23 year old Papa Oppong Bediako popularly known as Papa Oppong is an exceptional and ambitious young designer/artist who has left no stone unturned in his quest to achieve his goals and dreams in life. Having his works featured,patronized and celebrated by high profile media conglomerates,clients and celebrities one would have thought that he’ll be pompous and arrogant yet Papa Oppong is still a humble,down to earth,lively and unassuming young man who is living his passion and doing what he loves best. Our quest to know more about fashion’s Raphael Santi took us to a very unusual location at about 4:00 pm Local time ,a garage facing the Atlantic ocean. As we are loosing day light our interview comes to a very abrupt but magical end. We then shoot his new Celebration of Art SS16 Collection for about two hours and end this amazing session with Papa Oppong,the whizkid and artist we’re celebrating this month. You’re welcome to our celebration of an art and artist. Enjoy yourself and have fun….
BP: Welcome Papa Oppong to this interview, at this unusual location.
(All laugh; we are seated at a car repair shop in Korle Gorno)
PO: Thank you
BP: You’ve been described by the media as the biggest thing to happen in the African fashion Industry. When did you know a career in fashion was for you?
PO: I’ve loved fashion for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a very fashion-conscious home with my mother and Aunt. (Laughs). Those two women are very fashionable and so the love and interest began whiles watching them pick out clothes and getting dressed in their Kaba and Slits, you know all those old fashion styles that were trending at the time. Soon I began trying to interpret all the processes on paper. Sketching their shoes, clothes and trying to create my own textile prints along the way so that’s how it all began for me. It wasn’t until Senior High school that I decided to get serious and saw the prospects of building a career out of fashion.
BP: “How would you describe your brand”?
PO: “Ummmm…. (Looking very thoughtful) The Papa Oppong brand is one that is trying to bridge the gap between local and international designs. I want to create a global brand, one that makes it difficult to tell on sight where exactly the works are from, to keep the people wondering “is it from Pakistan, USA,UK, Tanzania?” you know ,something like that.I believe your brand becomes known and global when people constantly ask questions and are talking about it. A good artist keeps the people talking.(winks) I’m relatively new and don’t know too much about the industry but that’s the basic plan of the brand; to be a globally acclaimed brand like Dior or Chanel , a brand that will stand the test of time .( gives thumbs up)
BP: Being a brand under construction, do you think the approach of fusing two elements is what has gotten you this far?
PO;(Nodding)Definitely, I think the fusion of two broad elements such as art and fashion has contributed immensely to my success. Most designers out here are just straight forward fashion designers who just make clothes with little or no thought into inspiration. Fusing two elements like fashion and arts and finding the harmony between them has been difficult but very successful. I started out as an illustrator who at the time was not into clothing construction. But when I went to Fashion school and learnt the clothing construction processes, I gained a new respect for fashion. It hasn’t been easy mainly because our country Ghana and its people are not really crazed about the whole art thing yet .There isn’t the vision of it being something important. Someone wants to do art and all he/she does is to get a small ‘container’ by the roadside and do some paintings. This makes it difficult to convince parents of the bigger benefits and interest arts could get you. It’s been a joy being a living example and showing how artists can make it in Ghana and importantly how artists and designers can work together harmoniously.
BP; “Where does your inspiration come from? Do you have a muse of some sort?”
PO: inspiration for me differs depending on how I feel. For instance; if I am going to design a Spring/Summer collection, I have to visualize something, so I look at my immediate environment; graffiti, a tree, a type of flower, anything. It largely depends on how I’m feeling at the time and what is happening globally. As a designer, you can’t just design around your taste or preferences, you have to reach out and see what people love because they are the reason you do what you do. At the end of the day it’s a business and you want to sell clothes, so I merge all these.”In terms of my muse, I would say Miroslava Duma, the Russian “It Girl”, fashionista and owner of Buro 24/7” I really love how she picks the odd, quirky designs and clothes and make them wearable on the streets. I look up to her because I do not design for the ordinary woman but for the odd, quirky and brave lady ready to put anything on and make statement.
BP: Your illustrations have received massive attention from people like Rihanna. How does it feel doing illustrations for fashion houses and celebrities?
PO: It’s been fun, because luckily for me, I am doing what I love. I never imagined most of these fashion gurus and big names would actually see my work because they have millions of followers on social media and thousands of artists trying to get their attention. It’s been overwhelming getting Amber Rose to say she LOVES my work and Rihanna calling it SICK. The feeling is unimaginable trust me (laughs). It takes a lot of hard work to get big names like Rihanna to see your work online… I did several art pieces and illustrations of her before it happened but most importantly, it happened. Just keep pushing, you just might be close.
BP: Your first collection was a Celebration of Darkness, followed by a Celebration of Joy and then a Celebration of Art right?
PO : Yes, correct
BP: The clothes are different, the photographers, the models, concepts and style, tell us more about these collections.
