Dapper Dan Is Black Fashion's Greatest Treasure

Dapper Dan: Black Fashion's Greatest Treasure

Written by Danielle Prescod

Photos by Derrel R. Todd

Published March 6th

Dapper Dan is a living legend. The Harlem-born, self-proclaimed “hustler” should not need an introduction, but for the fashion illiterate (and those too lazy for Google), I will make a brief one.

In the '80s, Dapper Dan (born Daniel Day) ruled the world of hip-hop

from his kingdom in Harlem, famously outfitting everyone from Mike Tyson to LL Cool J in his unique brand of “ghetto couture,” which, to anyone born after this time, will just look like fashion. He is a self-taught relentless creative who would fabricate luxury items from the likes of French and Italian design houses by way of 5th Avenue. “Knock ups,” he calls them. He filled a void in the market for a community that was not being served properly. “There is no difference from what I've done, what hip-hop has done, what jazz has done, what rock-n-roll has done, what R&B has done. It’s our response to being infused in another culture and having our culture taken away from us. We're constantly building, and the building blocks that we use have to come from whatever materials that's in our culture already.” An undoubtedly noble pursuit, but in terms of the law, Dan’s so-called "building blocks" presented a problem for the historic designers. Think: the fashion version of the Napster scandal. When the powers that be got a whiff of what was going on uptown, they brought the full force of their legal team on Dan’s store and effectively shuttered it, forcing him “underground” for the better part of the last two decades.

To have your people stand up and say, ‘Hold up!’ People you didn't even know was there. To have that voice, that collective voice, that’s the height of everything right there.

When Alessandro Michele took over the reins at Gucci in January of 2015, he gave a fresh perspective to the brand, heavily emphasizing athletic wear, casual wear and exactly the kind of clothing that Dan was making in the '80s. In 2016, the internet erupted with fury after a jacket that Dan had made for track star Diane Dixon using the classic Louis Vuitton monogram was repurposed with the Gucci logo by Michele for the runway. Cries of cultural appropriation and stealing from Black culture surged through Twitter. I’m sitting on a velvet couch at his new-ish store when Dan tells me about the significance of this particular incident. "The juicy part is Black Twitter,” he says with a smile. “To have your people stand up and say, ‘Hold up!’ People you didn't even know was there. To have that voice, that collective voice, that’s the height of everything, right there.”

Dan was relatively silent on the matter in the moment, but as it turns out, he was in on it the whole time. “Even bigger than that was the ability to reach people and for people to find out who did what, who started what, and that was the blessing, the coat that Diane Dixon wore that Gucci used to pay homage to me, and I'm thankful to Alessandro Michele and Marco Bizzari for having the vision and foresight to see what this could be.”

That’s not all. Last year, Gucci became the first luxury brand to open a location in Harlem, and it is managed fully by Dan and his team. The atelier is four blocks away from where Dan calls home, and in it he sees appointment-only private clients and Gucci’s top customers. That’s right, you can’t just walk in. Today, he’s receiving the crew from BET in preparation for his first full collection for Gucci launching globally. Until now, Dan has been making custom clothing in the atelier, and his collection for Gucci has had exclusive availability at the Wooster Street Gucci store, in SoHo, where a line is usually queued up down the block waiting for the doors to open. Starting this week, the 90-piece collection will now be accessible in several stores across the United States as well as on Gucci.com.

This major milestone is not lost on Dan, he is exceptionally humble despite a career of astounding accomplishments. Most recently, he’s name-checked in a song on Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s joint album, Everything Is Love, and Jay donned a Dapper Dan jacket on stage in New Jersey for their two-night On The Run II engagement. But then again, he’s been name-checked on many songs. He’s been doing this for a long time. He says, “My business was made for the infamous and it transformed into the famous. My platform was gangstas. Middle class Blacks wouldn't shop with me. They would be like, ‘That ain't real.’”

Now pastiche and the current climate of our times have challenged the notion of “real.” Gucci purposely sells merchandise that looks counterfeit as a tongue-in-cheek way to tease consumers. “What makes anything real? People giving that definition. So when they said it wasn't real, it wasn't real. When [my designs] went to Europe and they acknowledged it, it became real. And then when they copied it, it became even realer. It became real when it became acknowledged by those whom people aspired to be like. They had access to the same thing, originally. Pieces today that will go into a museum, they could've had that.”

