In a scene from Coming 2 America, the much-anticipated sequel to the 1988 cult classic, Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem paces about his palatial home, wondering what to do about his recently-discovered son. He wears a colorful, patterned knitted vest, lending the king of the fictional African country Zamunda an assured look, despite his worried demeanor.
Murphy’s vest is one of the first items South African designer Laduma Ngxokolo ever showed to the world. He created it in 2010, as part of the launch of his label Maxhosa. Ngxokolo’s designs have roots in the fashion of young Xhosa men in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province—he started out creating pieces for initiates as something stylish and functional to wear when they left their hallowed initiation ceremony. A decade later, Ngxokolo’s designs are a main feature of the wardrobe of Coming 2 America, out today on Amazon Prime.
Although it’s set in a fictional African country, the film has relied on real designers to allow for better representation of the continent on screen. Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter enlisted Ngxokolo to join her team and help create the looks for Murphy’s return to America, along with almost 40 other designers, ranging from India to Nigeria.
In collaborating with Nxgokolo, Carter has added an element of authenticity to a film with a pretty fantastical storyline. She’s done it before: Carter earned her Oscar for dressing the inhabitants of another fictional African country, Wakanda, in Black Panther.
Carter inherited the reins of costume design for the movie from Deborah Nadoolman Landis. The award-winning designer behind films such as Blues Brothers and Raiders of the Lost Ark designed all the costumes for the original film herself.
Directed by Nadoolman’s husband, John Landis, the outfits for Coming to America mashed everyday styles from Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, and Senegal, with European influences, like the aesthetics of 1950s Dior, to create a deliberately over-the-top effect. The outfits are a big part of the film’s enduring appeal, and earned Nadoolman an Oscar nomination in 1989. Carter, who is friends with Nadoolman, has described the look created for the original film as “iconic,” but says she’s going a step forward this time.
“Hats off to Deborah for coming up with the original plan,” Carter has said. “But things have evolved. Looking back, they kind of had an imperialistic idea of royalty. It was a blend of English and African royalty.”
Carter’s choice of direction for the new film’s costumes don’t just reflect contemporary norms. They’re an illustration of the changing perceptions of African fashion on screen. By tapping into the work of designers like Ngxokolo, she is accessing the global success of African fashion, which gives the film an edge over its prequel.
As an example, in the first film, the character of King Joffe, played by James Earl Jones, enters a barbershop wearing the taxidermied head of a lion draped across his chest. In Coming 2 America, a respectfully sized lion, rendered in gold, rests on the shoulder Murphy, now king. It’s a reflection of the understated elegance a brand like Maxhosa seeks to define, and reflects less of the “curio” side of African fashion.
Carter first reached out to Nxgokolo in mid-2019, he recalls. “She said, ‘I think your approach to pioneering the African aesthetic is so unique and different. I want to do something with you, I will call you when I’m ready.’” By then, Nxgokolo had built Maxhosa Africa into a brand beloved by South African and international celebrities. Alicia Keys and Beyonce were fans, and his designs had been displayed in the Smithsonian Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
A month later Carter called Nxgokolo back, asking him to help kit out the Prince Akeem’s royal court.
Nxgokolo tells Quartz that the team began with some of his existing designs, including the 2010 vest. It was one of the first five items Nxgokolo created for his label, born out of a university thesis project using knitwear to showcase Xhosa beadwork patterns and symbolism.
A majority of the other items featured in the film—about 100 or so pieces, including waistcoats, kufis (brimless caps), and tunics—were “designed with Ruth from scratch,” Nxgokolo says. “They then paired the looks with the actors, from the dancers to the house staff,” as well as fellow South African actress Nomzamo Mbatha, who has a break-out role in the film as Mirembe, the love interest of King Akeem’s son. “The ideas of the first film were the predictable ideas that the world has of African fashion,” says Nxgokolo. “This one has more innovation.”
Innovation has driven Nxgokolo’s work from the start, and is what he credits for his ability to cater for a specific demographic in South Africa and reach a wider audience at the same time. Maxhosa staged its virtual Spring/Summer 2021 collection at New York Fashion Week (the brand’s third NYFW collection) in September last year. Despite a season dampened by the pandemic, the brand managed to create a buzz with a YouTube video showing the collection. More than half of the 300,000 people who watched the video were from the US, Ngxokolo says.
The US makes up Maxhosa Africa’s second biggest market—in part due to his digital media savvy, and a boost he got after being listed by Beyonce in her Black Parade guide to Black-owned businesses last year. But Nxgokolo is still very much focussed on growth in Africa, and is working to position Maxhosa as a luxury brand, and on using fashion to help uplift the economy. Last year, he opened his second flagship store in Cape Town’s upmarket Victoria Wharf shopping centre. Gucci and Mont Blanc are neighbors. While their physical stores were impacted by the pandemic, Maxhosa online sales exploded, and he has doubled his staff to deal with the influx of orders.
Nxgokolo has also been working with DJ Black Coffee and artist Nelson Makomo, both South African, to open an academy for budding creatives. Should Murphy ever return to Zamunda again, there will be plenty more regal African designs for him to wear.