PO: OK…..first of all, I am well aware of the seven billion people in the world, so I try to be as unique as possible, to be green in the red balloons, you know to stand out. I started with a Celebration of Darkness; my first collection, in second year fashion school, 2013. I wanted to be different so I thought of darkness and its cliché perception of being associated with evil and not fondly accepted in the Ghanaian society. The aim was to raise eyebrows and make my entrance into the industry grand. (Smiles) The collection was inspired by death, old Hollywood glamour and post-world war fashion…reason for the black and gray in the collection. One memorable factor about this collection is; at the time I was a very broke student designer with a budget as low as 200 Ghana cedis. My friend, Michael Owusu and I, went to town to get used car seat leather using it for the clothes with cheap corduroy and chiffon. We managed to make a low budget collection look like a million dollars. You can’t let money and or the lack of it be a barrier then sit back and say “because of money problems I can’t go on”. There are too many materials available at your disposal to turn the ordinary into gold. The next was a Celebration of Joy; a collaboration with Swarovski. It has another interesting history. When I first designed the collection, there were no Swarovski intentions. It was my 3rd year at the time and I my school held a seminar with two representatives from Swarovski (Ghana)… I had sketched out the collection with sparkles and a lot of “bling” having in mind buttons and glass pieces but the representatives saw my work, loved it and recommended replacing the buttons and glass pieces with Swarovski. So next thing you know I was negotiating with Swarovski (Ghana) in their office and that is how the collection was born. Another thing is in that collection I had designed two unique prints, one in honor of my poor math skills.
BP: A Celebration of poor math skills (ALL LAUGH)
PO: Another of them was a tribal print. I created my own print to be unique. You know, unlike the western world, it is easy to get a tailor to duplicate a desired style for you, so people easily take your designs. Making my own print was just a way of making it difficult for that to be done. So I went to my aunt (Afia Sefaa) who is a tie-dye/batik maker and the print was made. For the catwalk, again, wanting to stand out I had a fashion installation getting models posed on podiums at a party setting with gift boxes and Swarovski all over. This was to bring out the “celebration of joy” the collection was to interpret. The audience got the chance to be close to the models and get a feel of the clothes.
The final collection; a Celebration of Art, is my favorite of the three. This was for my final year project. I decided to merge my two favorite things; art and fashion to produce a masterpiece. It was really challenging because I had to keep in mind that it was school work meaning grades were at stake, and time was a factor. I also planned hand painting the garments after production meaning less time to sleep. I got other people on board for the 10 garments I had to make. I had actually visualized the project a year ahead of time so I got 4 of my favorite artists on board; Professor. Ablade Glover, Folusho, Hanson Akatti and Bright Ackwerh. I gave each of them a garment and worked on the remaining six. It was a huge success, showing that artists and designers could work together. The showcase, being a school project restricted me to the runway, so I made it graffiti inspired. The clothes were “stained” simply showcasing the beauty of tapping into graffiti, a form of art where ‘vandalism’ and ‘destruction’ usually comes to mind.The models were named “Poisons” because of the toxicity of the spray and graffiti inspiration and I got them to paint live on the catwalk. It was a wonderful journey…so far one of the toughest fantasies I’ve brought to life but also one that I’m very proud of.
BP: Congratulations on the collection; A Celebration of Art. You mentioned that a designer could get inspiration from his environment; being in this odd location, tell some us the available materials for a possible collection.
PO: (Smiling). There are those old rags stained with grease (pointing to some rags under a car.), I could actually make something out of, I would stain them with more grease as well. There are also the empty spray cans, buckets, loose screws old seat leather…. so much, we are in a true goldmine.
BP: Papa Oppong and Vlisco. Would we be seeing you work with them for designs in their future collection?
PO: Hopefully… we can only be hopeful .People think I have direct link with Vlisco but the truth is I only used their patterns in my illustrations back in 2013 and this caught the eye of the creative team in the Netherlands. That led to my meeting their Creative Director Roger Gerards and we spoke on how to better the fashion industry in Ghana. So let’s just hope so.*fingers crossed*
BP: So you’ve got Amber Rose loving your work and being vocal about it and Rihanna calling it sick. Do you think social media has helped get your work out there?
PO: Social media has been very helpful. The world is so small these days and one can have his/her whole life on their phone. Apps like Instagram and twitter help reach millions of people in just one second. I owe 70% of my exposure to social media because I could have been doing this with none of it getting seen; illustrations probably ending up under my bed covered in dust. Mind you, putting your work out is a risk and people may nip at your ideas, but if you are willing to take the risk it pays off.
BP: “Your experience with big names are endless, how do you feel working with all these brands?”
PO: Honestly,I don’t know how it even started, it’s crazy how one job leads to another and another and before you know it you have all these top brand names to your credit. I feel so blessed having achieved all this in such a short period and at a young age. When Adidas was launching in Ghana, I got a call from my Head of Department at Radford Fashion School saying they had seen my works and wanted me to organize a fashion show for them. I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t an easy task though because it was my first time organizing a whole fashion show. I feel lucky to have my first experiences with such huge brands. My favorite however would be M.A.C cosmetics. It was such a joy working with such a professional and well organized team. I was tasked with doing live lip illustrations for the guests at the launch party in Ghana and I still had the chance to enjoy myself. Feels like a dream.
