The Akademiks dream team of Donwan and Emmett Harrell have master-minded the recipe for longevity in an industry that has the survival rate of a one-hit wonder. The Virginia Beach bred brothers had designer genes in their blood, handed down from their parents. Their resumes speak for themselves, ranging from Emmetts experiences from Phat Farm to Reebok, and Donwans climb from Robert Stock to being named one of Top 10 designers at Nike at the age of 25.
In 1999 the brothers fashioned a prosperous business relationship that launched the brand Akademiks. Now, as the proclaimed forefathers of the urban fashion market reach their prime, we sat down to learn about Akademiks’ beginnings and future. Emmett and Donwan disclose how they weathered the storm of the controversial 2004 ad campaign with MTA, and talk about going mainstream on Americas Next Top Model. Meanwhile, theyve maintained as much street cred as a quarter water now thats jeanius!
AllHipHop.com: What is your designing background in the fashion industry?
Emmett: Fashion was forced upon me and my brother. Mother was a seamstress father a carpenter. At the age of six, we were cutting patterns with electric scissors, sewing hems, running elastic through waistlines, constructing earrings, painting jackets and t-shirts. Through school, we were talented in Visual Arts. We attended Governors Manor School of Arts, Gifted and Talented Programs, and Summer Programs at Universities.
It was embedded in us from a young age, so we pretty much knew what we were going to be doing. Coming to New York City, working and free-lancing for a lot of brands. Mecca, Phat Farm, Sean John, Roca-Wear, Reebok, and Ecko. Combined, we have a pretty intense background for developing product in all markets, regardless of your color or race. We are real designers.
Donwan: My first job was at Robert Stock, then Donna Karen, Joseph Abboud, and from there to Nike. Moved to Portland, Oregon to work for them for a little less than a year, and was promoted to be a director at their office in Hong Kong. So, I moved out there and worked a couple of years. Then my brother and I pushed the idea of me coming back to the U.S. and starting a company.
AllHipHop.com: What is your role at Akademiks?
Emmett: As one of the founders, we came up with the name, concept, and designs together. We had a fortunate situation to be involved with Elliot Betesh, owner of Dr. Jays, and the Oveds. Mr. Betesh had a vision eight years ago, to start the next big urban brand. We got together and thats what we did! As far as my role, Im a major instrumental person at the brand myself. To be honest everybody here is important my brother, Fred, Dan, and of course the people that back us. Im only as good as the people I surround myself with.
Donwan: I do more directing. When it comes to product, Im a very high-strung animated person. I still love the idea of working continuously, being in the office getting things done. Being an example in my position – people seeing that Im the last one here.
AllHipHop.com: How does being family in a competitive industry motivate your business?
Emmett: I wouldnt say it motivates me. This is not a job for me, this is my career, this is what I do its my passion. I am a artist I love to draw. Its a never-ending process. Most times a lot of people ask, Can we turn it off? We could be somewhere in a mall, traveling and we get an idea it could come from a soda can or something that we see. An idea comes and we just execute.
AllHipHop.com: What do you feel has been your most valuable experience, from designing at the previous companies?
Donwan: I think the corporate structure cant ever be overestimated. The process from A to B. How the product is researched, going back playing with story boards, then presenting it to your peers conceptually, and then getting signed on. Its a great starting point for any designer, in my opinion. A lot of the time, I find being on the other side of the table, doing the hiring meeting inexperienced designers who have no ideal of what the real world is like!
So, what ends up happening when you work for big a corporate company, you touch base with a lot of different hands. Whether it be bag designers, shoe designers, womens wear, basketball. You get to know a lot of people, different things, about materials and how they react. How to utilize fabrics, cut and sew.
AllHipHop.com: Exactly it broadens your scope. What is your advice for aspiring designers?
Donwan: Pace Yourself. Im a firm believer that going to school is good, yet everything you learn in school doesnt translate into what we do. The corporate structure is great for someone getting out of school. A lot of times, you meet these young kids fresh out of school, and they may have had one job and they ask for the world!
