Here’s something you need to understand about Dapper Dan: he gets stopped by fans everywhere he goes. He is an icon, a legend in the Harlem community, and he seemingly knows just about everyone there is to know around the block.
On a sweltering Friday in July, on the walk from Dapper Dan’s original boutique location at 35 E. 125th Street in Harlem to his new atelier on 122nd and Lenox, Daniel Day (otherwise known as Dapper Dan) gives a guided tour of the blocks that made him. While we walk, he tells tales of his upbringing, some of which are outlined in his memoir, Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem. Day has been writing since he was a child, first poetry and then journalistic articles in 40 Acres and a Mule, a newspaper which can be accessed today via microfilm at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He shares all the ways the neighborhood had changed over the decades, the development of his clientele, stopping only to get a vanilla milkshake at Shake Shack.
“I saw the jazz age, the Afro-Latino age, the Calypso age, the musical genres that kept developing. I’m walking through it and living it and not realizing it,” Day says. “The building I was in originally was owned by Babatunde Olatunji, a black African drummer. He sold it to the guy that I rented from. And beneath that was the famous club, The Celebrity Club In Harlem,” he reveals. “Did you know that Madonna performed there when she started out? And Bobby Brown and New Edition when they started out? And that Dapper Dan performed there when he started out?” He laughs.
As we pass the original Dapper Dan boutique that opened in 1982, we stop at a totally nondescript door on 125th. “This was the crack home. I used to sit out in front of my store and watch some of the most beautiful people you could imagine going up into here, the crack spot, before they would go to work,” Day says. “I hated that. You have no idea. People you would never imagine, I could have got this building for $65,000 but the crack dealers who owned it wouldn’t move out.”
We keep it moving, and immediately, at least three separate times, we are stopped by fans. He embraces the attention, and his dedication to the community does not go unnoticed. A simple trip to Sylvia’s, an iconic restaurant located around the corner from the Dapper Dan of Harlem boutique, could take an hour to get to because of all of the hands to shake and hugs to give along the way. At the suggestion of ducking into Shake Shack for a refreshment, Day becomes excited. Inside, he leans over a table to keep talking, while a handful of people can be overheard whispering to each other about the legend in their presence. “That’s Dapper Dan! The guy with all of the Gucci stuff!”
“Want me to tell you something I never told nobody?” Day asks. “I never thought I’d be accepted. I’m a straight, black guy from the sidewalk. I never thought of going into fashion. The biggest thing that I’ve done so far is to revolutionize the concept of what a person in fashion should look like.”
There are many reasons to call Day a legend, but perhaps the first would be for kickstarting the logomania trend that has since been revived on the runway and on the street. When he opened his storefront in the early 1980s, he began selling furs and leather, often to clients whose pockets were filled with money from the crack epidemic. It was a moral dilemma for Day. “I know that I had to have a high sense of spirituality to be all I needed to be, you know?”
Before he got into the fashion game, he was a gambler and a hustler, but he has always evolved. “I never go back to an old hustle,” he says. “I’m not a guy who figured out how to do things outside of the box. I’m a guy who took advantage of being born outside of the box.”
He started with a leather Gucci garment bag, taking the double G pattern and turning those garment bags into wearable goods, like custom jackets for his clients. “I knew how the black body should look. I’d been carrying one for years.” He sold to drug dealers, and later to rappers. Day’s rise to prominence goes hand in hand with the rise of hip hop culture. It is impossible to separate the two. “I did to fashion what hip hop did to music. What jazz did to music. What we’ve always done to music,” he says. “I just did it to fashion. It wasn’t there, so I did it, and took it to a higher level.”
Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Fendi, MCM—Day took the logos of these European luxury labels and screen printed them onto ensembles worn by rappers like LL Cool J and boxers like Mike Tyson. As rap evolved to become more braggadocious, some of Day’s designs became flashier, too. When writing his memoir, he introduces a handful of celebrities who became instrumental to his success, and some who were just around but didn’t really do much to help. Still, Day maintains that he never felt anxious about name-dropping anyone unfavorably in the book. “Some needed it, and some don’t,” he admits, matter-of-fact. “Those who purposefully lied to deceive us and to block our vertical growth need to be called out. When I know that they intentionally did that, then I will say something, or when the information is so important that you can’t just not say it.”
During the height of his success in the ‘80s, Day felt blacklisted by mainstream media outlets like Jet or Ebony magazine, and being ignored by middle class black clients. “It broke my heart,” he says. “I got to stub my nose at them,” he goes on. “My whole life was about bucking the system. You ain’t gonna let me in? Bam! Here I come.”
Day’s boutique was shut down in 1992 after being raided for trademark infringement, but the designer just went underground. He traveled to the other major black American cities up and down the east coast, selling goods from his car. “When I first got to D.C. the first thing I said was, ‘Damn, where the boricuas at?’ I’m used to all of us in the pot. We had gumbo culture here,” he says. He was used to the diverse melting pot of Harlem, and every other city was different. He even began designing for boxer Floyd Mayweather in 1999, years after his shop closed.
Yo! MTV Raps was an integral piece of Dapper Dan’s success in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The show featured interviews with Dapper Dan and his celebrity clients at the time. “Yo! MTV Raps back then was the equivalent of social media now.” But after his shop shut down, the network blurred out his designs whenever they played old clips that featured his work. “That’s the ‘crush Dapper Dan’ move,” he says. But Day didn’t feel betrayed. “It’s business. And Ted Demme had died. He told me, Dap, whenever you call us I’ll bring the team up to film. But then he died and the power stepped in.”
