Meet PRPS designer Donwan Harrell. His passions: vintage cars, vintage clothing, old school soulful sounds, instilled from his Southern upbringing. He’s just at home in the midst of a car show in the heart of the U.S. as he is repping classic Americana on the streets of Tokyo. He’s a wizard with denim, and a design alum of Nike and Donna Karan. The Daily sat down with Harrell to discuss denim, design, and his true PRPS.
We hear you talk a lot about “discovering and sharing” your purpose, what’s the reason behind that concept?
It’s the whole idea behind what the name represents. The letters PRPS are short for purpose. As a kid growing up in the south, everything we wore had a rhyme and reason; a purpose. I love that whole utilitarian concept of having everything be useful. I like to think that everything I do, in the jean and in the concept of the collection, is done with a purpose.
Has denim always been your passion?
It wasn’t initially. It actually came by accident. My first company was activewear, juxtaposed with jeans. I noticed myself spending more time in the factory developing washes than any other thing in the business. I found an affinity hanging out in the washroom and how easy it was to manipulate the looks that I wanted to create for the jeans. I saw the lack of diversification in men’s denim and a big hole in the market for men’s premium jeans, so I launched PRPS in 2002 primarily as a jean company with all the diversification and washes and it was a success.
Do you prefer to wear your artistic, decorated styles or a plainer variety?
I’m more of a naturalist; a vintage replica kind of a guy. So if I’m wearing jeans they’re always a raw pair. Always. I’m a firm believer in wearing my own product out to get its own individual character.
How do you wear denim in the summer?
Rolled up! I typically pair it with a vintage t-shirt, like a band tee or a Harley Davidson T shirt, and Chuck Taylors. That’s pretty easy. When I wear shorts, they are usually a pair of cut-off jeans. I look like a bum typically. [Laughs] Only in New York or LA.
And in Japan, what do they think about your style?
It’s extra cool there. I’ll walk down Shibuya and get stopped all the time for pictures! They dissect Americana; they’re able to regurgitate our culture better that we can. For them, I’m like a huge icon: I grew up in the south, I grew up with the old cars, I use old jeans as a way to make a living. They love that, because I eat, sleep, breathe that whole culture and it’s not something that’s made up.
Who are your three top denim icons?
Steve McQueen. Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when he’s in the jeans and the Red Wings and the A2 bomber jacket and he’s playing basketball; that was perfect style. It was such spot-on, timeless fashion. Paul Michael Glaser as Detective David Starsky; he wore Adidas Country sneakers and a cream cardigan sweater and cuff jeans. How he was dressed you’ll see the Japanese emulate his style. He was just a cop in a show, but the fashion and the style of it was way ahead of its time.
Are you the denim whisperer?
I’m more of a denim engineer. I definitely see myself as being a chemist, always coming up with something for the next season that works for what the customer wants.
What made you decide to launch your brand in Okayama, Japan?
This goes back to my Nike days. I lived overseas for many years and one of my many assignments was to design the baseball uniforms for the Blue Waves team that Nike had just signed. In doing so, I had to do research and find old uniforms and I came across these really cool Mizuno uniforms. The intricate detail and sewing was absolutely amazing. That was my first sign of superior craftsmanship in comparison to American craftsmanship today. When it came time for my to actually start doing jeans, that’s when I decided to go to Japan because I remember the craftsmanship and time that went into every item as far as sewing was concerned.
Do you really keep your jeans in the freezer?
I don’t keep my jeans in the freezer because they don’t smell. Someone else who may be funky might! [Laughs] What I would do is hang them out the window and bring the window down on them to let them air out. That’s probably the most that I would do. Other than that, I don’t wash my jeans or anything. I like the character to build up naturally in the jean for my own personal look.
Do you listen to music when you design?
Always. Music plays an integral part. You’re the first to ever bring it up. I’m always playing music in the background; typically blues or old school reggae. I love old stuff! I like reggae before the 1980’s, like Augustus Pablo, Hugh Mundell, Jimmy Delgado, or Big Youth.
How big is your denim collection?
I’ve collected over 300 pairs of vintage ones over the years. And that’s just the jeans; that’s not even talking about the denim and chambray shirts!
We also heard you’re quite the car aficionado. How many are in your collection and are there any favorites?
There are 12 in total and I have two favorites: a 1968 Barracuda, and a 1962 Dart. Unfortunately, my house only has a one-car garage, so I had to buy a building to keep them all.
So your warehouse is full of a bunch of denim and a bunch of cars?
Tons of boxes of denim and tons of cars. And actually tons of sneakers. I worked at Nike, so I have a lot of them!
Besides taking care of your auto collection, what do you do when you’re not designing?
Illustrating, whenever I get a moment. I have a bunch of friends that are Vietnam or Korean War veterans, they tell me their story, and I illustrate them. They all have their old jackets that they kept when they came home. They donate them to me and say you can draw my story. So we get together and talk. It’s difficult to get the stories out; most American vets don’t like to talk about it because it was so traumatic. I pull it out of them. Now, they all want me to do their jackets.