One VCU alumnus has made his way to the top of the fashion world, working for internationally recognized clothing brands and designing his own jeans for A-list celebrities.
With opportunities coming in from all directions, Donwan Harrell, founder and director of the denim line “Prps” was recently selected to design the 125th Anniversary Collection for Lee Denim.
During high school, Harrell wanted to become a comic book artist. He attended a few comic book conventions and interviewed with artists at local universities, but people who viewed his work felt it qualified more for fine art instead of comic strips. At this time, Harrell was also helping his mother sew garments to sell at the flea market. When comic art was not going the way Harrell wanted, his mother advised him to study something that came naturally to him: fashion.
“I didn’t think a whole lot of (studying fashion) at the time, so I decided to do it,” Harrell said. “Thank god she gave me that advice because … I’ve made a prosperous career with it.”
Harrell moved to New York City after graduating and soon became the associate menswear designer for the brand Donna Karan. Harrell then worked for Nike in Portland, Ore. designing clothing for Southern Methodist University. After a year, he was promoted to a new job designing with Nike in Hong Kong. During the 2002 World Cup, Harrell tailored uniforms for teams that signed with Nike, including Italy, the United States, Brazil and Japan.
“I would have the responsibility of designing on-the-field kits, away kits and replica uniforms that would be sold to the general public,” Harrell said. “I would be sent to Indonesia, Singapore, China and Japan for all the teams Nike decided to sponsor.”
Harrell said he was able to witness directly how clothing was made while working in Asia, and became more adept in the business of manufacturing. After a few years with Nike, Harrell said he felt the urge to start his own business, so he quit working for the company and moved back to the U.S.
“My parents thought I was crazy to quit such a high-opportunity job,” Harrell said. “But I wanted to have something of my own.”
Harrell then founded the clothing brand Akademiks, which he said grew into a $110 million business. He attributed much of the company’s success to commercializing products to the general public, something he learned while working the flea markets with his mother. Eventually, Harrell wanted to try something new, so he decided to focus on the premium denim trend.
“I saw these amazing, beautiful jeans being made in Japan that were only sold in Japan,” Harrell said. “I decided to bring the style to the U.S. market and see if it would work, and it exploded.”
On the Prps website, dozens of celebrities like David Beckham, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Halle Barry were photographed wearing Harrell’s denim.
When he launched the line, Harrell said there were only a few high-end denim companies available in the U.S. At the time, brands like Lucky and Diesel were made in the U.S. and Italy respectively. Harrell said he came out of the blue with a product that was completely different, marketing jeans made in Japan using Japanese denim.
“Really, the only way to survive in the garment industry is by bringing something new to the table,” Harrell said.
The motto for Prps is “Bruised, never broken.” Harrell said the inspiration for the motto came from the wearing-out process of a jean. Certain fades and tears in a pair of jeans reflect the personality of the wearer and cannot be replicated.
“Causing a hole or an abrasion, these are the things that are bruised on your jean,” Harrell said. “They’re not broken. These are the beautiful things that develop personality-wise with your particular jean.”
Last year, Harrell said he was approached by the vice president and design director of VF, the parent company of Lee Jeans. Harrell said they felt he was the best representation of where denim is today in the market. The vice president and design director gave Harrell the chance to design a reinterpretation of Lee Denim’s classic silhouettes under his own name.
“These are the guys who invented the idea of putting zippers in jeans,” Harrell said. “For me to do an reinterpretation of that, in a fashionable sense, for their 125th anniversary was an awesome opportunity.”
Harrell’s completed designs will only be sold in Europe, because the international headquarters of VF is located in Switzerland.
Harrell said his only priority after leaving VCU was finding a job so he could pay off student loans. When he moved to New York, Harrell hand-wrote his resumé, and the first person to give him a job was the first job he took. Throughout his career, Harrell said he took advantage of every experience offered to him. In the future, Harrell said he wants Prps to be a household name.
“I just love doing what I do,” Harrell said. “I hope that people appreciate the hard work, time and effort that I put into the type of thing that I do.”