From designing a collection in collaboration with Swarovski to interning for Rosario Dawson, everyone knew that Papa Oppong, Ghanaian fashion designer, would go places. But it wasn’t until his U.S. internship at the DC Fashion Foundation that he would find his passion project: combatting Malaria through fashion.
DC Fashion Foundation: An International Fashion Incubator
Papa is an artist at the DC Fashion Foundation Incubator (DCFI) through our Train USA J-1 Internship Program. Located on the same block as our D.C. office in the Macy’s building, Papa shares a studio with six other designers on the program.
He was nominated for the program by his Head of Department at Radford University, the only Ghanaian university that offers a fashion program. As soon as he graduated, he flew to the United States to join the incubator in October 2015.
“I feel like I’ve matured so much in the past seven months. This is the first time I’ve really been on my own. It’s taught me so much about myself and doing things for myself…it’s forced me to grow up.”
A Fresh Take on Design and Fashion Shows
“Art chic,” is what Papa calls his style. “I always want to tell stories through my different collections.”
His first collection called a Celebration of Darkness was inspired by old Hollywood and post-war fashion, using recycled car seat leather and corduroy. His next one, a Celebration of Joy, was in collaboration with Swarovski, featuring designs covered in Swarovski crystals.
He’s even incorporated storytelling into his shows. “I feel like fashion shows are called shows for a reason. I want their eyes moving…it should be very interactive and engaging,” said Papa. This was obvious at DCFI’s Fall/Winter show in February, where he showcased a line inspired by a Ghanaian market, encouraging the models to interact while displaying the clothing.
A photo posted by Papa Oppong (@papaoppong) on
Papa grew his brand by creating free illustrations for friends and even celebrities. “I did illustrations of Rihanna and that’s how we’re “friends” online,” said Papa. “As a designer, you should do things for free more often when you’re in school.”
— CNN Africa (@CNNAfrica) July 27, 2015
From Ghana to D.C.
Papa had been to the United States before on vacation, but never as a professional or in an immersive setting. He’s even embracing aspects of D.C. life that Washingtonians find most dreadful.
“I think the commute is my favorite part of the day. Because you meet so many random people. I met an ex-supermodel because she saw me drawing.” Papa created an illustration inspired by his commute, called “Step Back, Doors Closing.”
A photo posted by Papa Oppong (@papaoppong) on
“One thing I really love about the culture that I didn’t notice before. Being on my own, Americans love to compliment…This morning, someone outside Dunkin Donuts said, “I like your style where’d you get your pins.” His friendly demeanor and go-getter attitude have led him to make connections like this, beyond the ones within the incubator.
Internship Builds International Connections
Papa has already made life-long connections with artists and other members of the fashion incubator. Yanique Moore, a Washingtonian designer, helped Papa create his first website. Fellow connections like Tsemaye Binitie, another Cultural Vistas J-1 intern, have exposed Papa to different styles, techniques, and business practices. “There are so many different things [to learn] from different people in the program…it’s just amazing.”
This isn’t Papa’s first exposure to the power of an internship. He’s interned with the UN’s Ethical Fashion Initiative, MCPR, and Studio 189—a fashion brand co-owned by actress Rosario Dawson and Abrimah Erwiah.
“That’s the good thing about internships. It’s about building connections.”
But one of his most interesting connections is a group of scientists that are bringing health and fashion together.
The Malaria Project
Last Fall, a group of scientists approached Christine Brooks-Copper, CEO of the DC Fashion Foundation, with their malaria-repellant fabric. She immediately saw the potential for fashion and thought Papa Oppong would be the perfect designer.
With Jennifer Fisher, Director of External Affairs, at the DC Fashion Foundation, Dr. Samuel Hancock of Emerald Planet, they are working on what they call The Malaria Project. Papa wants to turn the fabric into a colorful line of clothing for children five-and-under, to protect them against rampant malaria in Ghana. “It’s used to make blankets, but we’re using it to make clothes.” He himself has had malaria multiple times. “I have seen what it does to families in Africa.”
“We can make these clothes for the country, but I also want to create employment,” says Papa. “For most of these traders on the street, tie-dye and batik is something they can easily do. It would be a great source of employment.” Apparently the Ambassador of Ghana to the United States loved the idea so much that he’s connecting Papa with the Ministries of Health and Education to educate people about Malaria.
Knowing his audience, he’s still working on how to turn the fabric into clothing that the community will actually want. “Ghanaians love color,” says Papa. Once he determines the best way to dye the fabric, he’ll work on the development of the product. “My main goal is to keep everything in Ghana, besides shipping the fabric.”
Through the incubator, Papa has found a passion project that he’ll continue for years to come. “It’s a lifelong project…it’s something I always want to work on.”
The Importance of Internships
“I can survive in any terrain because of who I am. I don’t let things stop me. But that’s very rare,” says Papa. It’s clear that Papa’s ambition will take him far regardless. “Putting yourself out there is very [important]…You need to push. The worst anyone could say is no.”
But there’s a large pool of designers in Ghana and elsewhere that face too many barriers blocking them from achieving their design goals. Papa says that sometimes it can be hard for young people in Ghana to chase their dreams of fashion, because of pressures at home. “Parents don’t want their kids to do something that they can’t support themselves with…I wish there were more opportunities like this for designers to come straight out of school like I did.”
A way to give those designers the international exposure and work experience they need is through internship programs like this. “More internships like this, even if they are not in the United States [are needed], just so people can see what they’re doing, to see the possibilities.” International experience can give Ghanaian designers a new perspective on their work.
The key is providing more opportunities and making it easier to apply. “If it’s easier and more accessible, more people will intern as well,” says Papa.
Cultural Vistas is always looking for companies and organizations, in fashion and beyond, that want to bring international talent like Papa to the United States for short-term internship and training programs.
Papa will continue to make a difference, through his Malaria project or something else, thanks to some of the connections he’s made through his internship.
All I know is that I hope we meet more people like Papa.
Interested in hosting an international intern? We’ve got you covered.
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