Tribute to Dapper Dan
It is rare in the fashion world for a knockoff brand to become more coveted than the looks it is copping—for the dupe’s level of luxury to be on par with its prototype. But from 1982 to 1992 in an unassuming shop dubbed Dapper Dan’s Boutique on 125th Street in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood proved that true innovation based in imitation has the potential to fuel a movement.
Daniel Day, now better known as Dapper Dan, was born in Harlem in 1944 and grew up watching the city transform from post-war horse and buggies through the rise of hip-hop culture in the ’80s. Early on, he learned how clothing reflected social standing when, in the third grade, he picked out a pair of shoes at a nearby Goodwill to replace the ones he’d been wearing to the point that the soles had worn away. His mom later upgraded those to a nice pair of tasseled loafers, and eventually he began helping himself (so to speak) to items from downtown haberdasheries. As a teenager, he became an expert gambler, running craps games on the street in his neighborhood. It’s here he’d earn his moniker Dapper Dan for being well dressed and well skilled.
Day turned his sights toward education after being inspired by speeches by Malcom X to examine the origins of issues he was seeing around him. He wrote for a neighborhood newspaper called Forty Acres and a Mule in the early ’60s, during which time he tapped into the revolutionist sentiments sweeping America. In 1968, on a program sponsored by the Urban League and Columbia University, he traveled to Africa, touring Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Egypt and Tanzania to learn about the evolution of civilization and human origins. He returned in 1974 to see George Foreman spar against Muhammad Ali in an infamous match dubbed the “Rumble in the Jungle.” The fight was postponed by a month, giving Day time to explore and befriend a tailor who made him several custom suits in a westernized cut but with the vibrant textiles of the area. By the time he returned home, he knew he wanted to be a clothier.
To finance his venture, Day saved up his gambling money and, ever the hustler, began to offload “boosted” garments out of the trunk of his car for a profit. When he opened Dapper Dan’s Boutique in 1982, he first began by selling furs and leather goods. As his business grew, he brought on a team of African tailors to begin sewing the custom pieces he dreamed up but couldn’t technically execute himself, looks that would suit the flashy tastes of his main clientele: street hustlers, gangsters, rappers, and professional boxers. It was a time when the crack epidemic was tearing through the neighborhood and, despite being sober, Dapper Dan understood how the curse of the drug crisis around him also opened up an opportunity for himself.
Looking around, Day saw how designer labels with all-over logos (handbags covered with LV and leather goods with interlocking Gs) conveyed status and class. So, he decided to “borrow” from the big fashion houses a bit, teaching himself textile printing techniques that reproduced icons from brands like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and MCM. He used the knockoff materials to create over-the-top ensembles and accessories which he would photograph and send out to show prospective shoppers. Soon, the shop operated 24-hours a day to cater to his type of clients’ unusual hours. Day’s designs didn’t aim to emulate those of the designers whose logos he used, rather he took the luxury status of the brands and amped them up in what he referred to as a “knock up” rather than a knock off. And they weren’t cheap. His clients included boxer Mike Tyson, drug kingpin Alpo Martinez, Bobby Brown, Salt-N-Pepa, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, and Run DMC. Dapper Dan pieces conveyed a status and a mood entirely independent of the fashion houses.
Such showmanship, however, eventually led to trouble. The use of copyrighted logos in custom designs is counterfeiting, and therefore illegal. The Dapper Dan Boutique was often subject to police raids. In one late-’80s bust, authorities seized not only equipment from the shop, but also materials and photos, which were the only records of the pieces he made. In 1992, after a successful lawsuit by Fendi, Dapper Dan's was shut down for good.
In the subsequent decades, Day was shunned by the mainstream fashion world and forced underground for a time. But in 2017, something unexpected happened to pull Dapper Dan back into the spotlight. That year, Gucci sent a puff-sleeved jacket down the runway that looked very much like a Dapper Dan design first made for Olympic sprinter Diane Dixon in 1989. The original piece used a Louis Vuitton logo rather than a Gucci one, but the balloon sleeves and fur lining was a close replica. Had the tables turned? Was a major fashion brand now counterfeiting the counterfeiter? Social media certainly thought so and people all over the world began to call out Gucci and its creative director Alessandro Michele for the likeness. Surprisingly, they listened and posted on Instagram, referring to the jacket as an “homage” to Dapper Dan. After the debacle, Michele contacted the Harlem legend to propose a collaboration. Gucci hired Day to design a capsule collection, and in 2018 the two launched an appointment-only atelier in Harlem where Dapper Dan could take on a select few VIP clients and craft looks using raw materials supplied by Gucci.
Dapper Dan’s avant-garde rise to fame calls into question what fashion—in particular labels—really represent as well as who they represent. In an upper class world from which Day and his clientele were often excluded, he created a luxury label that was subversive, cheeky, and (despite using others’ iconography) entirely his own.