In 2017 Day made his official comeback as Dapper Dan. When Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele brought a controversial look to the runway, people accused the luxury brand of ripping off Dapper Dan. The look referenced a 1989 outfit designed by Dapper Dan for Olympic runner Diane Dixon, which featured a recurring “LV” theme, but this time, Michele gave it the Gucci treatment. After some backlash online, Michele reached out to Day, and the two began collaborating on a Dapper Dan partnership line with Gucci. Since then, Day has re-opened his luxury atelier on Lenox Avenue and attended the Met Gala twice. “The first time I went to the Met Gala, you did not look for me. You did not look for color. You did not look for anything splashy,” he says of his attendance at the annual fashion fête as a guest of Gucci. The second time was “amazing,” though. “I had my own table, the Dapper Dan table. I had the option of inviting my own guests.” He has future plans to “be equivalent to Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford, and possibly one day Ralph Lauren” and have his son, Jelani Day, and grandkids take over the label one day.
It’s not possible to speak of the return of Dapper Dan without mentioning the concept of cultural appropriation. Who owns a logo? Who owns a culture? Day considers these questions just as much as the next person. He says he “blackenized” what the luxury brands were already doing, and instead of making “knock offs” he made “knock ups.”
Today, Day sees Michele’s vision for Gucci as a way of “accessing” the culture rather than appropriating it. “Their intentions are to leave no stone unturned with ideas in fashion. And it worked because they became number one, especially when they incorporated me in it. For the first time, Gucci beat Louis Vuitton. But then they do the blackface thing.”
Earlier this year, Gucci produced a balaclava and sweater that resembled a blackface figure that caused nothing short of a firestorm on the Internet, Day says that he, of course, felt disrespected, and the backlash online culminated in the request of a boycott from black customers. “I think they’re misinformed,” Day says. “When you listen to the rhetoric that surrounds the whole topic of boycotting, you’ll find they say we spend trillions of dollars. Where does that come from? Black people and brown people in America have trillions of dollars and if we stop buying Gucci, Gucci will go down? Where does that come from? Gucci is a multinational corporation and we’re responsible for maybe three to five percent of the bottom line of these luxury brands. A boycott is not going to affect them.”
“When you are constantly borrowing from other cultures, sooner or later, you’re going to make a mistake. And that’s what happened, they made a mistake,” he continues. “I don’t think it was intentional, it was illogical. You’re a multibillion dollar corporation, your bottom line is your money. I don’t care how you think about any group, you’re not going to disparage that group at a risk to your company. So, just that alone makes me say, no this couldn’t have been intentional. It might have been intentional on the behalf of one or two single people, but as a corporate intent? No.”
“The only way a boycott will affect them is that our bargaining chip is our power of influence. If the influencers boycott, that’s a boycott,” he explains. “We gotta recognize that as black people in America, we don’t represent all black people in the world.”
Day reads every comment left on his Instagram, by the way, against the advice of his team (“I like information, right?”). His work has always been rebellious in spirit, and it makes sense that even now, he would rebel by reading the comments on social media.
Fans also have plenty to say about his trademark style—mainly, how to get it for themselves. Known around town for his sharp, professional look. Day is undeniably fly. He owns about 25 to 30 suits, glasses for every occasion, and shoes to match. On the journey between his shops, a young man gets out of his car to say hello. “Watch this,” Day says, before greeting the man with a handshake. He tells us about his journey to getting fresh like Dapper Dan, with the suits and the cufflinks and all that. The fan says he feels that his white t-shirt and jeans look is played out. When Day is asked what he thinks about the casual white tee and jeans combo, he is honest: “I don’t like it. You will never catch me in it. If you catch me in a t-shirt, I’m chasing somebody.”
“I want to feel like I brought Wall Street here. They don’t look better than me. They don’t dress better than me,” he continues.
We’ve just made it a couple blocks down Lenox before Day has another spot to point out along 123rd Street. “Down this block here, we have one of the only two black convents when I was a kid. Sisters of Mercy. All black nuns,” he says, before getting stopped once again by another fan who calls him “the greatest man in the world” and talks about how the legend of Dapper Dan had spread all the way to Newark, New Jersey back in the ‘80s. “He made the black kids have a dream, you know. I’m one of those black kids.”
Before the man can continue, Day starts to slowly slip away. “Alright, listen, we’re gonna get stopped a lot. But you have to learn how to ease off,” he tells us. “Growing up, it was important to have a personality with a gravitational pull…we generate that kind of energy. You use personality so everybody gets to know you, and they think you’re so cool. When people see entertainers and influencers with something on, something inside of them resonates with that, and when they put it on,t hey are part of that person. I played into that without even being conscious of that. I wanted to be like the guys I saw. So, when you get conscious, your talk changes, your walk changes, stuff like that. When you make people smile and you feel good about them, it feels good to you, and you go all the way.”
For a final stop, we head inside the parlor of Day’s atelier boutique. It feels like being wrapped in velvet luxury. Photographs of Jay-Z, Salt n’ Pepa from the “Push It” video, Floyd Mayweather, The Fat Boys, and line the walls—all decked out in a custom Dapper Dan look. “Every picture on that wall tells a story,” he says. Upstairs, clients can sit down and tell him what they want, what they want to reference, and how they want to look. After decades in this business, Dapper Dan has a keen eye for designing the perfect fit, every time.
As much as Day’s memoir is story about the clothes he created, it’s an engaging look at the story of a hard working man who shape-shifted his way into the fashion industry by breaking rules every step of the way, and came to represent something larger than anticipated. The memoir spans the majority of his life, but the story leading up to the creation of Dapper Dan’s boutique is almost bigger than the story of the boutique itself. A biopic is up next, from Sony Pictures and Jerrod Carmichael, but when it comes to deciding who would play him in the film, Day says he’ll take a back seat: “I’ll leave it to Hollywood.”