A designer rocks the fashion world while fighting malaria

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Breaking into the hyper-competitive fashion world isn’t easy, but Ghanaian fashion designer Papa Oppong is doing just that.

Papa Oppong, posing for camera (© Francis Atsuvi)
Papa Oppong (© Francis Atsuvi)

Among young designers, Oppong, 24, stands apart for a couple of reasons. He has a unique aesthetic inspired by pop culture and the vibrant colors of a Ghanaian street market. And he wants to save kids from malaria.

Thanks to the DC Fashion Foundation, Oppong pursues both of his passions. The foundation brings artists to Washington for a year-long internship program run by the nonprofit Cultural Vistas.

Oppong arrived in 2015, after graduating from Ghana’s Radford University with a degree in fashion design. Through the foundation, he is working on a charity project — “One Garment, One Child” — to prevent the transmission of malaria in Ghana and, eventually, throughout Africa. Oppong is designing a line of children’s wear with a special fabric that repels disease-bearing mosquitoes.

The project is dear to his heart, he says. A malaria survivor himself, Oppong plans to create jobs in Ghana by hiring local street vendors to dye the fabric, keeping most aspects of production in the country.

Boy sketching designs (© Ofoe Amegavie)
Oppong, seen here sketching, says fashion careers require hard work without complaint: “The industry doesn’t have time for egos.” (© Ofoe Amegavie)

In addition to his anti-malaria project, Oppong has presented a Fall/Winter 2016 clothing collection in Washington, while learning about business practices and new design techniques. He’s posted his fashion sketches of singers Rihanna and Kelly Rowland on Instagram and Twitter and earned plaudits from Forbes magazine and CNN as well as the entertainers themselves. “These are women I look up to,” he says, “and sometimes I get to hear their opinions on my work first-hand.”

Oppong enjoys Washington’s cultural diversity and admits that he uses his daily commute by train to observe what people wear.

A fashion design sketch and two models wearing designer clothing (© Papa Oppong and © Francis Atsuvi)
Left: A fashion sketch by Oppong, influenced by Picasso’s African period (© Papa Oppong) Right: Here, models wear Oppong designs influenced by graffiti art. As props, they also wear masks used by graffiti artists to protect against aerosol fumes. (© Francis Atsuvi)

Whatever his source of inspiration, he is likely to become a name in fashion. He reports that he is in talks with Studio 189, a Ghana-based firm co-founded by actress Rosario Dawson and former Bottega Veneta executive Abrima Erwiah, to design for its in-house fashion label.

He hopes to someday become a head designer in an existing fashion house while continuing to work on his personal projects, whether artistic or charitable.