Dapper Dan: Luxury’s Favorite Robin Hood

By Tribute Collective on

Back in the early 80s streetwear made a mark in pop culture through the impact of Hip Hop. Dapper Dan is the designer behind some of the most iconic outfits of the period,  working with artists like RUN DMC, LL Cool J, and Salt N Peppa, he is recognized as a pioneer in hip-hop culture, but his clothes represent a greater impact in the fashion industry overall.

Daniel "Dapper Dan " Day is an African American fashion designer born and raised in  Harlem, New York.  Although his style and presence gave him his current moniker  “Dapper Dan”,  his life trajectory was not pointing to a future as a couturier in Harlem. In fact, Dapper Dan’s life was unpredictable and his introduction to fashion was unconventional.

At the age of 13, he was a skilled gambler earning thousands of dollars a day, and in his early 20s, he got involved with drugs and served a month in prison for dealing drugs. After serving time in prison, he started writing essays on Pan-Africanism for the Harlem publication Forty Acres and a Mule. In 1968, his writing led him to cross the Atlantic and tour Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Tanzania. In 1974,  six years after his first trip, Dan flew to Zaire  (Present-day  Democratic Republic of Congo) for the Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman  “Rumble in the Jungle”. The fight ended up being postponed so Dan made new plans and stopped in Lagos, Nigeria, and Monrovia, Liberia, where he was gifted the best souvenir, a custom suit made by a local tailor whom he had befriended. The suit was made with vivid local fabrics, but the Harlem native added his own twist, this aesthetic became the inspiration for the transformations Dan made to European luxury brand designs. Dan purchased more custom suits before heading back to New York to pursue his new calling as a clothier. 

Dapper Dan opened his first brick-and-mortar boutique on 125th street in Harlem in 1982. The shop was open 24 hours to cater to the schedules of his clientele. The boutique originally sold furs but one day the girlfriend of a drug dealer came in with a  Louis Vuitton purse that caught everyone’s eye. From that experience, Dapper Dan learned that the power of fashion went beyond aesthetics.  After that encounter, Dapper Dan studied the old European fashion houses and their logos. He learned about the power of logos on individuals and how it made them feel. In the beginning, he bought real designer bags from the stores, cut them and outfitted them back together to. create custom streetwear with the hight-end logos. And, without access to fabric, he started a little secret operation screen printing designer logos to his designs.

The first piece he made was a jacket trimmed with logo-printed canvas bags from Gucci, the jacket was a hit. Dapper Dan’s designs were bold and braggadocious much like his customers, and the sound of the time. His clothes fused some classical style with something more contemporary, daring, much like the sampled sounds of hip-hop.

Dapper Dan had to close down his shop in 1992, after a series of raids and a trademark infringement case from Fendi. He continued to work out of his home, dressing celeb clients with a growing legacy as hip-hop continued to grow. Dapper Dan’s relationship with the fashion industry was not a walk in the park. In fact, some have described him as the industry pariah. Much like his customers, he too experienced discrimination shopping on Fifth Avenue, he even had to deal with classicism from middle-class black Americans. Even though his clothes were worn by famous people, mainstream media did not acknowledge him until 2017.  His hustle in the fashion industry addressed the disadvantages black consumers and designers faced in the luxury fashion space.  

While some may argue that Dapper Dan’s brand was infringing on Fashion Houses, we would like to offer a different perspective. What he saw in designer logos were opportunity and self-expression. To Dapper Dan, the Double G logo of Gucci, the LV of Louis Vuitton, or the F of Fendi wasn't just iconic fashion logos, they were symbols of success and value. During Dapper Dan’s time, Black Americans were not included in the luxury fashion target scene, their presence was not welcomed in the boutiques, and overall engagement was limited.  Black elites like Eunice Walker Johnson organized traveling couture shows around America to showcase European luxury designs in black neighborhoods, although successful the black consumers still faced barriers.

Dapper Dan’s approach to the business made luxury relative to his community, like Robin Hood. While the logos of brands like Fendi, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton were printed on the clothes, he reinterpreted them and created completely original designs that were inspired by the clients themselves with the tailored quality and ingenuity from Nigeria and Liberia. He incorporated a familiar logo that would be eye-catching to onlookers as a way to elevate contemporary designs that came from his own creative abilities. His designs were innovative and audacious, with exaggerated shapes and repurposed fabrics. Day’s creations gave a sense of individuality to a marginalized community while challenging stereotypes of who is worthy of wearing luxury. In 2017, after decades of Day’s business being shut down due to claims of copyright infringement by European Fashion Houses, the trajectory of Day’s career changed. Gucci introduced a jacket that resembled a mink coat with puffed sleeves made using Louis Vuitton fabric he made for Olympic track star Diane Dixon in 1989. To see Gucci construct a design so similar to Day’s was seen as hypocritical, especially after the hardships he took on as a result of his business being shut down. Supporters of Day’s brand called out Gucci for stealing his design, Diane Dixon being one of those supporters. And then unexpectedly, in 2018, the Italian luxury House reached out to Dan to offer him a long term official collaboration. Since then his work has been given the recognition it deserves.   Examples of his success include his work featured in the MoMA and the Gucci x Dapper Dan collaboration worn by Ashley Graham and Karlie Kloss at the MET Gala.

                                   

This moment was a turning point. It restored the movement started by Dan in the 80s elevating the conversation on social equity to a higher standard. No longer was it only about recognizing the black consumer at the table of luxury, it was about giving black culture the right to its own space in luxury.  A space often abused and overlooked, (but that's a conversation for a different day).                                           

Dapper Dan left a sustainable impact on the fashion industry. He carved a new path for high-end fashion by combining a symbol of wealth with a style inspired by Harlem streetwear. He elevated the voice of hip-hop culture by breaking barriers through fashion. Dapper Dan’s influence over contemporary high-end fashion will be a long-lived legacy. His work is a prime example of social equity, he by any means necessary forced space for black consumers and designers in luxury fashion with his designs being used in music videos and media portrayals of black celebrities, he forged the beginning of a new era in luxury.

More about Dapper Dan and his journey can be found in his memoir Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem: A Memoir and his biopic which is still in the works.   
Words by Allyna Wilson and Gabrielle Clary 

Photo Credits:
Photo 1: Jelani Day/Dapper Dan Of Harlem for Wall Street Journal Magazine.
Photo 2: Dan Dapper first boutique in Harlem on 125th Street, in 1982.
Photo 3: Mr. Day in his shop. He is wearing his own custom clothing.
 Photo 4: Dan Dapper with LL Cool J in his first custom "Gucci" Jacket.
Photo 5: Credit: Drew Carolan.
Photo 6: A screenshot of Diane Dixon's Instagram post on May 30, 2017. On the right: Diane is wearing a custom made piece by Dan Dapper (circa 1989), on the left, a model is walking down the Gucci runway wearing a puffy sleeved logo jacket from its Cruise 2018 collection.
Photo 7: Billboard sign of the Dan Dapper x Gucci store in Harlem. Courtesy of Dan Dapper.
Credit: Vincent Tullo.
Photo 9: Ashley Graham wearing Gucci x Dapper Dan at the 2019 Met Gala.