“People want something that’s real, that is true to itself, that is authentic,” says luxury denim designer Donwan Harrell of New York–based label Prps, on the eve of his brand’s recent Canadian launch. Harrell cut his teeth as one of Nike’s top-10 designers in the early ’90s and jumped into the high-end jean market in 1995, becoming one of the pioneers of premium denim’s second wave (the first wave crested with Calvin Klein and Gloria Vanderbilt in the late 1970s and early ’80s). Unlike many contemporaries, Harrell and Prps have managed something that often eludes the competition: staying true to the founder’s vision.
The last decade’s economic boom was good for denim aficionados and the companies, like Prps, that catered to them. Collectors began to fetishize Japanese denim, the Asian aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi (think Feng Shui for pants), new washes and intricate-but-subtle distressing techniques. Devotees sought originality and a luxurious, celebrity lifestyle to buy into.
Consider Winnipeg’s Western Glove Works, the company behind popular mid-priced 1990s denim label Seven, which began its $200 (and up) “1921” line in time to see Rock & Republic become the most mass-marketed denim of its day, thanks to a collaboration with popstar-cum-footballer wife Victoria “Posh Spice” Beckham. The eating-averse diva’s $300 VB Rocks line debuted in 2004 — the same year Earnest Sewn began commanding upwards of $400 for its one-of-a-kind, numbered wares. Everyone, it seemed, was trying to outpace the competition by simply charging more than the next guy.
Unlike many in the industry, Harrell was determined to remain a boutique designer who appealed to connoisseurs and a quiet celebrity clientele. He personally works on each and every pair of his jeans, and was intimately involved in every stage of the process, from cotton cultivation in Africa, to weaving on the original Levi’s looms, to handpicking family-run, small-batch factories in Kajima, Japan as manufacturers.
Harrell also enjoys a particular niche stemming from his childhood love of car racing. “My father would take me to the track,” he remembers, “and I loved the way those guys’ jeans looked: the grease stains and the wear. That’s what inspires my work and what I’m trying to do with every pair I create.” Where the big players gamble on flavour-of-the-month tabloid stars and media saturation, Harrell puts his trust in his customers and his own aesthetic.
Artistic integrity paid off when, in May of 2008, British tabloid The Daily Mail gleefully broke the news that Beckham’s new signature premium denim line, dVb, had been discovered at U.S. bargain-basement retailer Loehmann’s. Even worse, the now not-so-Posh jeans had been marked down 75 per cent, enraging L.A. celebrity shopping meccas Fred Segal and Kitson, who were charging upwards of $350 a pair less than an hour away. The incident caused many fashion insiders to loudly herald the end of luxury denim.
With the current economic outlook decidedly less favourable than it was when Posh landed on her tush three-and-a-half years ago, common wisdom suggests the market for premium and luxury denim would have dried up even more. Of course, the problem with common wisdom is that, unlike premium denim, it’s so very, very common. The fact is, worsening economic forecasts have only buoyed luxury lines across the board. With everything from laundry detergent to peanut butter, manufacturers are seeing growth in two distinct segments of the market: the top and the bottom. Mid-range brands are slowly disappearing, ostensibly, like the middle class that purchased them.
Consequently, Harrell, who expands Prps’ Canadian reach this spring with national retailers such as Holt Renfrew and Harry Rosen, along with local boutiques like TNT (Toronto), Urban (Alberta) and Boy’s Co. (Vancouver), isn’t worried about continuing economic uncertainty. Rightly so: Surely constant success in a continually difficult economy stands as proof that there will always be a market for this meticulously crafted product. Perhaps the lesson is that, for some, luxury isn’t a luxury — it’s a jean-etically coded necessity.
Image courtesy of Prps.