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Talented costume designer and stylist Ruka Johnson shares her inspiring story, the influence of her African heritage, and her career tips.

imageTalented costume designer and stylist Ruka Johnson shares her inspiring story, the influence of her African heritage, and her career tips

ReConnect Africa: Can you tell us about yourself and your background?

Ruka Johnson: I’m a costume stylist and maker, born and raised in London to Ghanaian parents. I work mainly on commercials, short films and music videos at the moment but I also sometimes work in the costume department of bigger budget feature films, doing either costume buying or costume continuity.

ReConnect Africa: What did you study and what were your initial intentions for your career?

Ruka Johnson: Initially I studied “make-up for the performing arts” at London College of Fashion but when I left, I decided it wasn’t really for me.

I tried a few different jobs after university and I eventually ended up working for a few months as an apprentice for a very experienced fashion designer/stylist. She taught me a lot about the actual construction of costume and clothing, which was invaluable and it was a very hands-on experience. That was when I first considered working in costume as a career; I hadn’t really known it was a viable option before then.

ReConnect Africa: What were the key influences in your choice of career?

Ruka Johnson: I think the key influences would be the fact that I’m a creative person, I’m a big movie fan and also I’ve always loved shopping and experimenting with clothes.

The highlight of my career is probably the first time I watched a commercial that I was in charge of designing….it was an amazing feeling.

ReConnect Africa: What would you say have been the highlights of your career to date?

image Ruka Johnson: The highlight of my career is probably what some would consider quite a small one – but the first time I watched a commercial that I was in charge of designing was an amazing feeling. It’s really exciting to see something you’ve created by yourself with hardly any budget and even less time.

Whilst you’re working on it, sometimes it’s hard to picture the finished product. So after it’s been through the edit and the sounds have been mixed, and it’s been made into a living breathing commercial, it’s a great feeling to know you were part of shaping the overall look of it.

ReConnect Africa: Where did you train and what technical skills do you need for a career in costume design?

Ruka Johnson: I didn’t do a costume design qualification; I did my degree in make-up and then two to three weeks on a lingerie making course. That’s about it!

imageThe best way to learn the industry, in my opinion, is to learn on the job – if you’re lucky enough to find someone to give you a chance. I’ve been very blessed to have been given the opportunity to work for a couple of amazing costume designers who are more experienced than me and saw that I was enthusiastic and hardworking. Because they had the patience to work with me and help me grow, I’ve learnt so many invaluable tips and tricks that you just can’t learn from a book.

In terms of the technical skills you need – the most important one, I think, is being able to sew. But other than that it helps to be a resourceful person who can think on their feet and is good under pressure. A good eye for colour, fabric and texture is important, and to be able to translate what the director wants for the character – which is another thing I think you learn as you go along.

ReConnect Africa: What have been your biggest challenges so far in your career?

Ruka Johnson: Well, this year in particular has been pretty stressful as I’ve been doing lots of short term jobs (whereas the year before I worked a lot on feature films and so I was employed consistently for a month or two at a time).

My schedule this year is very up in the air and it’s so changeable that it’s hard to make any plans for the future, even a week in advance. With a regular 9 to 5 job you’re given set working hours and set time off, so it’s been a challenge learning how to manage my own time. I enjoy the challenge though!

ReConnect Africa: How do you think your African heritage has impacted on what you do and how you are perceived?

Ruka Johnson: Well luckily, my family’s very proud and supportive of what I do, but I think maybe it took a while for them to fully grasp the concept of my job. I don’t think it’s the normal career path for the child of African parents and, of course, their concern first and foremost is whether their child is choosing a job that can be successful and can give them stability.

But I come from a family of very strong women and my father also taught me the value of a good work ethic from an early age (whether I liked it or not at the time!) and so I’ve always felt as if I could do or be absolutely anything.

imageReConnect Africa: How do you think your African heritage has impacted on what you do and how you are perceived?

Ruka Johnson: The biggest lesson I’ve learnt (and am still in the process of learning) is to stay organized – being freelance is hard enough as it is, keeping your paperwork and receipts in order really helps.

ReConnect Africa: What advice can you offer to others who would like to work in costume design?

Ruka Johnson: I would say that the best thing you can do is study and absorb as much costume as you can – it’s all around us in so many different areas that might not immediately spring to mind - theatres, film, theme parks, ballroom dancing, music videos, and TV commercials.

And also I don’t think you have to narrow yourself down to one area of costume until you’ve explored a few different avenues, there’s so many branches to working in costume and they suit different personalities: costume construction, costume continuity, costume supervising, costume hire, costume breakdown - the list is endless. I think you should try a bit of everything out before you restrict yourself; variety is the spice of life!

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