As he boards the Shinkansen train at Tokyo Railway Station, Donwan Harrell tingles with excitement. He is not embarking on a regular business trip – he’s already had plenty of those, as the Head Designer on the Pacific Rim for Nike and others – but more of a mystic quest. In seeking the sacred source of Japanese denim, he is tracing the core of what moves him and chasing a personal challenge. Still only aged 42, Donwan had already proved himself time and again in the cutthroat world of high style global athletic wear, using psychological as well as design skills to penetrate untapped markets. Now he has set himself a new goal; to make immaculately flawed jeans, perfected with artistry, conceived and created between America and Japan.
The journey takes Donwan all day. As he changes trains, then switches to a taxi for a long, bumpy ride through orchards and peach trees, memories of his roots inspirations flood through. His father, a Naval shipbuilder, driving the young Donwan to Creeds Racetrack at the Suffolk County Raceway on Saturday afternoons; the exhilaration of cruising down the drag strip in that souped-up old Dodge van with its side pipes and fancy wheels; his seamstress mother and aunt laughing as they showed him how to cut his own shirts while he was only eight. Always studious for his age, Donwan tended to hang with an older crowd. At school, the families of Naval Seals had all the coolness; Virginia Beach is a military city. He saw the bigger kids set off for Vietnam, cracking jokes to conceal their fears. When they returned home, changed, Donwan would sketch soldiers, bruised but not broken, on their M25 Combat jackets. In a way, Donwan felt he had not been tested like his buddies; his mother would never let him enlist and he missed the draft. He would always be drawn to re-create those images of brave survivors and the uniforms they wore to fight wars beyond their control; in countries they might never otherwise have seen, like Korea and Vietnam.
Now, ironically, Donwan is setting out to seek his own solutions on continents his friends only knew in battle. Years working in Asia have given Donwan a deep appreciation for the integrity of the local approach to manufacturing, design and business. So he was not surprised to learn that the original 1800’s Levi’s weaving looms from San Francisco that he’d been looking for, had found a home in a distant corner of Japan. Their new guardian-operators are families of artisans devoted to extending the American tradition and making the most exquisite denim ever worn, and he is finally about to meet them.
As the cab nears a simple two-story white building that seems to be have been growing out of the scrubby green hillside for centuries, Donwan’s eagerness intensifies. Can he bridge the culture gap and be the first American in Japan to manufacture jeans of a stylistic sophistication never before seen; whose fastidious detailing and careful faux-imperfections express what jeans are all about: the beauty of simple endurance?