I’m sure there are some people kicking themselves now for being so dumb. Dan isn’t the type to say, "I told you so." He shrugs it off. Though fashion is what made him his name, it was never the end game. He is multi-talented, and he knows it. He’s a Leo, and it’s impossible to not feel that sun energy radiating off him like a beach bonfire. “Fashion is the last vehicle I use to reach other people. It's always been this mentoring thing. I'm a product of it, and I've always done it. Now I'm doing it, fashion, but I've always did it in the street life.”

The concept of “street life” has morphed since the Harlem that Dan is referencing.

He has a lot to say on the differences of now and then, but one pertinent difference is that he has been part of Harlem opening up. While regular people can’t wander into his atelier, they can and they do shop at the Wooster Street Gucci store. They buy his clothing and wear it in Chelsea, in Paris, in Tokyo. He’s global now. “I've seen several people, and they have not been celebrities. They've been people who have maybe journeyed here just for the purpose of buying. I feel appreciative. People came from Japan, people purposely flew here just to buy.” With his resurgence, and the relaunch of the Gucci brand entirely, a whole new generation of people has discovered his influence.

For my entire career in fashion, Dan’s been “underground,” and it is only because of this synergy with Gucci that I even have the opportunity to know about his talent. I would have never been able to own a Dapper Dan piece, but now, thousands will have that chance. Dan himself is, well, dapper. He is the kind of cool that needs no additional reinforcement. He simply just is. His style is one that is extremely tailored to an individual and becomes part and parcel of his personality. In other words, recreating this magic in just anyone would not be easy. In fact, the results might be tragic, reeking of desperation. Just like Fenty Beauty won’t make you any more like Rihanna, you still might get just the littlest piece of her. The same goes for owning a piece of Dapper Dan.

I ask him if he is afraid of the collection becoming watered down in the mainstream consciousness by people who are considerably less cool than he and his typical clients are. “To say something is corny is a suggestion that there is such a thing as ugly. Right? Because corny is a word leading to ugly or undesirable. My philosophy about fashion is: there is no such thing as ugly or undesirable. So I don't even consider that. I don't even think that.”

 

What I'm saying is: I created my own distinction that would allow me not to be looked at like I was a nobody, so that's what led up to all of this. The creative force behind what I'm doing has everything to do with my effort not to accept what society is forcing me to look like. So my suggestion to them, and the answer to your question, is, if you can't afford what I'm doing, go create.

So while Dan is not worried about his brand being affected, I am curious, in particular, about how he views clothes, because he has made such a point of crafting his personal style. “Clothes have multiple purposes. To give you an example, growing up, I understood the transformative value of dressing and the effect it had on what you might want to get done. When I was a professional gambler, I made sure I had a Mercedes and dressed every day. Any garment that you wear should have an objective, and they all do. There are people who are conscious of it or not conscious of it, but the objective is always there.” Dapper Dan has had many lives, many different careers, and I suspect it is because he is a genius. His attitude is humble, though.

 

Dapper Dan (Photo: Derrel Todd/BET)

I love the idea that someone still looks at clothing as having a purpose.

So much of how we dress is dictated by price point. There will be many people that cannot afford this Gucci collection. A very ugly aspect of the fashion industry is how it exposes the chasm between the haves and have nots. It will cause pain for some people to see others in things they might never be able to get. Dan, who emphasizes what a large factor poverty played in his life, relates. “When I was growing up, button down shirts in colors where very popular, and I couldn't afford one. I could afford a shirt from the thrift shop, so I went to the thrift shop, I bought a white shirt. I took it home ... and, when my mother was asleep, I boiled a pot, dropped the shirt in there, dried it out — it was white, I turned it into red — took a razor, cut little button holes in the collar and sewed buttons on. What I'm saying is: I created my own distinction that would allow me not to be looked at like I was a nobody, so that's what led up to all of this. The creative force behind what I'm doing has everything to do with my effort not to accept what society is forcing me to look like. So my suggestion to them, and the answer to your question, is, if you can't afford what I'm doing, go create.”

