“I’ve never wanted to be a fashion designer, because I felt like I was a storyteller,” says famed costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who, in 2019, thrillingly added an Oscar to her many accolades for her work in 2018's Black Panther. For many longtime film lovers (including this writer), Carter’s triumph was long overdue; since her first film, Spike Lee’s now-iconic School Daze, in 1988, Carter’s work has become synonymous with some of the greatest moments in black cinema, including Malcolm X, The Five Heartbeats, and Selma.
But Carter’s latest designs weren’t intended for the screen, but the store. Fulfilling the wishes of many a fan, she has partnered with fast-fashion juggernaut H&M to launch the Ruth Carter x H&M collection, an 11-piece streetwear collaboration that draws inspiration from Carter’s early days in the famed 40 Acres and a Mule firehouse where fellow Oscar winner and longtime collaborator, director Spike Lee, based his career for so many years.
“He was an independent filmmaker; we were part of a bigger body of independent filmmakers—and that included Robert Townsend and all those guys,” Carter tells The Glow Up. “Some of the things I was asked to do was create T-shirt designs [including those for School Daze and Do the Right Thing], and Spike’s messaging in those designs continued throughout his films.”
“You know, we were very much into messaging and uplifting the race,” she continues, noting that the era in many ways also marked the advent of what we now know as the booming athleisure and streetwear market. “We were addressing a very bold time in pop culture—again, we were part of a larger body of consciousness, with Cross Colours.
“So, we embraced that in a big way, and this line reflects that—it reflects my beginnings,” Carter adds. “I think people who want to express themselves will find representation in this campaign, and that my ideas back then are very much the same today...this is is a way for me to tell the story of my origins and my beginnings and, hopefully, pave a way for other creatives like me.”
Anyone familiar with Carter’s immense body of work knows she’s especially skilled at dropping stylistic Easter eggs. Take, for instance, Black Panther’s action-packed casino scene, which begins with characters Okoye, T’Challa and Nakia standing at the balcony surveying the room.
“They’re representing red, black, and green in the colors that they are wearing,” Carter points out. In keeping with Black History Month, red, black, and green also figure prominently in her motifs for H&M. In fact, BHM is one of the designer’s favorite times of the year; “Black History is something that’s supposed to be all year and not just one month,” she says.
Of course, there’s the elephant—or perhaps, the monkey—in the room: In the past two years, H&M has been working diligently to rehabilitate its image and create more diversity within its decision-making ranks after a photograph of a black child model in a monkey-themed sweater sparked international outrage and accusations of racism in 2018.
Carter doesn’t refer to the hotly debated incident directly but is clear in her own intentions with the brand. “There’s always been a voice of representation in my work, and this collaboration was really about readdressing negative images and turning them around,” she explains, adding, “because I think H&M is open to diverse consciousness, and collaborating with me, it proves it...[Black History Month] is a celebration, and I think H&M wanted to be part of the celebration by launching [the collection] at this time.”
Carter isn’t the only black collaborator H&M onboarded to launch this limited-edition collection; the campaign was styled by Ade Samuel (best known for her work with Beyoncé, but also the stylist for H&M’s recent collaboration with Justine Skye) and photographed by Micaiah Carter. And then, of course, there’s comedian and internet personality Jay Versace, who hilariously co-hosts a podcast-inspired campaign spot with Carter, cleverly named, “And That’s the Truth, Ruth.”
“I followed Jay Versace even before the H&M collaboration came about—I think he’s just hysterical!” Carter exclaims, divulging that she would’ve loved to see him cast in her next project, the highly anticipated Coming 2 America. (Carter also costumed Eddie Murphy’s recently acclaimed Dolemite Is My Name.) “As a comedian, I think [Jay’s] got it, so meeting him was really exciting for me...we had a lot of fun.”
If Versace is a voice of his generation, Carter’s influence has spanned several, as her gift as a costume designer has touched a staggering 65 film and television productions over three decades. And even after an Oscar win, when I thank her for her tremendous influence upon my own career, Carter still seems staggered by the acknowledgment of her impact—an impact that is now part of black history, itself.
“Years of giving it my all and wanting to project my voice and my message, something has evolved. I have influenced young people who were growing up,” she says. “Little did I know that someone had a favorite film of mine, and it was B.A.P.S. Little did I know that School Daze was the film someone watched over and over and over again; Do the Right Thing would stand the test of time, and Sparkle and What’s Love Got to Do With It would launch careers.
“So, it feels like my work has not been in vain,” she continues. “That there was someone that I was to reach back and influence; that that same passion and power that I felt about doing the work, others are receiving the work. And that’s the best I could give.”
The Ruth Carter x H&M collection, which hit select H&M stores today, Feb. 13, and is also available online (items range from $12.99 to $39.99), is a nod to Carter’s still-growing legacy and the nostalgia of her legions of admirers. But as she tells us, it’s also a tribute to the future.
“I think now is a really good time to show the youth of America that we care, that we want them to express themselves,” she says. “And they can be successful if they do.”