Donwan Harrell’s career is the stuff of legends. After graduating from Virginia Commonweath University, he went to work for menswear designer Robert Stock, followed by DKNY and then Nike. He was promoted at Nike as the director of OTS and lived in Asia for five years designing World Cup and Olympic uniforms for the performance giant.
After his stint abroad, he returned to the U.S. to launch clothing company Akademiks——which he grew into a $130 million business before licensing the company out. In 2002, he founded his high-end denim company PRPS and has been there ever since designing denim that sells up to $1,200.
Rivet spoke with Harrell about the difference between premium, designer and luxury denim, the state of denim retail and where he continues to draw inspiration for his collections.
Rivet: Can you tell me about how you first got interested in design?
Harrell: I was a gigantic comic book consumer and an aficionado. I would always redesign the uniforms and decided to take that route with my clothing… It was quite natural for me because I had always been making clothing for my mom for the flea markets growing up. That was pretty much how I started. I had a bit of an affinity for it. I proceeded doing it for a living.
Rivet: What was it like going from activewear to high fashion?
Harrell: I am a firm believer——like a good chef, you can cook a little Chinese, a little Greek, a little American, a little Italian——that as a designer, you should be able to do a little bit of all things. It doesn’t matter if it’s dress up, women’s, men’s, active, leisure, or what have you. I think that one should test themselves in all fields of clothing because it will make you better capable of doing your job. Because switching on, switching off to different vignettes within the collection was actually beneficial in doing on a full collection, which I do today.
Rivet: Do you find both high fashion and activewear overlap?
Harrell: It all depends on how you look at it. It’s easy to say that high fashion is where the trends start, but a lot of times, it actually starts in the street first. How you merchandise certain things starts in the street. And how it’s displayed. Sometimes how the general public sees it starts in high fashion, but a lot of things actually start on the street first and trickles its way into Middle America and what have you. But you have to look at both. You have to look at both simultaneously to understand what’s going on.