Emmett: They want your job!
Donwan: They really dont know much about materials, maybe [they] were at one job and dont know anything about working with different fabrics. And [they] are overly confident. Just sit back, relax, and take everything in – spend time at your first company for at least a year. Dont jump from job to job to build your resume or chase salaries. Im the type person that when I get a resume and see too many names, I just turn the resume over. Im not interested! I dont want someone looking for the next job.
Emmett: Someone that doesnt jump around.
Donwan: I like to see two to three company names on a resume; that shows the person is committed and has an understanding about working. I want someone coming here to learn and who is committed on the team. Also, willing to learn any and everything that company has to offer. Its okay to have aspirations to own your own company as a designer, but that all comes in time!
I remember when I first got to New York and was working at Robert Stock. I worked seven days a week, weekends, Christmas day, and New Years Day. The whole works! Im 36-years-old. Ive been in the business designing for other companies a long time, before I got to the point where I had my own company. Im still making moves, and dont see myself getting lax until Im in my 50′s.
AllHipHop.com: In the beginning, was Akademiks strictly Mens wear?
Donwan: Yes, then we decided to do a full athletic sportswear line. It was good for the brand overall. Which got the brand off to a really great start.
AllHipHop.com: What separates Akademiks from other brands past and present?
Emmett: How we craft our garments. Our quality. Our expertise on building jeans and bringing product to the table and finishing it. Its a difference seeing our product on the sitting floor and other brands.
Donwan: I completely agree with that. When we first started out it was easier to talk about craftsmanship. We were able to tackle jeans, sweaters, wovens, and leathers. While other companies in the urban market only focused on one thing – like stripes, polos, argyles, knits: everyone had a specialty. But now, from a conceptual standpoint with the information super-highway I feel so many companies look alike. Akademiks is a full-fledged, very commercial, well designed fashion line.
AllHipHop.com: With the 2004 MTA ad campaign Read Books, Get Brain, did you feel it worked as negative or positive for the brand?
Emmett: I feel that it was a publicity stunt on MTAs behalf. During that time, it was the 100th.Year Anniversary and there were probably a lot of corporate people in town and said something.
Emmett: But, when they said they were going to take us down, it was time for our bus campaign to be over anyway. Thirty days later, they had us up with our new ad campaign.
AllHipHop.com: It obviously worked. In 2007 Akademiks billboards still continue to be present in the MTA.
Emmett: To be honest it helped us with the people. Made them aware, seeing us as the No#1 banned brand for two years in a row. But, if someone really did their research and seen how positive we are, they wouldve known. Everything in our market has a double meaning, good and bad.
AllHipHop.com: I do remember your ad campaign with a woman standing at a podium with a short skirt, t-shirt and pumps. With three multiple choice questions: Groupie, Activist, or Student?
Emmett: [laughs] Yeah Pick one!
AllHipHop.com: How do you feel now that Akademiks has evolved in the fashion industry from being an urban brand to being mainstream and featured on Americas Next Top Model?
Emmett: We started out as a true urban brand, but the way the market is going now and to protect our future as a brand, we have to expand. Akademiks has expanded all divisions – ladies branched onto infants and kids, and catering to other audiences. Extreme sports to cross-over with the metal or rocker kid. He knows more than he did three to five years ago. Now, these kids are exposed to more whether it be internet, television, or it could be their stylist dressing them. You have to do much more to get your garment out there to survive.
AllHipHop.com: What key pieces can we look forward to from your Spring 08 line?
Emmett: Akademiks mens wear: we have a really dark, black group. Thats seamless and innovative, gothic fabrics and will separate how people look at us.
Donwan: Akademiks womens wear has an organic look with a floral concept with beading.
AllHipHop.com: More dresses?
Donwan: Yes dresses, high-waisted pants. A full fledged line that will meet the needs of our consumer.
Emmett: Very sexy, feminine chic for the ladies. Its not like what we did for mens and just sized down for ladies. Its a completely different approach.
See more Akademiks designs at www.akademiks.com