“I’d be lying if I came up with a number. I have no idea. There were a lot,” says Ruth E. Carter about creating a whole new world through costume design in “Coming 2 America,” the sequel to the 1988 Eddie Murphy comedy.
While the original film, “Coming to America,” takes place mostly in New York City — as Murphy’s wide-eyed, fish-out-of-water Prince Akeem Joffer lands in Queens to find his true love — the follow-up film explores the splendors of the protagonist’s fictional African home country of Zamunda, three decades later.
“Zamunda is a very real nation,” Akeem says in the film, to avoid any confusion with the Wakanda in 2018’s “Black Panther,” for which Carter won her Academy Award. The costume designer took on yet another massive challenge to create an Afro-Futurist paradise, filled with royals, courtiers, politicians, citizens and dancers, in color-saturated Ankara fabrics and luxurious ornamentation.
“If ‘Black Panther”s Wakanda is Africa’s warring leader in technology, Zamunda is the fashion capitol, lighter and more artistic,” Carter explained to WWD last month. She wanted to celebrate “real Africa” through her costumes, evolving from the first film’s interpretation of Zamunda, which “kind of had an imperialistic idea of royalty.”
Now-King Akeem is happily settled in Zamunda with McDowell’s scion Lisa (Shari Headley) and family. But while preparing for the line of succession, he discovers a long lost son, who resulted from that jaunt to New York City 30 years ago. So Akeem and his royal confidante Semmi (Arsenio Hall) head back to Queens to bring heir Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) to Zamunda — even though Akeem and Lisa have three capable daughters. Hilarity ensues, alongside Carter’s awe-inspiring work.
In addition to custom-designing and building countless costumes in her always “on fire” workshop, Carter collaborated with 39 independent designers, including Toronto, Lagos and NYC-based Andrea Iyamah and Los Angeles jewelry maker Melody Ehsani; meanwhile, Beyoncé and Cardi B favorite Laurel DeWitt made all the elaborate Zamundan crowns and gilded headpieces.
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“Most of the designers that I used were small designers that wouldn’t have an opportunity like this to showcase their work,” says Carter, who also involved many African- and African-American-owned brands in the mix. “So it gave me great pleasure to collaborate with them.”
Below, Carter — who just became the second costume designer, after Edith Head — to be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, takes Fashionista through her work in the film. “I just felt honored. I had a great job. I was also very tired,” she says.
The Royal Family of Zamunda
“Red was the color of love, so we use a lot of red in Zamunda,” says Carter, who created a jewel-toned palette for the palace denizens. She infused the “strong” hue into Akeem’s costumes, as well as the wardrobes of the palace staffers, royal bathers and rose bearers, including Garcelle Beauvais, making her return in a dazzling red and gold ballgown (top).
“We wanted to have this opulence that would go along with any royal family, so there was a lot of use of gold. I researched and resourced dresses from India that were done in these beautiful fabrics that that glittered,” says Carter. “It set the tone for you to know we were in Zamunda. We have this formality and we have this majesty.”
Carter also designed an original royal Zamundan pattern featured throughout the film, as seen on Akeem’s tunics and his regal red velvet jacket (second from top). “The royal embroidered print was a family prints from generations of Joffers,” she says. “We use masks and paisleys to create the family tapestry.”
Carter incorporated African techniques for mask-making and beadwork “to shape to the to the story as well”: Cowrie beads elaborately line the edges of Akeem’s white floor-length robe and embellish the trim of Lisa’s beautiful cyan gown (above).
“The cowrie shell was used for trade, like money, in West Africa throughout African history,” she says. “The cowrie shells are very significant as adornments on a lot of African art.”
Zamundan Princess Style
While the line of succession only includes male offspring, the Zamundan princesses embody progressive modern values, personalities and strengths — also shown through their fashion.
Socially-conscious middle child Omma (Murphy’s daughter Bella) wears a signature silhouette of strong shoulders on free-flowing dresses. For a fight training sequence, a sculptural piece by South African designer — and H&M collaborator — Palesa Mokubung helped Omma hold her own as the kids basically wipe the floor with dad. “It was like a dance costume and it had the cutest little shoulders,” says Carter. “I wanted her her costume to move and have a totally different presence than the other daughters since they were doing the same type of martial arts.”
Spirited baby sister Tinashe (Akiley Love) dons vibrant prints and lively details on a myriad of playful silhouettes, from voluminous puff-shoulder tunics and pedal-pusher sets to colorful athletic-wear sets. “She was our little doll that we could dress up and give her a little tiara and really show the the fun shapes that they showed in the first movie,” Carter says.
