He was selling custom-made clothing to Hip Hop’s finest for thousands of dollars a piece, fashioned from rolls of fake Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Fendi prints out of his Harlem boutique during the 1980s. His name is Dapper Dan and before the likes of Kanye West and Rihanna were doing it, this guy was the first to bring designer fashion into the context of street culture. Dubbed “Hip Hop’s fashion godfather” who “planted the seed for fashion” in the music genre, Dapper Dan’s client list included everyone from Harlem hustlers to the likes of Run DMC, Mike Tyson, Salt and Pepa, LL Cool J and Bobby Brown, who would spend hours at his store on 125th street which stayed open all night and day for 8 years.
“Dap” began selling furs, but was looking for a way to keep his sales strong through summer. Once he recognised there was a serious gap in the market for using designer logos in a way that the high fashion brands were not, he started by buying real designer bags from the stores, cutting them up and trying to work them into his own fashions. Once he understood that wasn’t a viable business model, he started a clandestine DIY operation out of a Harlem apartment, screen-printing designer fabrics from a huge machine using highly toxic chemicals– which was of course, highly illegal.
In 1988, two of Dapper Dan’s clients, boxers Mike Tyson and Mitch Green crossed paths upon entering and leaving the Harlem boutique at 5AM in the morning. The encounter resulted in an almighty scuffle that hit headlines everywhere and landed Dan’s boutique with some unwanted publicity. As a result of the exposure, the brands that had refused to collaborate with Dan on custom designs for his 125th street boutique– Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Fendi– all sued him.
A special creation for Mike Tyson back in 1986.
Salt-N-Pepa album cover in 1988, featuring Dapper Dan creations
While it’s no surprise that the designer brands objected to Dapper Dan’s use of their logos during the uprising of Harlem’s crack era, it’s still worth recognising that what Dapper Dan did was a totally original re-imagination of style. It wasn’t available to them, so they made it their own– not necessarily in an attempt to undermine the brand.
Love it or hate it, it’s well-worth a second look from anybody interested in a crossroads of aesthetics, class and culture.
Above: Olympic gold and silver medalist, Diane Dixon. Below: A pair of Dapper Dan sneakers that recently sold at auction.
Even though Dapper Dan’s fashions took a hiatus from popular style in the 90s, his legacy lives on and some archival pieces have recently been selling for impressive amounts at auctions and novelty sales.
AND THEN, FOUR YEARS AFTER THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED, THIS HAPPENED:
In 2017, under the creative vision of Alessandro Michele, Gucci sent a near-exact replica of a Dapper Dan coat circa 1980s down the runway for their Resort 2017 collection. (Yup, the same guy everybody was suing two decades prior. What do they say again? Something about “good artists copy, great artists steal”?
In the blink of an eye, the Internet was up in arms about Gucci’s use of Dan’s design, with many calling out the dangers of cultural appropriation and the lack of diversity in the fashion industry. With shots fired, Gucci responded in the best way they could, leading to a collaboration with Dan that gave him an exciting new platform.
We visited his new Harlem set-up for ourselves, to see what’s been cooking behind the the appointment-only, velvet curtains of a fresh atelier…
And this was kind of a big moment for us in coming full circle in the timeline of MessyNessyChic content…
Gucci has supplied Dan with endless reams of the most luxurious fabrics on Earth, and worked with him to make a creative space that both pays homage to Dan’s roots, and celebrates his truly remarkable achievements at the intersection of where fashion and culture collide. The Lenox st. brownstone Gucci’s given him is head-to-toe dripping in red velvet, gold, and Italian furnishings, but on almost every table and wall, you’ll also find a token of the people who’ve inspired Dan, from hip hop royalty to a snapshot of a group of local school kids.
“Dan always teaches me to slow down,” says one of the dandy’s right hand men, Robert, who gave us a tour of the space, “I’m like, ‘We’re in New York, we gotta go! We gotta move! That’s never how Dan has been. It’s just not what he’s about.” Robert has worked with Gucci for over a decade, and is also a proud member of Harlem’s black community — so working with Dan, he says, has been an especially rewarding experience.
What Dan is about, he explains, is inviting a client in, and building a one-on-one relationship with them that you can feel in the piece they walk home in — in an era of impersonal and fast fashion, it’s a luxurious way to pump the breaks.
“You know people always said, ‘Oh, this guy he was doing knock-offs. But Dan never saw it that way,” Daniel says, “He was never copying these big designers, he was making things that were completely unique. They were ‘knock-ups’ as he said”. Although it’s unsure how long the Gucci collaboration will last, one of the most exciting aspects of their friendship has been the visibility its created for Dan’s story.
“This man has always been a legend,” Robert Carter explains, “but now I think that it’s gone to this whole other level. He’s a real embodiment of the American Dream — and to see that happening for a black man? That’s powerful”. We couldn’t agree more.