This summer, the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond (US) has implemented a new denim manufacturing and washing curriculum within the current fashion design program. It’s the first program of its kind in the US and the booster and teacher is Donwan Harrell, founder and designer at denim label Prps. After realizing that he didn’t experience much about the denim industry while being a fashion design student, a specific curriculum would help the next generation to get familiar with America’s 15 billion denim industry. SI spoke with him in order to get more insights about his work at VCU and the current status of the US denim market. Interview by Lorenzo Molina

What was a student’s attitude towards denim manufacturing at the beginning of the program? Did it change after the course?
Initially, the student's knowledge and attitude towards denim was very naive. They knew nothing of its rich history and the impact of jeans in the American sportswear market. Interestingly so, they all own multiple pairs and couldn’t remember not having denim in their closets. Once I started to delve into all the intricate aspects such as: natural vs synthetic indigo, Levis' competitors in the late 1890's, denim manufacturers making American military war apparel, and the inner workings of denim's 15 billion dollar industry in the US alone; they were immediately taken and I captured their attention for the entire program. They would stay hours after class ended, insuring they understood every detail being taught. At the conclusion of the program, I was proud of my first class. Their knowledge of denim is superior in comparison to what I knew when I graduated college.

Harrell and some of his students while visiting a denim factory in Europe
Harrell and some of his students while visiting a denim factory in Europe


What were they most impressed by during the whole curriculum?
They were fascinated by the inner workings of the factory. It was an extraordinary opportunity for undergraduates to witness the full process of denim development from start to finish. It doesn't exist in the college experience for fashion students. They were captivated from the moment we arrived at the factory in Portugal. Seeing all the complex mechanisms associated with the wash developments was an intriguing visual learning experience. We studied the various instruments prior to our departure to Europe, but to see and utilize them firsthand, in person, is an entirely different experience.

Does any of them aspire to start a career within a denim manufacturer/label now? Could you think of any of them joining Prps?
It was unexpected to find merchandising students amongst the participants. We tend to forget that the merchandiser who potentially wants to become a buyer needs to know just as much about denim as the designer these days. This way he or she can best educate the consumer and purchase the correct product assortment. So in the end, there was more than one motive and potential outcomes for the students. Unsurprisingly, there was a substantial percentage that aspired to be denim designers in the future. This program gives them a leg up on the numerous fashion novice graduating out of school. Now that they know the proper industry fashion terms, processes names, technique applications, and methods, they are far more ready to actually start as a designer without the need to be groomed for a long period of time as most recent graduates experience.

In our November 2014 print issue, we reported on the steady growth of active wear sales in the US and how it was affecting the denim market. How do you see the current situation of jeans wear in the US?
The premium denim industry has long since expanded beyond the traditional Jacob Davis 5 pocket jean, creating fabric blends with tencel, lycra, poly, and spandex to start and intertwined with denim's traditional cotton. Denim innovation will continue to soar and develop exponentially with the intent to create maximum comfort for the wearer. It would be foolish of us, as manufacturers, to ever fathom the traditional jean would ever disappear; it's just evolving. The jean whether it's a 100% cotton or a micro stretch blend with cotton is nothing more than just a canvas. It still needs to be adorned with a beautiful finish or wash application. The students spent a great deal of time focused and gaining a hands-on experience with different washing techniques. The external finished development of the jean, regardless its content, will never go away. This keeps you relevant in an ever-expanding market.

What’s new in Prps’ jeans offering for SS16?
We are currently working on the reintroduction of our women's line for Prps Goods. There is much anticipation surrounding our scheduled launch for Fall 16. Our retailers and buyers have been great proponents of this venture.

Students were fascinated by the inner workings of the factory
Students were fascinated by the inner workings of the factory


A girl brushing a pair of jeans
A girl brushing a pair of jeans