The very first time I met Donwan Harrell at the Las Vegas trade shows in what was probably 2010 (those years blurred together somewhat!) I remember being really blown away by the time he gave me and the kindness and openness he showed me; something I hadn’t expected from such a big name in the industry. Over the years we have stayed in contact and spent time talking about the denim business and each other’s work and life. A couple of weeks ago I published an article about his incredible Vietnam jackets and during that conversation we ended up covering a multitude of subjects, many revolving around race and segregation in our denim industry. I wanted to publish the conversation below because in my opinion, as well as giving an insight into the designer’s new brand and personal projects, it also shines a light on the current disfunction in our industry and the world at large:

Donwan Harrell

Tell us about Art Meets Chaos. How is it doing right now?

Let me tell you! The business has doubled overnight! E-Commerce has definitely been a factor during the shutdown. As soon as some restrictions were lifted, retailers were ready to bring product in. Very blessed to have retailers who support us and loyal customers who are helping us build a family owned business.

So what’s your theory behind the uptick? 

For one, I’ve never been happier in terms of running my own business and letting my creativity lead the way. The audience is starting to recognise the name and now we are seeing repeat orders and repeat customers. And yes, people stuck at home and getting bored and can’t go and shop and yeah, because they’ve got more time, leads to more online sales. My freelance has picked up dramatically too. That’s crazy, right? I am very thankful.

No way! Thats rad. It’s amazing news and also interesting because I feel like Covid 19 is either making or breaking businesses right now. I get it with the hand sanitiser! But it is interesting to me how some apparel brands are killing it and some apparel brands are not. What’s your theory on that?

I’ve always said that creativity rises to the top, And I think the customer had just gotten bored. So now the stores are coming to me with ‘we want a crazy wash, we want more washes’ To give you an example I’m in a very popular store in Brooklyn. And he sold out of a new order four times in two weeks. Another contributing factor is that we are family owned and do ALL the work from A-Z. We design, product, sell, market, pack and ship. My immediate family dedicates all waking hours to the brand. We don’t have the crazy overhead. We have buckled down during these times and have strategized on how to keep the business viable and stay creative.

That’s amazing! So I’m guessing plans for Art Meets Chaos in 2020 is just growth?

One of the things I’m trying to do is expand outside of denim and make it a full line merchandised collection, yes.

And then can you tell me a little bit more about what you’re thinking of doing as far as creativity and your local community is concerned?

So as you know, I’m a seasoned veteran but I’ve always stayed very quiet. I don’t like being in your face, walking around tradeshows, etc because I’m a very low-key person, but I’ve always been heavily involved in education behind the scenes. So my wife and I, we came up with this idea of opening up this really cool think tank / creative hub, and purchasing this space in New Jersey where not only am I merchandising and designing, but I incorporate internships and training with the local schools in and around the area where we live. I want to give back to the community, especially the minority community. Students can come and learn about the apparel business. They don’t know that you can be a denim wash technician for instance. I didn’t have that kinda support growing up. And you never know who you’re going to find by reaching out to local talent.

Jahayra Harrell, Donwan’s wife and partner in business

Yeah. Exactly! So this obviously coincides with everything that’s been happening around race in America the last few weeks, but obviously your plan has been developing for a little while, I’m guessing? I do think it’s very timely because the young Black community need to see more people of colour achieving great things and they also need more support achieving their full potential.

And that’s one of the reasons I had to respond to you about this, you know, to talk about what we’re planning. The goal is to help creativity rise in many of the disenfranchised communities. Really show kids how to dream and achieve in areas they never imagined.

I think it’s great that you’re doing what you’re doing, because I think you’re right. You’ve told me about this before in the past that, you don’t like to be front and center. You don’t like to, you know… put yourself out there. But in this case, for this reason, it’s important. 

Yeah, I forget how heavy my influence has been in the denim washing industry in the US for many years. Most people don’t even realize I was the first American to go to Japan to wash and to showcase that work to Europe and the US. It was long before brands like Iron Heart became so popular. And you know back then, everybody just assumed PRPS was a Japanese line because I had used Japanese characters. But they didn’t know that it was this young black guy designing it in New York. When people see me in the tradeshows today with ARTMEETSCHAOS, they remind me of some of my designs 20 years ago, down to the stitch color. I always get a good laugh and at the same time, because I was so quiet, I never realized the reach my work had!

Was that intentional? You hiding your face behind the brand, so-to-speak?

I kind of liked the fact that I was quiet and low key at that time. When I worked on other collections, at times, the consumer never knew who designed their jeans. Telling my story and showing blacks can excel in fashion, may inspire a young creative to pursue a career in the arts and maybe even in the denim market!

Donwan in Vegas during the peak PRPS years

So this leads me to a difficult question and something that I have only recently been talking about with a couple of people in the industry: Do you think there’s a snobbism about that? Because going back to early PRPS around that time it was very purist; it was about made in Japan, it was about incredible laundries… But in more recent years there has been this gap that seemed to appear between certain, newer ‘heritage’ denim brands and PRPS. Do you think there is a weird snobbism and do you think that’s anything to do with race? 

