Akademiks’ Emmett Harrell: Family Business

2009 marked the 10th anniversary of Akademiks, the clothing empire started by longtime designer Emmett Harrell and his brother Donwan. In celebration of this milestone, the line introduced exclusive collaborations with various technology and footwear brands throughout the milestone year. The company and its founders have definitely come a long way from their humble beginnings.

A native of Virginia Beach, Virginia, Emmett learned how to piece garments together from his mother, a seamstress who sold clothing out of the trunk of her car. Although he took college-level art classes since the sixth grade, the fashion-forward youth bypassed college and moved to New York in 1990 and began freelancing. Four years later, Emmett landed a gig at Mecca USA and began trailblazing the urban-fashion world. After serving as the popular line’s head designer and creative director, he and his brother decided it was time to break out on their own. “It was really time for us to start our own line,” says Emmett. “We had made tons of millions for other people—it was time for us to do it ourselves.”

Based on their belief that education is important, the Harrell brothers chose Akademiks as their brand’s name and launched in 1999 with help from Elliott Betesh, a co-founder of Dr. Jay’s clothing stores. Starting with logo T-shirts and oversized jeans with a unique military edge, the line has evolved over the past decade into a full collection of urban contemporary streetwear. “We took [inspiration] from all of our travels, meeting different people, market research, studying who’s the audience to go after,” says Emmett. “It was more of a utilitarian, denim-based global brand, and it worked.”

That’s an understatement. Despite the current recession and having a young consumer base, Akademiks has still managed to generate “big money, tons of millions,” as Emmett boasts. Akademiks has been so successful, in fact, that it has sprouted offshoot lines. The first was PRPS, a high-end denim line that premiered in 2004. Selling for as much as $500 a pair, the jeans have been worn by the likes of Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and David Beckham. In 2006, Akademiks introduced Stash House, a line inspired by Japanese streetwear culture, which features more luxurious fabrics and intricate design applications that can range in price from $100 to $150.

Despite branching off into other lanes, the Harrell brothers haven’t lost track of their original labor of love. According to Emmett, loyal Akademiks consumers can look forward to simpler styles, slimmer fits and the introduction of new pieces, like vests and cardigans in black and white, inspired by mod fashion. There will also be standard denims ($63–$100) and T-shirts ($24–$75), available at most major department stores.

“Within Akademiks, we’re changing the look and the concept. We have a solid concept, a solid direction that is more mature, nondescript, and it’s going to be an impact,” says Emmett. “Sometimes I sit back and smile. I feel good when my daughter or my nephews go on the computer and Google myself or my brother and see our history and what we’ve done.” —Michelle Ten