BP: Do you think you would stay in the contemporary market?
PO: It’s too soon to tell, but what I do know is I don’t want a monotone kind of brand being strictly couture or ready- to- wear. I want a very diverse, iconic brand, to explore all corners of the fashion industry. Making money and being busy is one way to tell a brand is making it, so if you hear a brand’s name making news frequently you know they are here to stay. I feel one way designers fade out is going into strictly private designing for individuals. I hope to stay in the industry and branch into all possible sectors.
BP: Looking at the people you’ve worked with, do you think the Ghanaian market understands you as a designer?
PO: I hope so. I’m still very young and one tricky thing about Ghana is that age is related to success. Even if i work with Beyoncé now, which would be a big thing, I wouldn’t have made it yet because I’m not 35 or 40 (according to Ghanaian logic). The international market however understands that success comes with achievement no matter the age. I don’t let things get to my head anyway. What I do is rather try to understand myself the more so my brand gets better with time. It’s better to understand yourself than try tobe understood in this field of work.If I have been able to get the attention of CNN, it means I’m doing something right and hopefully being an inspiration to young people out there. I just want to be taken serious every step of the way. That’s what I hope for.
BP: Do you think there is an upcoming and young designer who is a threat to you?
PO:(Laughing and shaking his head) No,no no no no. There is no threat. A threat only comes in when there is competition and that is not the case with me. I’m not competing with anybody but myself, trying to be better than my last attempt. There are amazing young designers out there like Neal Davids who recently released his collection and Jermaine too who I think is amazing. But there is no threat. Papa Oppong is just a simple brand minding its own business. (Laughs)
BP: When you become widely successful in the next five years, who would you like to work with?
PO: The rich and famous!! Don’t be deceived by any designer that tells you otherwise. Beyoncé is a woman I’d love to work with, Rihanna most definitely because she can wear anything. Lady Gaga would also be a choice. She is closely followed by the fashion media all over the world so having her in a Papa Oppong design on stage or at the Grammys would be perfect. Generally I would opt for leading women in the industry and musicians because they reach a huge audience at a time.
BP: Which shop would you like to have your designs in?
PO: Bloomingdales, definitely. They are one of the top retailers of high fashion brands and Nordstrom too. Those two, but Bloomingdales is number 1.
BP: There is a question on the minds of many people what’s with the trade mark red balloons in all your work?
PO: (Laughing). “I am globophobic and phonophobic; I really don’t like balloons especially because of their tendency to pop at any time so the red balloons are simply me facing my fears head on. I have balloons everywhere, in my photo-shoots; I have red balloon emojis in my tweets, text messages- everywhere. Again, the balloons represent the “celebration”, a name for all my collections.
BP: Why are your collections named a CELEBRATION of …..?
PO: because, people don’t get to see the “ups and downs” that go into preparing a collection, the low budgets, time factor, stress, dumsor (laughs),details and all that. When it’s time to showcase the collection however you see people excited and happy ready to see what you’ve done, to celebrate… hence the use of a celebration of……
BP : Congratulations on the DC FASHION INCUBATOR AT MACY’s project how do you feel about that?
PO: I’m still in awe…that something so huge can come to me at such a young age and at such perfect timing. The truth is I got the news right after leaving school skeptical about what to do next. I don’t have a five year plan or anything like that; I’m the day-at –a-time, happy –go-lucky kind of person. Things just happen as I move so I’m grateful for this. Honored because only a handful of designers made it from all over the world. I’m so grateful to the African Fashion Fund and Roberta Annan of Frallain for selecting me to take part in this amazing program. It’s not a Macy’s project but a project hosted and assisted by the DC Metro Center Macy’s. People seem to be confused about that. So we have the showroom and incubator at Macys and the project is created by the DC Fashion Foundation, headed by Christine Brooks-Cropper.”
BP: Having your name everywhere; on the internet, media houses, all over the world. How have you embraced the whole “world exposure?
PO: That’s a very good question. I was never doing this for the fame but for passion. The attention just came with it. One thing I believe is as an artist, your work should do all the talking for you. At the end of the day I don’t want people saying “Papa Oppong I love you but rather “I love your work”. I’m just the vessel producing the work .The attention is a two way thing, sometimes I’m overwhelmed and equally inspired by the people I have inspired and sometimes I wish there was no face to the work.
BP: What are your favorite trends and what trends would you like to see disappear?
PO: I think the crop top trend has tested time moving to its third season of fashion and now interestingly we have male crop tops, I really want to see how that would work out and what it could evolve into.
The ripped jeans… (Sighs and cups his face in his hands) “They have to go. It was cool in the beginning but now, I feel it has gone overboard. Now we have ones that come ripped from the thigh all the way down and that ridiculous, (laughs) I mean, if you want to show legs wear shorts.
BP: Finally, what’s Papa Oppong personal style like?
PO: I don’t think too much about what I have on. I’m a ‘jeans and tee’ type of guy. Occasionally, I’ll throw on something I designed because… (Smiling) it feels great wearing something only I own in the entire world.
BP: Thank you so much for having this interview.
PO: Thanks for having me. It’s been great!