual India Couture Week, and a new bejewelled collection of saris and lehengas that celebrate the Ottoman Empire. What had this experience with a diverse group of designers taught him, we ask. “Different designers, different countries, different looks and one movie! There is truly unity in diversity and this is a quintessential example of that phrase. Representing your country like this on a global platform is honestly a deeply humbling feeling,” Valaya says, adding, “It is an absolutely surreal feeling to be a part of this movie which has been a part of my teenage days.”
Link to the original
Talk of the original film brings to mind Eddie Murphy’s Akeem in a tuxedo with a real leopard-skin stole. How much has cultural awareness changed costume design? “Fashion is supposed to be the true barometer of socio-economic changes and touches everything that comes in its way and therefore, we have witnessed a shift in movie fashion as well. Having said that, in order to maintain the personality and skin of the original cast it is important to not shift away drastically from the look and feel of how they were portrayed in the initial movie,” Valaya concludes.