'A joy ride to create something beyond saris and lehengas': JJ Valaya on collaborating with Hollywood for Wakanda Forever

The designer talks about creating Afro-influence inspired costumes for Queen Ramonda.

Priyamvada Rana Published :  09th December 2022 12:00 AM   |   Published :   |  09th December 2022 12:00 AM
Funeral ensemble

Funeral ensemble

This year, couturier JJ Valaya marks 30 glorious years in the Indian fashion industry. With each decade, the ace designer had umpteen moments of crowning glory — from being a founding member of the premier body Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), pioneering maximalism in haute couture, collaborating with Hollywood on costumes to being the most respected name in the bridal wear market — the world of Valaya transcends geographies, eras, cultures and crafts. By this year’s end, he has added yet another feather to his cap. The designer has collaborated with Academy Award-winning costume designer Ruth Carter to create ethereal ensembles for some of the characters in the cult movie Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

Ramonda's gown by J J Valaya

We caught up with the designer over a Zoom call to get him talking about his exhilarating experience.“It was amazing. This is my second project with Ruth after collaborating with her over Eddie Murphy starrer comedy Coming 2 America,” he begins the chat. He’s quick to add, “This time, when Ruth approached me, she had already won an Oscar for Black Panther. And this is the sequel for the same film, so there was no chance to say no to such an incredible project. Moreover, for Wakanda, Ruth’s team was collaborating with select accomplished international labels. I felt honoured to be among them.”

Costume by JJ Valaya

The magic begins
Wakanda Forever is a sequel to the blockbuster and critically acclaimed Marvel movie Black Panther. It depicts a fictional Afro-futuristic world which is loosely based on Mayan civilization. Expect it to be a testament of creative imagination with the portrayal of various tribes, underwater kingdoms, tech and innovation in warfare and much more, created at a massive budget of $250 million. We asked Valaya about the brief given to him for designs. “Ruth is extremely detailed in her work. We had many sessions together on cracking the perfect looks. From the silhouettes to embellishments and the colour palette — everything required a lot of deliberate discussion. Ruth used to send us her mood boards and select the silhouettes, and we were tasked with bringing her vision to life,” he tells us.

Ramonda's costume

Sartorially speaking, the movie has 2,100 costumes designed under the aegis of Ruth who teamed with Valaya, Iris Van Herpen, Adidas and Hervé Léger. Valaya created costumes for Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett). He shares with us, “Ramonda is shown as the sovereign Queen of the kingdom of Wakanda. She balances the tight-rope act of showing her vulnerability after the death of her son T’Challa and acting as a powerful force protecting her kingdom from inferior threats, like a true leader. I had to understand her and then create ensembles that fit contextually and naturally.”

Couturier JJ Valaya

All the looks of Queen Ramonda barring a few were created by Valaya and his team at his atelier in Delhi. We asked him how it felt to be a designer from India and create for an entirely different world with whom he had no cultural affinity. He replies with a whiff of joy, “The involvement with the project took us out of our comfort zone. As a couturier, I was only designing wedding clothes. But now to construct new patter ns, forms and shapes. was very refreshing. My high point was when Angela Bassett herself posted the looks that we created for her, on her Instagram.”

The design process
We were eager to know how he began the design process and the designer tells us, “It took us eight months to present the costumes. The silhouettes were completely chosen by Ruth. But in terms of developing the prints and embroidery, it was left to me and my team. However, we had to constantly interact with Ruth to make it work in a holistic way. We had to make Queen Ramonda’s costumes regal and replete with Afro influences. We worked with age-old crafts of India like thread work, cord work and layered the costumes with antique metallics. We also used layers of burnished metallic sequins and oxidized metallic crystals as adornments on garments.”

That way Valaya’s signature embroidery work gave a personalised and exquisite touch to Ramonda’s ensembles — visible in the ivory funeral robe dress, a royal maroon gown and a breezy purple off-shoulder gown amongst many. We asked him about his favourite costume and he avers, “The maroon outfit that the Queen wore while on her throne is my favourite because it was very unique. The outfit was double-layered and we worked incredibly hard on it. We had to define the shoulders, accent it with placement embroideries and give a regal collar around the neck with flared sleeves for a dramatic appeal. It was a joy ride to create something beyond saris and lehengas (smiles).”

Valaya is called Armani Of India by Ruth after this collaboration. The elated designer shares with us, “I was flattered when she iterated that (laughs). Ruth is an extremely warm person. She is deeply respectful of others’ works. Having worked with her for the second time, I can say Hollywood and Bollywood are two entirely different worlds. These guys (Hollywood) have a great eye for detail.” On an ending note, we asked him how costume designing for films is different from fashion designing. “In costume design, you are working as per the vision of the director and can’t deviate much. For instance, for this movie, we had to bring this mystical world alive with clothing and adornments so you have to have one sutradhar (narrator) and it has to be a costume designer coordinating all costumes, which was Ruth.” The designer is soon to collaborate with her for yet another project, “if all goes well.”

Black Panther: Wakanda Foreover is running in theatres.
Mail: priyamvada@newindianexpress.com
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