Harlem’s King of Customs: The Life and Legacy of Dapper Dan
Date : May 9, 2020 By
When it comes to Dapper Dan—the Harlem-born former shop owner who dressed the likes of LL Cool J, Mike Tyson, Salt-N-Pepa and many more—there’s a few fundamental problems in the way his legacy is discussed. Though that legacy gets a highlight in the recently opened Museum of Modern Art’s fashion exhibit “Items: Is Fashion Modern?”, generally it’s buttoned neatly under an abbreviated descriptor: king of knock-offs. The problem with that: the creations that Dan turned out of his East 125th street shop for just under a decade in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, were not recreations of anyone else’s ideas.
The reason that Daniel Day, as he was born, is as pervasive in contemporary fashion conversation (and the reason that he got a place in MoMA’s exhibition) is easily boiled down to Gucci knocking him off. As a part of the brand’s cruise 2018 show, they sent a model down the runway wearing a brown and beige leather and fur coat with ballooning sleeves. Social media was quick to point out that it was a replica of a 1989 custom look that Day created for Olympian sprinter Diane Dixon. The only difference: while Day had used Louis Vuitton logoed materials, Gucci opted for their own.
This was a knock-off. As is the current custom, social media was quick to call it out and demand vengeance. Gucci issued a statement citing that it was an “homage,” that creative director Alessandro Michele thought was so obvious that it didn’t need explaining—though the brand regularly cites inspirations in show notes and names collaborators in releases and on social media, none of which was done for Day. And while Day is walking out of the deal with a capsule collaboration, a spot as the face of a Gucci campaign and a new shop (with raw materials directly provided by Gucci) some questioned why Gucci couldn’t knock-off a knock-off. Why, they asked, is Gucci been treated differently than Day. The difference: Day didn’t knock-off anyone. The design in question was entirely his creation, only employing the Vuitton logo as material. In fact, at the time that Day designed the look, the Paris-based luggage company wouldn’t launch apparel for another eight years. Simply sourcing materials from an unconventional place—in the case of Day’s work, repurposing the products and fabrics of traditional luxury houses—doesn’t make him a counterfeiter.
One of seven children, Day didn’t come from a family of means. Growing up, he and his siblings really only got new clothes when his mother, who was a homemaker, hit the lottery. That misfortune and Day’s Harlem surroundings saw him get caught up in “the life” as a teenager. He dropped out of school, broke into clothing and jewelry stores downtown with Pee Wee Kirkland, was affiliated with gangs and got into gambling. It was this latter activity that actually got him named Dapper Dan. Known for his style while playing craps on the block, there was already another, older, Dapper Dan in the neighborhood. When Day began to beat him at the street game, they quickly transferred the name.
Eventually Day went to straighten out his life, going back to get his GED and enrolling in a program sponsored by Columbia University and the Urban League. That program got him his first trip touring Africa and after returning to the states, Day flew himself back to the continent in 1974. It was during this second trip, meeting tailors and getting a few custom suits made, that he decided he wanted to open up a store.
In 1982, Day opened Dapper Dan’s Boutique, his 24/7 fashion emporium from which he influenced generations, beginning primarily with drug dealers and hustlers. What started off as Day flipping clothes that people he knew had boosted, turned into the entrepreneur wanting to get into the fur business. The most pressing problem was that because he was black, few were willing to sell to him. “There were only three black furriers in the United States and I went to visit all three of them,” Day told Dazed in 2014 of his preparations to move into the business. “I went and checked out their business and talked to them, and then I read all I could about the fur business.” With all of his education, Day got into the fur business, buying furs from Andrew Marc and others. But when it was revealed that his prices were lower than another local competitor, Marc said that the only way their relationship could continue was without Andrew Marc label. That incident impressed upon Day the importance of branding that went on to create the legacy he maintains today.
There is a legacy of black people that runs through Day’s story. Though soul food may be looked at as a delicacy by some, its origins were in literal scraps. Black slaves were given only the scraps that were available from the table; the refuse. In an attempt to make due, they took these scraps, reconstituted them into new dishes with seasonings and processes, creating an entirely new cuisine. They turned pig intestines, ox butts and more things that were thought of as waste into chitlins and oxtails, dishes that southern Americans are still raised on today. This is the spirit that Day worked in with Dapper Dan’s.
As brands wouldn’t sell to him, Day decided to create what he wanted. He would go to the Gucci stores and buy all of the garment bags there so he could cut them up to refashion into new garments through the work of his, mostly African, tailors. Many of his production materials were bought on the cheap at auction houses as American manufacturing went offshore and companies wanted to sell their machines. More importantly, he wasn’t copying designs, he was creating things completely anew, reimagining these legacy European brands for a customer they never wanted: black people.
Day wasn’t knocking off designer goods and selling them at cheaper prices. Not only were his designs originals, but the price tags rivaled ones in the boutiques of the brands that he was appropriating logos from. The cheapest custom item from the shop was a $375 velour sweatsuit, but if you had the money to shell out, the hustler would even outfit your ride in logos from MCM or any other brand you chose, silk screen printing their logos on leather himself. He did it for his own Mercedes Benz which featured a Gucci interior and his Jeep which was done with MCM.
Those original designs also centered people of color in aesthetic and physicality. Day’s first big customers were drug dealers and street hustlers. When the local dealers in Harlem came and got outfitted at the shop, they took polaroids which made their way around the country, bringing in orders from everywhere. Athletes followed them, including visits from the NBA’s Walter Berry and Mark Jackson as well as the boxing titan Mike Tyson. Dapper Dan’s most notable fans came from the music industry, with everyone from Salt-N-Pepa and Bobby Brown to KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane and Eric B & Rakim getting custom orders. As such, the designs had to have a type of peculiarity.
Dressing drug dealers, there’s a certain flair, an overt sign of money that Dan’s looks took on. While at the time the custom was to line coats with fur, Dan went further. “That was, like, a white-boy thing, that fur inside,” he told The New Yorker in 2013. “I started putting it outside—inside and outside, so you could reverse it.” It too was the reason for the logomania that inflected Dan’s pieces. This was a sign of prestige that was mixed with enough brashness to catch the eyes of anyone who was looking. But it was also the fit of the pieces.
Day’s designs were typically baggier than the silhouette that was in style when he started and his pieces were built for bigger bodies—this sometimes pulled double duty as he lined certain garments with Kevlar. Customers like Mike Tyson appreciated the sizing because they themselves were too big to fit in the snug looks of the downtown stores. Dan was making things for them.
Dapper Dan’s legacy of course lives on. The logomania of the ‘90s can be traced back to him. After the European houses put him out of business in 1992, led by current Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor pursuing him on behalf of Fendi, the industry adopted his techniques and approaches splashing logos on everything. His baggy, “hood glamorous” aesthetic caught on for a generation of black owned brands like Sean John, FUBU and more. And even conceptually, he inspired David LaChapelle when the creative shot Lil Kim for the cover of Interview Magazine.
In “U Don’t Know” from Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, the artist raps, “Wear a G on my chest, I don’t need Dapper Dan, This ain’t a sewn outfit, holmes, holmes is about it.” And it’s true, much of Jigga’s rise came after Day had closed the doors of his boutique. By the time that album was released in 2001, the high fashion industry had some idea that black entertainers provided a unique opportunity—although arguably, this revelation came because of Day. The line was both an acknowledgement of a now-ended era that has its vestiges still present today. But with the re-opening of the Dapper Dan boutique a full 25 years after its closure, maybe the time where he (and fashion as a whole) needs Dapper Dan is right around the corner.”