You know what it is? Once the hipster movement caught on to purist denim, just like they’ve done this whole apple cider thing and just like they cultivate cool little coffee shops that already existed in Brooklyn… they made it this whole other thing: it’s gotta be raw, it’s got be this particular cotton… They kinda ‘hipstered it up’ and they called it their own. I was doing selvedge in Japan long before all of that . I saw the train way before the train was coming in, but I didn’t treat it as a hipster. It was just that I love that innovation, that I could utilise the technology that existed in Kojima at that time. I’m a raw selvedge jean wearing guy myself. I have never changed, I’m never comfortable wearing a washed jean. But I don’t treat it like it’s ‘better than’. I don’t treat it like some kind of ‘holier than thou’ denim and I think that’s the difference. It’s a matter of preference and that should be respected. Some denim enthusiasts appreciate the purity and some the innovation. I’ve been inspired to design for both audiences.

So when I published The Black Owned Denim Business on Instagram recently, this awesome woman called Morgan DM’d me and she said that there are a lot of brands such as Akademiks back in the day, such as Phat Pharm, Karl Kani, where if you work at those brands, it’s really hard to move on to, say, Tommy Hilfiger or Calvin Klein or what have you.

That is true. Those brands sat adjacent but they segmented [our brands] as a ‘lesser than’. That definitely exists because that tier don’t want to recognize the brands that are ‘urban owned’. I have not felt that experience personally because I went from working in corporate America for Nike and then I made my way to the street brands, then into premium, etc. I’ve let my passion for denim lead the way. I worked for PhiI Knight, worked for Russell Simmons at Phat Farm years ago, I’ve been in partnerships and now work for myself. And for some strange reason, I have been treated like the unicorn in the industry, Tommy Hilfiger recently invited me to their denim lab in Amsterdam. But yeah, there’s a lack of work and there’s a lack of respect for some black streetwear designers, along with street brands. So what people have had to do is carve their own path and create their own market sector and distribution just to be legit. I hear that all the time!

I definitely agree. By starting your own brand you’re saying “this is me. Stop pigeonholing me” And a lot of designers who are just working in-house and don’t have their own brand, they haven’t got the voice to show that. Like, some of these people just don’t even get in the door to even interview at certain brands, and they are very accomplished designers.

It is very sad. These same brands make money off our communities, but refuse to interview black talent. Our money is good, but not our people. I’m very fortunate that I don’t have to knock on any doors today in terms of employment. My mom raised me to work harder than anyone else, to be creative and never give up. She also encouraged entrepreneurship as a way to financial independence/freedom. From the moment I wake up, to the moment I go to sleep, I work on my own brand. I’m looking forward to giving young talent the opportunity to explore their capabilities.

Yeah, exactly. This is where you have an opportunity to be that strength of voice for the younger generation who are coming up, who might be knocking on doors. I think that’s where, you know, the change can definitely happen. The coaching… the internships, I think that will definitely help, you know. And I think touch wood. Hopefully, our world is changing. Hopefully slowly, it is changing. 

God willing, I think that there are definitely going to be some repercussions; with the protests and the marches and then people talking and communing with each other, I think there’s going to be changes. But we still have a long, long, long way to go.

For sure.

You know, as you are a friend I’m going to be honest with you. I’ve been in the industry for a long time and I’ve travelled extensively to Europe and Japan, Hong Kong, all over the world.. And it doesn’t matter that I’m accomplished, it doesn’t matter how much money my companies have made, it doesn’t matter that I’m sitting in business class. There have been several occasions, when I go and I sit down and there’s a white person sitting beside me and they get up and they ask the flight attendant to move to a different seat. That’s happened to me so many times. The ‘clutching of the purse’ is another knee jerk reaction when I sit near a white woman on the train.

And you know what? I tell my wife, they’re always reminding me who I am, you know? Sometimes you’re tired, you got flight connections, you’re not thinking about who’s sitting next to you. But, there’s always somebody who feels they need to remind you. You spent just as much money as they did for that seat in business class. Now, why would you possibly think I would want to take something from you? It doesn’t matter if you travel economy or first class, the color of your skin determines culpability.

Man, thats sad, yet I’m not surprised to hear it.

It’s sad but it still exists. There’s preconceived notions of people of colour that is filled with negativity and lack of respect. I tell my sons, society expects the worst of you, prove them wrong over and over again.

Ingrained preconceptions. 

Yeah: “This is where we are, you’re not meant to be in this area” You know?

But I’m almost 50 years old. And you go through life and I’ve found its motivational for me, it makes me want to work even harder. I want to rise to the top. And now I want to be more of an inspiration to younger minorities getting into design. The talent is out there and they need the platforms to help them cultivate their gift.

Yeah, exactly. And I think you’re right. I think it is obvious from what you said and what you’ve told me before in the past. It’s that inspiration and that drive and that belief that you can do it. And like you say, there’s some people who may not have access to that confidence or support system, and that’s what you can provide. But I think your work ethic has definitely come from that place: you’ve used it as fuel, and I think that’s just down to personality. I mean, I’m not gonna compare the two because it’s not comparable, but I definitely felt the same as a woman in the denim industry. I’ve used it as a fuel, too. 

It has been really amazing seeing you grow Denim Dudes. I still remember when you first came to the US you were plugging away, working so hard! And here you are, one of the strongholds in the denim industry.

I don’t even remember that! I was too busy working so hard maybe?! But here’s the thing: that’s all about characteristic and what’s become the fuel to you because of your tenacity and your character could just be discouragement for somebody else; that they have that talent and they don’t do anything with it. And I think that’s the difference. And that’s what your work will do. And I think that’s awesome!

Donwan in his famed PRPS office
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Trend forecaster, denim designer, industry journalist and author of Denim Dudes.