OGDEN — Don’t think of Ruth Carter as a costume designer. Think of her more as a storyteller.
“Most people think I got into this because of fashion, but that wasn’t it,” Carter said in a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles. “I’m more of a storyteller. I love to read great stories … and those rich stories always came to life for me. When I decided to do costume design, it was to create some of those images that were painted in my mind.”
Carter, who won last year’s Academy Award in costume design for her work on the Marvel superhero film “Black Panther,” will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 6, in the Browning Center’s Allred Theater at Weber State University. Admission is free.
The 59-year-old costume designer says here at Weber she’ll tell stories about her more than three decades in the field.
“Most people like to hear about the behind-the-camera stuff,” Carter said. “So my presentation talks a lot about the trials and tribulations of being a costume designer.”
Carter says she’ll also talk about future technologies in costume design — for example, the impact 3D printing (used in “Black Panther”) is having on her chosen profession.
Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, Carter says she’s long considered herself a Los Angelino. She showed an aptitude for design from a young age.
“In the ’70s I used to take my jeans, open them up in the center and turn them into skirts,” she said. “I once made a blazer out of a bunch of cut-up material. I learned to sew on my own, and I was just one of those little kids who could sit in her room and do stuff for hours.”
That “doing stuff for hours” certainly has paid off.
Over her 30-year-plus career, Carter has created looks for the likes of Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Chadwick Boseman, Oprah Winfrey, Anthony Hopkins and Eddie Murphy. In addition to last year’s Academy Awards win, Carter previously earned costume-design Oscar nominations for Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” and Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad.” She was also nominated for an Emmy for the 2016 remake of the Alex Haley novel “Roots.”
More recently, Carter has designed costumes for the TV series “Yellowstone” and the 2019 film “Dolemite is My Name”; she just finished “Coming 2 America,” the sequel to the 1988 comedy “Coming to America.”
“That was a fun journey,” she said of this last film. “I had a wonderful time and created a lot of fashions.”
For the sequel, Carter worked with designers from all over the world, calling the film “very inclusive, very fashion-centric.”
“I think it turned out well, but I’m always a little scared when I do something new and different like this — I hope it works out,” she said.
On Tuesday, it was announced that Carter is collaborating with the clothing retailer H&M for a line of tops, hoodies, shorts, joggers, and a bucket hat. The vibe of the new clothing line has been described as a nod to “Do the Right Thing,” the 1989 film she did with longtime collaborator Spike Lee.
“It’s about being creative and trusting your voice and being smart,” said Carter, who insists she’s a costume designer, not a clothing designer.
The new clothing line will debut on Feb. 13.
In winning the Oscar for “Black Panther,” Carter became the first African-American in the history of the Academy Awards to win in that category. She’s understandably proud of that feat.
“I’m happy I could walk on that stage and be first,” she said. “I wanted to wear an afro and a T-shirt with a fist on my chest, and put my hand in the air, and wear an African skirt.”
But Carter also knows that there is still much work to be done. Asked what it says that it took until 2019 before a black woman won in that particular Oscar category, Carter said: “It lets you know that time moves slow.”
“This was an industry built on exclusion, not inclusion,” she said. “We’re trying to reverse an institution that had a long history of being very exclusionary.”
Carter said she believes that there are enough people out there who do care about changing the culture in Hollywood, but she also recognizes that it’s an uphill battle.
While Carter says the Academy Award is the highest honor she’s ever received, there have been plenty of other pinnacles in her career.
“When I was in Egypt, shooting the Malcolm X life story with Spike Lee and running an Egyptian crew, that felt like the pinnacle,” she said. “When Steven Spielberg called me into his office and asked me about designing ‘Amistad,’ that was a pinnacle. And this Academy Award is a pinnacle — they’re all three right up there.”
The creative process used for designing costumes involves a lot of research, according to Carter. She calls it a “transformation process.”
“Usually, when I see the actor’s picture, it doesn’t tell me as much as when I meet them face to face,” she said. “They take these (publicity) photographs trying to portray their best side. But when I meet them they’re being their ordinary self — I see so much more character. And when I combine the story and the character with the actor, there’s a little bit of magic that happens.”
For those interested in excelling at costume design — or anything in life, really — Carter offers a few words of wisdom.
“I would say that sometimes it takes a long time for your work to be recognized,” she said. “If you were to list your heroes and research their lives, you’d find they’d been toiling and working — in darkness, in the shadows, behind the scenes — for many years before their art was recognized.”
So her advice?
“Don’t give up,” she said. “And it’s OK to be ‘interesting,’ or ‘different,’ or whatever words people use when they try to describe what you do. You don’t have to own their description, but don’t be afraid to be different.”