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Donwan Harrell of PRPS on his Obsession with Japanese Denim

With a moniker like Prps which stands for “purpose,” designer Donwan Harrell’s passion for vintage and Japanese denim remains prominent in his collections. A North Carolina native, Harrell grew up surrounded by fashion. His aunt worked for OshKosh B’Gosh sewing factory and he received his first pair of denim overalls as a gift from her. His mother was a seamstress and sold her designs at the local flea market on weekends. There he learned off-hand the technicalities of sewing negotiating business.

Harrell has designed jeans for more than 16 years. “My days at Nike taught me how patience leads to positive outcomes; that teamwork is essential for productivity; decisions that are well thought out have less risk of becoming errors, the importance of innovative presentations when communicating ideas and finally tolerance to work in any environment where there is opportunity,” he said. “These are all building blocks of my success as a designer and business owner.”

Early in his career, Nike relocated Harrell to Hong Kong where he was assigned to Direct OTS (Organized Team Sports) in the Pacific Rim. “I spent months at a time in Japan. While researching, I noticed the superiority in the level of craftsmanship in clothing,” Harrell said.

He later returned to the U.S. and started his first company, Akademiks, where he began to experiment with denim. “Japan became my destination for trend shopping. The denim and washes were superior to than any other country. However, when trying to find a pair for myself, my size was never available,” Harrell said.

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At the peak of Akademiks’ success, he began a separate operation and produced a limited quantity Prps jeans out of Japan with the sole purpose of making jeans his size. In 2002, he established the first American luxury denim brand, selling Japanese denim to America and Europe and hand-carried the products to retailers in Europe.

During his career, Harrell has expressed concern that the denim market is over saturated with brands. He feels that every season his reputation is on the line. “Being that I’m the designer of my company and a partner as well, every season I have to consider keeping up with trends without sacrificing our DNA and make sure that whatever I design performs well at the register and the business stays profitable.” he said.

Inspired by vintage, American workwear and early films, military uniforms and equipment, his collections are expressed via Noir, Prps Japan, and Goods & Co as Japanese denim is a key element in his designs and even has a trademarked folded back pocket.

Noir and Prps Japan are inspired by authentic vintage denim. “Noir is made only with selvedge fabric. The washes, rip and repair for Noir are more aggressive than Japan. Japan and Noir are exclusively made in Japan with Japanese Denim. Both, Japan & Noir are comprised of only bottoms,” said Harrell.

Prps Goods allows Harrell to experiment with artistic washes and not necessarily focus on authentic washes. “Trends play a bigger role in this segment of the line,” he said. “It is a complete sportswear line with a large segment of denim. My ability to create unique washes and finishes is displayed in denim, shirts, T-shirt, jackets and non-denim bottoms.”

For the past three years he has been implementing the 3-D resin finish in the collection. A waterless process, the denim is coated with resin and it’s scrunched up on the margarita machine and then baked. He also described his raw and organic shuttleloom process. Harrell explained, “We source a great amount of selvedge denim from Nihon Menpu: a 100-year-old facility which produced the indigo for kimonos for almost a century and today is one of the staple companies for denim. This facility creates some of the best rope dyed denim in the industry out of Kojima, Japan.”

Harrell shared his thoughts on denim in menswear. “It’s nice to see how the slim fit has lasted, however I’m starting to see a shift to looser fits. The market continues to be over-saturated, however men prefer to find a great quality jean without any gimmicks. Denim is a staple in men’s wardrobe. Men are loyal denim connoisseurs. When they find a brand that fits well and is reliable, they tend to come back and revisit new washes season after season.

Harrell said women entertain new brands and are more likely to follow fashion trends. “They hold several brands at once in their closet. Fits and styles are more versatile and therefore female loyalty is not as prevalent as men.”