After completing almost 30 years in the Indian fashion industry, designer JJ Valaya is absolutely unstoppable. Recently, the designer collaborated with Oscar-winning costume designer, Ruth Carter to create some stunning looks for Angela Bassett’s character, Queen Ramonda, in Marvel’s latest film, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. This is not the first time the Indian designer worked with Carter; they previously worked on Eddie Murphy’s 2021 film, Coming To America 2, where they created magic on screen through their costumes.
We spoke to the man of the hour to know more about this stunning collaboration and what it felt like being a part of a movie that brought in a wave of change for representation around the world.
HELLO!: How was your experience working with Ruth Carter?
JJ Valaya: “Ruth is a highly accomplished costume designer, an Oscar winner, and has her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame but, above all this, she is an incredible human being. She is extremely humble, very respectful and insanely talented. When such energy is coming to play, the experience is always wonderful, and I’m glad that I’ve got to work with her on two movies already. Hopefully, if everything goes well, we will collaborate for a third film too!”
H!: Angela Bassett plays such an essential role in the film. Her bold and powerful persona radiates even through her outfits. What were the things you kept in mind while creating outfits for such a character?
JJV: “Angela Bassett’s role in this film has a completely different energy. In the first part, Bassett plays the role of a mother of a king but in the second film, after the sad demise of the lead, Chadwick Boseman, the actress took on the role of the Queen of a grieving nation. While in the film, she does have to keep it together and come across as a strong person, which reflects beautifully throughout the film.
One must remember that fashion design and costume design are very different. In fashion design, we are creating something for real individuals for them to wear as a way of personal expression. But when it comes to costume design, the idea comes from the director, producer, and writer, and then it comes to the costume designer, Ruth Carter. It is then her responsibility to interpret the story into a visual language, which is in sync with the plot of the film and Ruth has done this incredibly well. I was fortunate enough to have a chance to collaborate with her on perhaps the only pieces in the film that had to look resplendent, powerful, and inspiring on Queen Ramonda.”
H!: The scene where Queen Ramonda walks into the UN meeting had the entire theatre collectively gasp and applaud. What was the idea behind that particular outfit?
JJV: “This particular scene is definitely one of the most powerful and important scenes of the film because this is where Queen Ramonda actually establishes herself as somebody you can’t really mess around with. I think what Ruth had decided for her look was very interesting because she focused quite a lot on layering but took the colour purple, which always reflects royalty. We then decided that we need to work on a fabric which was rich and yet would soften the entire look, that’s when the velvet came in. Eventually, we softened the feel of the velvet by adding tulle and playing with diaphanous fabrics.”
H!: How difficult was it to create costumes for a film like Wakanda Forever where the costumes play more than just an aesthetic role?
JJV: “When you have somebody like Ruth Carter to work with, there are no obstacles at all. We at JJ Valaya have a 30-year legacy in the world of design and textiles. But, as I had mentioned earlier, while collaborating, the most important thing for you and your partner is to respect and trust each other, while being in sync with the storyline and the plot that the costume designer wanted. I strongly believe that the process of creating something is all about the energies. Positive energy takes the entire process to a whole new level while negative energy can just pull your work down. Hollywood works in a very meticulous way and Ruth’s team was absolutely wonderful; we also had a free flow of communication which always made sure we were in sync with each other’s thought processes. I absolutely agree that costumes in the film are more than just aesthetics as they do play an integral role. But that’s the reason cinema exists, to create something which is so wonderful and absolutely magnanimous that it overwhelms the audience with what they see on the massive screen. Yes, aesthetics are important but it is also crucial to put the soul into the character through costumes.”
H!: Out of all the stunning looks, which outfit was your favourite?
JJV: “It’s always difficult to choose between looks when you know that they have all been created with a lot of love, but if we were to really pick one, I would go for the maroon outfit that Queen Ramonda wore while she sat at the throne, after Shuri goes missing. One of the most inspiring outfits for me, we created it with many layers while also developing special tones of the fabric and working on every little detail that went in, from the embellishments to the techniques, to make it even more special. I’m obviously more partial to the colour as well, so that’s why this outfit is my favourite from the entire collection.”
H!: During this collaboration, what was your biggest hurdle?
JJV: “Well, there were no hurdles and that was the beauty of our collaboration! Ruth and I shared a very great rapport; we deeply respect each other and I’ve always believed that that is fundamental for any great collaboration. She’s also the kind of a person who is open to ideas and is not rigid about things, and is very appreciative of anything that is put together. I honestly cannot think of any hurdles that I faced when we worked on Coming to America 2 or while working for Wakanda Forever. Honestly, I’m looking forward to creating and working on many such special collaborations with Ruth in the future and creating many more moments of magic.”
H!: What’s next for JJ Valaya? Can we see more such iconic collaborations in the future?
JJV: “If all goes well, then who knows? As I’ve said earlier, there is a possibility we might be working again on another film, which is also a very special film but, of course, I can’t talk about it yet. When there is respect, admiration and humility, the sky’s the limit for such memorable collaborations. I do hope that I get another opportunity to create something wonderful and make India proud by using our beautiful crafts and textiles that leave a mark on the world. With cinema like this, I am working out of my comfort zone and, to me, that’s one of the most exciting things about projects like this.”