NEW DELHI: History beckons him like the proverbial magnet, epics capture his creative heart and the ephemeral world of celluloid leaves him totally spellbound. J.J. Valaya, couturier, costumer, design addict and history lover, who also happens to be ‘hooked on to the reel world and its enigmatic imagery’, had a dream fulfilled when Oscar-winning costumer Ruth E Carter reached out to collaborate with him for her Amazon Original movie, Coming 2 America.
Noted designer J.J. Valaya.Left to right: Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley), Semmi (Arsenio Hall) and Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) in ‘Coming 2 America’.Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) and Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley) in the film.Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) and Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley) in ‘Coming 2 America’.
A promising sequel to the blockbuster that had the world in raptures way back in 1988, when JJ was probably a teenager, the movie keeps the epic appeal and approaches the sets, design and costume with a certain grandiosity. Adding magic to it is our very own JJ, born to an army general, brought up in various cantonment towns of India and possibly raised in a culture where cinema and clubs were the only way to be in these distant towns and cities. No wonder then, his design journey is much influenced by epics that were shown as a staple to children raised with the army. Add to that JJ’s own passion for history, his love for opulence and his connection with royal and nomadic influences, and he possibly becomes the finest choice Ruth made from the circles of Indian couturiers. Full marks for that.
All set for its global premiere on Amazon Prime Video on March 5, 2021, Coming 2 America, like the original movie, will once again put the Afro-American world on the map of glitz and glamour. This sequel will also remain rooted in fashion. Ruth, known for her hand in cinema of grandiose proportions, has found a match to her sense of history in design. A costume designer with a Hollywood Walk of Fame star to her credentials, Ruth reached out to Valaya after seeing his body of work, instinctively finding a fit. Valaya calls it a stroke of the universe conspiring to make it possible to work on a film that he had been hooked on to in the 1980s.
A self-certified royal nomad at heart, Valaya’s intoxicating quest to bring to the forefront a diverse range of cultures globally through his work further sealed the deal and got him on board for this project.
Designing amidst a raging pandemic turned into quite a challenge but Valaya and Ruth mastered a virtual exchange of ideas. Valaya put together a set of 18 outfits for celebrated actors such as Eddie Murphy, Shari Headley and Arsenio Hall, to name a few. The initial designs, created by Carter, were subsequently interpreted by Valaya using his signature trademark prints and embroideries, coming out like a perfect symphony.
With a significant variation from his previous works, which involved seeking inspiration from a profuse number of empires and legacies around the world, Valaya believes that designing for a film is distinct in comparison to a collection as “the styles and silhouettes for a movie revolve around a storyline and the director’s vision, followed then by the DNA of the character in the film…all of which has to eventually translate into a visual drama”.
Valaya says, “The costumes, ranging from gowns and capes to various items of menswear, have been created with strong undertones of African society and are replete with bold colors, textures, patterns and interesting silhouette and the much-celebrated intricate Valaya embroideries…all of which have been used to bring alive this period drama.”
Valaya feels that understanding the plot, setting and the characters is a prerequisite to design, a process which was made exceedingly easy and transparent due to the constant support and inputs he received from Ms Carter. Noting a parallel with the theatrical production that a typical Indian wedding is, Valaya is a strong believer that the African society is quite similar to ours in terms of splendour and therefore, it was simpler to understand the scale that this project required.