Photo courtesy Prps
As the son of a seamstress and a construction worker, Donwan Harrell's professional calling and work ethic were all but genetically engineered. But a sewing disaster when he was a fashion-design student could have derailed his career path, if not for a supportive professor. Since then, Harrell has worked for fashion titans Robert Stock, Donna Karan and Nike before founding his New York City-based denim line Prps. Now quarterback Tom Brady, rapper Jay-Z and actor Christian Bale wear the Virginia Beach native's jeans.
RM: You graduated from the VCU School of Fashion Design in 1992. What was the biggest lesson you took away?
DH: I was in my sophomore year, and we had to sew these different techniques of swatches together as the test for this [sewing] class. I had decided it was so difficult, and I remember failing miserably [at] this sewing test, and I stormed out.
I was sitting on a bench outside of my class, and [my teacher], Mr. [Henry] Swartz, I guess noticed from the corner of his eye. He came out and he said, "What are you doing? You're kidding me. You're so talented. You are not going to graduate to be a seamstress. You're graduating to be a designer. You have seamstresses to sew for you." He said, "Don't look at this as being the pendulum for your success or failure in the fashion industry."
That conversation is what prompted me to continue to be in this field, and [gave me] the patience and the resilience that comes with being in design.
RM: The name of your denim brand, Prps, stands for "Purpose." Where does that come from?
DH: That comes from my roots. My dad was a laborer and construction worker at NORSHIPCO Building Company. My mom was a seamstress, and my dad's sisters worked for OshKosh B'Gosh in North Carolina, so there was always old fabric and sewing machines and stuff like that around, and I would always see my mom and my aunts sewing stuff together.
My dad worked six days a week nonstop. It was like a religion for him. When we lived at an apartment complex and he really wanted a house, he worked and worked and worked. He saved until he got that house, and he moved the family in. It was like one of the biggest accomplishments for my family to that day.
So between that and seeing my aunts and my mom sewing all the time, and my dad being such a hard worker, that kind of established my roots and my strong sense of purpose, and the drive to do something that I envisioned to do in the long term.
RM: Denim is about as all-American as it gets. What drew you to make that your textile of choice as a designer?
DH: I didn't choose it; it kind of chose me. When I started my first company, Akademiks, about 15 and a-half years ago, I was designing a full collection. The buyers and the selling team would ask me for more denim, so I had to spend more time in the wash factory developing new washing techniques and ideas and construction for the consumer each season. Inadvertently, the more time you spend in a wash factory, the more you understand the process that goes into making the washes. That's why I say it kind of chose me because the consumer gravitated to it amongst the many other items [in the collection].
RM: You have said that, as a business, you prefer to stay on the small and nimble side. Is this just your preference, or is this where the fashion business is headed in general?
DH: It's a little bit of both. I'm still a relatively small company, and I compete with the likes of Diesel, True Religion and Adriano Goldschmied — these are my day-in-and-day-out competitors. Because they are large multimillion dollar companies, I have the ability, because I'm much smaller, to be more agile and do quick-turn projects for independent accounts. The larger you are, you cannot really cater to the small mom-and-pop, say, for example those in Richmond or Virginia Beach or some upstate store in New York.
The disadvantage is if you run your business too small and consumer-based, then it's hard to manage for a big-box —for example, the Saks, the Bloomies, the Nordstroms of the world — and you have to think on the large scale for more of a mass consumer. Do I want to stay on the small scale? No, I would like to grow as a company. But right now, today, I'm very agile.
RM: Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, David Beckham, Antonio Banderas — they have all worn your jeans.
DH: It's very flattering. People don't believe it when we say, "This is not marketing. This is not something that we give away." These people actually go out and they buy these items from me. I mean, Gerard Butler, Brad Pitt . . . you name it. Tom Cruise, his wife, Katie Holmes. They all go out and they buy it. It's flattering, but at the end of the day, that is not my sole purpose. I get more gratification from the common consumer wearing our product because it shows that they believe in the product.