Meeka’s Streetwear-Meets-Warrior Gear
The eldest daughter, Meeka (Kiki Layne), immediately exhibits her natural leadership and sparring skills, especially through her streetwear-meets-champion fighter outfit, which Carter custom-built with Puma pieces (above).
In an early fitting, Layne suggested incorporating the colors of the Zamundan flag into her costume to illustrate Meeka’s pride in and dedication to her country. “I thought, ‘Well, not only will we use the colors of Zamundan flag, we’ll use the actual Zamundan flag,'” says Carter. “So we created this yellow, green and black [ensemble] with the fringe, so that would have great movement.”
Siberia-born and Brooklyn-based visual artist Maria Kazakova of Jahnkoy collaborated with Carter on another of Meeka’s sporty-chic outfits: To help Lavelle, also in Jahncoy, complete a princely challenge, she sports an asymmetrical Puma athletic halter dress with cut-outs, accessorized with stacks of woven and beaded bracelets, plus wristbands reading “democrazy.”
“It was perfect for this young new Zamundan, in this new African aesthetic, who had purpose and destiny and wanted to not be so traditional,” Carter says.
Mary’s Royal Zamundan Makeover
Lavelle brings mom Mary (Leslie Jones) to Zamunda and she immediately enjoys the plush palace life, as evidenced by her wardrobe evolution. But first, Mary commits a royal faux pas by “borrowing” a beautiful blue ruffled halter gown and Gele (above) out of Queen Lisa’s presumably immense closet.
Carter sent the Ankara cotton to India to be embellished with gold trim, similar to an Indian sari. “Then when Leslie Jones came in, she was like, ‘God I love that one right there. Who’s dress is that?!'” She then used leftover fabric to create the regal matching head-tie with fringe accents.
For a shots-downing session with fellow Queens girl Lisa, Mary wears an off-the-shoulder brocade gown by Sergio Hudson (above). Since the movie filmed in 2019, the Los Angeles-based designer has become a household name, especially thanks to support from Vice President Kamala Harris and former First Lady Michelle Obama. A colorful African shawl and a Bulgari Serpenti necklace, glimmering with 20 carats of marquise and pavé diamonds and 71 emeralds, complete the lavish look. “She sails down that road to sophistication from where she started out,” says Carter. “She’s settled in.”
General Izzi’s Military Swagger
Actually, political rival and leader of neighboring country Nextdoria, General Izzi (Wesley Snipes, having a great time) clearly enjoys fashion the most. “The approach with General Izzi for Wesley Snipes was pure costume fun,” says Carter.
He outdoes himself with each appearance in drippy military regalia: exaggerated fringed epaulettes, colorful badges and woven rope adornments, bejeweled pocket flaps and even a watercolor leopard-print uniform with all the trims.
“We had a room full of stuff. We had African pieces. We had military pieces. We had sashes and tassels. I even made him a kilt out of black Kente cloth [above],” Carter says. “So the experience with Wesley Snipes is really super fun. But it’s also been a quintessential costume exploration because he’s game. He can put jodphurs on him and he knows how to walk. You can tie a sash around his waist and he, all of a sudden, feels very upright. You can give him the costume and he will match you with the character.”
Bopoto’s Golden Glamour
Izzi’s daughter Bopoto (Teyana Taylor) inherited dad’s show-stopping fashion sense. She makes her jaw-dropping grand entrance in a gold-embroidered, beaded and crystal-embellished cape with dramatic kimono-style sleeves and a sculptural collar. Kicking off a dance routine to a Prince classic, she throws off the cape to showcase a sculptural, almost Mugler-like black and gold bustier one-piece with gilded chaps (above).
“The big reveal underneath was kind of steampunk,” Carter says. “I basically perused Pinterest and saw something similar and thought, ‘You know? That’s what she should wear.’ And we created it. Costume design comes from so many different inspirations and places.”
Although, Bopoto’s dance moves are probably limited in her second look: a chainlink- and gold-plated halter top and cage skirt (above), also by Laurel DeWitt.
“[DeWitt] said, ‘By the way, I have this chainmail dress that I made. It’s at my parents’ house. Do you want me to send it to you in case you want to use it?'” Carter says. “I was like, ‘yes.’ We received this incredible — heavy, but incredible — work of art and Teyana was game. And the way she just moved it it, it was like, ‘Oh girl, you just know how to wear a costume.'”
‘Coming 2 America’ streams on Friday, March 5 on Amazon Prime.