/ 3 December 2023

Clothing characters in identity

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Dressing the part: Ntokozo Kunene designed the costumes for the Netflix series Classified

A great film is a tapestry of elements intricately woven together, but one crucial aspect that often goes unnoticed is costume design. 

Vosloorus-born Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene, the talented East Rand costume designer behind film maestro Kagiso Lediga’s latest creation, Classified, played a pivotal role in bringing the characters to life and adding depth to the narrative.

The eight-episode teen espionage series unfolds the captivating journey of 15-year-old Ella Gardner, skilfully portrayed by Imani Pullum (Emancipation, The Orville). 

Ella, a high school pupil in Oakland, California, in the US, becomes entangled in a tumultuous protest, resulting in her arrest and the threat of significant jail time. 

In a surprising turn of events, Ella manages to escape but must bid farewell to her familiar surroundings, relocating to Johannesburg to complete her education. 

As she navigates this new reality, Ella experiences a profound upheaval in her life, offering a narrative of self-discovery and intrigue.

When the script for Classified landed in the 39-year-old Kunene’s lap, excitement surged through her. It promised a captivating journey, with well-created characters who undergo significant development. 

This provided Kunene with a solid foundation for her design process, allowing her to delve into the intricate details of each character’s personality and story arc.

“The writing, as you will see when you watch it, takes you on quite a hectic journey but, most importantly for me, and the kind of work that I do, I found the characters were well thought out and the writers went in depth in terms of building them. 

“Each character goes through a really interesting arc and that helped me as well in terms of my design process,” she says.  

Kunene begins with extensive research. Drawing inspiration from real-life experiences, she delves into the characters’ backgrounds, extracting the influences that shape their identities. 

For instance, the main character, Ella, hails from Oakland and a family connected to the Black Panther movement, prompting Kunene to explore how these factors would impact her style. 

The distinction between American and South African fashion is also carefully considered.

Distinguishing between different styles is not the only challenge Kunene faces. The way characters dress can influence their behaviour, creating a need for thorough research into various aspects of their lives. 

“Another element to note is that sometimes the way people dress influences how they sit or how they eat so there is a lot of in-depth research that I had to undertake for each character,” she says.    

Sometimes, Kunene sources clothes from brands and shops, while at other times, her theatre background inspires her to sketch and design outfits from scratch.

“The research and sketching help with the decision of whether an outfit needs to be built, made or sourced by reaching out to designers.”  

In the case of Classified, many of the costumes were sourced to authentically represent the characters living in Johannesburg. 

Kunene meticulously considered the type of stores the characters would buy from, ensuring a genuine portrayal of their lifestyles.

Challenges arose, particularly during stunt scenes, where practicality became a key concern. For instance, for a scene in the second episode, Kunene had to make sure there were identical versions of a costume. 

Ntokozo Kunene designed the costumes for the Netflix series Classified, starring Imani Pullum as the lead Ella and Omhle Tshabalala as her brother

“Ella is pushed into a pool and that scene was not shot just once. I had to create multiple versions of the same outfit to maintain continuity.” 

In addition, the absence of a school uniform posed difficulties in ensuring that the myriad extras fit the school’s image seamlessly. 

Despite the challenges, Kunene’s artistry shines through in the costumes. She avoids creating an overt connection between characters and their styles, opting for subtlety that yields impact. 

The extras in Classified sport meticulously curated pieces, adding depth to the narrative and leaving enthusiasts eager to explore every corner of the series for iconic fashion moments. 

Lediga says Kunene was very specific with how she wanted the characters to look. There are episodes that are fashion-centric and Kunene did not miss the mark.

“The amount of work that she did to make sure that she dressed the characters well was amazing. 

“Now my problem is they will pitch her to me as costume designer when she is actually my person,” he jokes.

For Karabo Lediga, one of the directors, it was important to depict young people as having an influence in the world. 

“Young people have things to say, so we wanted a lead and a cast that had something really important to say,” she says. 

To some degree, Kunene made this possible by making sure  their clothes speak before they do. 

Her dedication to her craft as a costume designer for Classified elevates the series, contributing to its overall merit. 

Through her meticulous research, thoughtful design process, and ability to navigate challenges, Kunene plays a vital role in immersing viewers in the world of Classified, where clothing becomes a language that speaks volumes about each character’s identity and journey.

The eight-episode series debuted on Netflix in Africa on 30 November, offering audiences a journey into the alluring international landscape of espionage and subterfuge.