And create he did. From the time he was nine years old, Dan has been finding a way to make it. It is how he defines the word "hustler." He corrects me when he thinks that I’ve misinterpreted the term. I have. I’ve only ever heard it in rap lyrics or colloquially as a negative, depending on who you’re talking to. He says, “A hustler is a guy who goes out in the morning completely broke and comes home with money. He goes out and he says, ‘What can I do today?" The fruit stand and the vegetable stand, and we use to have newsstands, those were the hustlers. But now you see all the fruit stands are occupied by Indians. All of the fruit stands are being used by Arabs. Those are hustlers. When I was growing up, those always used to be Blacks, but we've lost that. I came up unfortunate. I’m the first generation of the great migration that came out the South, so I see them do that. I saw the work ethic involved in that. These guys now, they want to come out the door looking pretty. But me and my friends, we grew up poor, so I can process progressing independently on our own was no problem.”

Like a cat, Dan has had many lives. He kicked a drug habit. He had a lucrative gambling career. He was a designer, an interloper. He was buried and then resurrected by the same structures that cut him off at the knees. His life story is one of the most remarkable reinventions. He will never be down and out. His humility about it all is probably what propels the machine. He has a backup plan. “I said if I ever get bored and I had no money, the first place you'll see me is standing on the corner with some African that just got here. Because if they can come here from another country, and can't speak the language, and get money and send money back to their home.... I'm going to be around people who have an immigrant mentality at all times."

I’m curious about this “immigrant mentality.” His work ethic seems so unique that I wonder if it can ever be reproduced. Just like his style, it might only work for him. When he was selling his clothing designs out of his car and, later, when his first store was opened on 125th street, it was inconceivably opened for 24 hours a day. “My store was open because my father worked in the city for 15 years, and in 15 years he never missed a day’s work and was late only once, and that was the great snow storm of '57. So that's the kind of work ethic I'm from. It took a while for it to kick in, but I saw the results. When I look back, my father only went to the third grade. My daughter is a principal of an academy. My niece is a pediatrician. My other niece is an actor and a playwright. That's just one generation removed, but that just shows you what could happen.”

What is most impressive about Dan and his legacy is that he takes his position in the community extremely seriously. He did not move downtown, he moved Gucci uptown. He grills every single one of us on set about how much time we spend in Harlem. He’s disappointed when it’s not a lot. He understands his position is one of great importance. “One of the great things about being Black is that you can take pain, you can take suffer. A lot of people who were born more affluent, they can't take it. They jump out the window. So when you grow up broke, with holes in your shoes... then you take pain easy, and you look at other people's pain and say, ‘Damn, I wish that's all I had to worry about.’"

He doesn’t exonerate himself, however, from worrying about the pain of others. He marvels at the fact that, on this day, shooting with BET was the first time in his life that he had a shoot where the staff on set was completely Black. There is a level of comfort and commiseration that comes along with zero white interference. As incredible as it is, it is a moment that almost never was. Reflectively, I consider that, to this day, Black media is shut out just like Dan was shut out of the industry all those years ago. The opportunities we miss are glaringly visible. That Vogue, GQ, the New York Times and several European publications were granted access to Dan’s atelier a full year before BET is not lost on me. Still, Blacks have to wait to be allowed to enter a sacred space where others are so readily invited in. But as we wrap up the shoot and the interview, his gratitude and candor make the whole struggle worth it. He had to wait his whole life to be invited to sit at the table, what’s a few months for me? I guess we're built to endure, after all, because endure we must. Both small and big injustices every single day. In spite of everything, Dan’s world view is still overwhelmingly optimistic.

“I believe that every change is possible for everyone. In metaphysics it says, 'if you can change just one portion of a structure, the whole structure will eventually change.' So if you just change one thought, your whole mindset while change.” And if you think about it, that’s exactly what he’s done. Thanks to Dapper Dan, fashion is forever changed.

Dapper Dan (Photo: Derrel Todd/BET)

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