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Ruth Carter: The Icon Who Speaks Design

Ruth Carter | Photo: Trevor Smith WWD

Ruth Carter is one of the reasons why American-based films have resonated with people of African heritage. As the genius brain behind the costumes in Black Panther, she became the first Black woman to win a costume-design Oscar for her work.

With several recognised works, including “Love & Basketball,” and “Selma, she added another African appreciation creative work with “Coming To America 2”. Her creativity earned her a Walk Of Fame star on February 25, making her the first Black costume designer and second costume designer to do so.

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Ruth Carter is the costume designer behind Black Panther and now “Coming to America 2.” What goes through your mind when you read a script?
For Black Panther, we were inspired by quite a few of the ancient indigenous tribal customs and techniques and tribal wear, and we infused it in a superhero costume. It is why you have leather like the Himba and the beadwork from Turkana. For “Coming to America 2”, it’s lighter, and it’s a comedy. We had another film [the original one] to follow in its footsteps, and it was more of Ankara fabrics. So the research went into the different uses of Ankara and telling the story of a modern Africa meant that we could actually explore African designers that were doing contemporary looks; we could explore African American designers that were using African prints and creating beautiful looks. So one has more of a fashion focus, and the other had more of a tribal focus.

Leslie Jones with Costume Designer Ruth Carter on the set of COMING 2 AMERICA | Photo: Quantrell D. Colbert © 2020 Paramount Pictures

We are curious, what exactly is it about the African culture that attracts you, and helps guide your thought process when you are working?
Well, because of the vast continent and the thousands of different inspirations, there’s so much to draw from. I think it’s untapped in a way that presents not just one monolithic idea that everybody in Africa wears an Ankara fabric, you know, there are so many types of fabrics and tapestries and beadwork. Depending on where you are; Ethiopia, Mali, South Africa, East Africa, West Africa, it’s all very different. And I think people don’t understand that. And to be able to have these opportunities is not anything to take lightly. I am able to infuse a lot of things that I couldn’t do in a contemporary film.

Ruth Carter. Photos Hollywood Chamber of Commerce O. Del Aguila.

Congratulations on your win on the Walk of Fame. You’ve become the first black costume designer and second costume designer to have an image enshrined at Hollywood. This is also iconic because you are the first in over 60 years to get this recognition? How does it feel?
Well, to follow in the footsteps of Edith Head to see the star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and to honour the female form is a blessing. It’s wonderful to be recognised on the Walk of Fame because I don’t think that that story exists anywhere else. And if you stand on my star, and you talk about the contribution that I have been honoured to present with my work, you will have a lot of cultures to talk about. You can talk about icons like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King with my work, you can talk about Black Panther and Coming to America 2 with my work, you could talk about empowered women like Tina Turner with my work. And to be enshrined on the walkway with a star says a lot about not only just how hard I’ve worked, but also how much the culture meant to me and for others.

In “Coming to America 2,” did you work with Nigerian designers?
I did work with a Nigerian fashion designer, who does gorgeous laser-cut pieces. I saw her work on the internet and contacted her. She did a plum coloured dress for Sherry Headley. That was absolutely stunning.

Okay, so this is my last question. If you ever did an ancestry test, what country do you think it will trace you back to?
Ah, definitely West Africa.

Nigeria?
Nigeria, yes! With my wide-set eyes, you know, I must have some Nigerian in me.

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