From Harlem to Global Mogul: The Creative Impact of Dapper Dan

by Sophia Harberd

Fashion plays a central part within Black culture and identity. The clothes, outfits, and accessories that we wear tell stories about our heritages and histories, as well as the traditions and skills that are passed down within material construction creative processes. Many items of clothing or accessories have become indicative of a shared cultural experience with a long history behind them. Within these long histories, it is important to look to the Black designers and artistic pioneers who shaped the global fashion history, in order to understand the industry as we know it today. One such pioneer is Daniel Day, now known as Dapper Dan.

Daniel Day was born in 1974, in Harlem. He is a self-taught tailor with a unique style who made a name for himself through the legendary Harlem couturier he opened in 1982, “Dapper Dan’s Boutique”. His life opened to the backdrop of the Great Migration as his parents arrived in New York during a time when millions of African-Americans were fleeing from the South. Growing up very poor with a Garveyite mother, Dapper Dan experienced and heard many stories of the Pan-African movement, as well as the difficulties his parents and their families faced from being Black in America. His paternal grandfather had been born into enslavement and later freed, and his father, who worked three jobs to make ends meet, had come to Harlem alone at the age of 12 – just 35 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

With a strong determination to improve his situation, Dapper Dan’s teenage hustles moved from shoe-shining to betting games, where he used his book smarts to earn thousands of dollars a day, even outperforming his mentor, the original Dapper Dan who passed the name to him.  By his early 20’s, however, Dapper Dan had been arrested for dealing drugs and used prison as an opportunity to get clean. While incarcerated, he began to write essays on Pan-Africanism, and upon his release, he took a tour of  Africa as part of an educational programme sponsored by Columbia University and the civil rights organisation the National Urban League. Becoming aware of unique takes on western fashion during his time in Africa, Dapper Dan used this as inspiration in his “Africanisation” of high-end European fashion houses. In his words, “I had been to Africa and knew that I could make the same things that [luxury fashion houses] rejected me for – and to make it better.”

Dapper Dan struggled to source textiles or buy goods from designer stores due to his location and race, and for a while had to sell stolen designer goods from the boot of his car. Dapper Dan’s experiences growing up and working on his business led him to develop a consciousness about “the trials and tribulations associated with being Black”. As such, his custom pieces focused on reworked logo prints from designer fashion houses that had overlooked Black clientele. He understood what wearing a designer logo meant to his customers and how it made them feel.

Working on “bootlegged” fabrics he designed himself, Dapper Dan’s screen-printed monograms of Fendi, Louis Vuitton, MCM, and Gucci made him a pioneer in luxury streetwear that became the symbol of the styles and fashion of early 90s rap culture. He quickly gained a strong client base of hip-hop rap stars, athletes, and those who liked to play the books. Notable examples include retired Olympic runner, Diane Dixon, hip-hop rap trio, Salt-n-Pepa, and heavyweight boxing legend, Mike Tyson. Dapper Dan also went on to invent a new process for screen printing onto leather that would later be used for luxury automobile interiors.

Gucci’s theft of a Dapper Dan original, the custom coat for Diane Dixon

While the illegal use of logos in his designs did lead to counterfeiting raids that ultimately closed his first store, a cultural appropriation scandal led Gucci to finance the restarting of his business following backlash and boycotts of the brand. Having sent a near-exact replica of Dapper Dan’s custom made 1989 coat for Diane Dixon down the runway for their resort 2017 collection, claiming a “homage” to Dapper Dan’s original, Gucci was forced to take accountability and resolve this error. Dapper Dan is also present on the company’s diversity council where he has been of significant importance in highlighting and promoting the importance of diversity in fashion, such as holding Gucci accountable for outrage during the recall of their blackface resembling “balaclava jumper” in 2019.

Today, Dapper Dan’s work is frequently seen donned by celebrities at red carpet events as well as within music videos. For example, Dapper Dan had his own table at the 2019 Met Gala, and in 2021 has worked on collaborations with brands such as Barbie, as well as styled several artists, such as Saweetie in her “Best Friend” music video. From the first true luxury brand out of Harlem to having a global impact on fashion as we know it – the influence of Dapper Dan’s work has left its print on the global fashion scene.

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