Kings Inspire Kings | Donwan Harrell of PRPS
I was fortunate to have an intimate conversation with a Denim Icon. His famous brands need no introduction, if you’ve been on the urban fashion scene. But as a refresher, Donwan Herrell is the founder of legendary clothing lines such as Akademiks and is currently the founder and designer of PRPS. I chose to interview Mr. Herrell because he is a true inspiration and fits the definition of a King.
His story was intriguing to me because of his independent existence in the market place. He is one who is at the forefront of his ideas and dosen’t lag behind the trends or connects himself to a particular movement. He is just himself. – K.R.T.
Check out my Q & A with Donwan Herrell of PRPS
What Inspires you?
Initially I would say my inspiration is my mother. I loved to cut patterens and sew about the time I was ten. They were incredible seamtress in North Carolina so I got started pretty early. I lived in the boonies of North Carolina, in a town which had like two stop lights. There were two jobs, for the men was logging and all the women worked at Oskosh. You were either going to grow up to be one or the other. I didn’t think I would be into fashion, but honestly it was kind of second nature. About the time I got a little older I received a scholarship to go to Bestie for graphic design as a pre college program. This was my first time out of the Virginia- North carolina area.
At that time I dont know if you remember WillieWear (a Philadelphia designer) but he was one of the first couture black designers who was really popular at that time. You could buy his clothes in certain stores and even high end stores and I remember he was like a huge icon for me because there was no other black couture designer at that time. So being in Rhode island and being in a design program and seeing him become famous really influenced me. He died of AIDS pretty rapidly. Most black people didn’t even know about the guy, but he was a huge inspiration.
Do you feel the like the marketplace is more challenging today due to the demise of the so-called urban market?
When I was doing Akademiks, yes but I haven’t done Akademiks in 6-7 years. I have always felt that nothing will last forever. So with the hype of Akademics I decided to do something different because I knew it was going to have its turn and I would need to jump ship. I think it’s not difficult because of that but I think the Internet makes it difficult.
I think that everybody has accessibility to everything and there is no secret to the craft. What makes it more challenging is your point of differences from everybody else. It’s harder to make something different, but as they say fame/creme always raises to the top.
I’m aware of the different projects you have started such as Akademiks, Nine Days and PRPS. What was your reason behind creating these entities instead of sticking with just one?
You dont even know half of them (he laughs). Those are the biggest ones.
I’m always tryng to find my voice. Honestly I’m forty years old and Iv’e been doing this since I got out of college with many different companies. I’m always trying to find that one thing that kind of captures what I’m trying to communicate. More people would say finally our baby has arrived since it’s pretty commerical with Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys, and all these stores. But honestly, it’s not my baby. This isn’t the one that best represents me. I have this idea for something else that I feel best represents me but I feel like that with every new baby.
As artists we constantly are trying to change & challenge ourselves to make something better then we last did. I’m at the ideology that your only as good as your last collection. I’m always thinking what I’m working on isn’t good enough. Even though it may receive accolades for me personally it’s never enough so I always think that the next venture is going to be better.
It’s really difficult for me because there are few designers that reached a point when you can be in Bergdorf Goodman all the way down to Nordstorm and it’s even fewer black designers that can do that. Being black plays a large part in what I do because you can’t help but notice. Hence, the buyers notice. They have never brought from a black designer to be in these stores since Willie Wear, so I’m very aware of it. You always have to go above and beyound the call of duty craftsmanship-wise to prove that your just as good as the next guy. I was always told this as a child. Always be the best you can be. That’s how it is with the apparel, going the extra mile.
Last question. What advice do you have for young designers trying to find their way in a rough marketplace?
Don’t give up, Don’t give up. I had a few businesses that went under long before I found the right stride. Just keep trying it’s never too late. But find your voice and find your angle. No one needs just the same regulated product. When I started each company there was a point of difference and I think that was the reason for each of them being relatively successful. When I came out with Akademiks I was the first one doing repaired jeans. All the alphabet soup, leather applique letters, crazy sweaters, and the handback jeans, which again nobody had done, had become really popular. When I decided to go to Japan and be the first American to get his jeans manufactured there, it too was a different angle.
Find your angle, find your voice and exploit that. Don’t just come out with the same stuff, because then your just one of many. Trust me the stores see that also. It has to be different. That part is not easy especially today.
When I started PRPS my partner was saying no ones wants a $800 jean. This was 9 years ago and that didn’t make since in America. You had to go to Japan to buy Evisu 9 -10 years ago, because there wasn’t any selvedge jeans in America at all. After that everybody started going into the selvedge jean business. But again, you have to have an angle.
What are you going to do to make it yours if everybody is doing so?