TAILOR, HUSTLER, OUTLAW
Dylan Bodkin - July 17
“My sense of style came from having holes in my shoes.” Daniel Day’s mastery of fashion began at a Goodwill on 124th Street in Harlem. “I picked out a nice pair of shoes on the rack and tried them on. [My brother] Cary asked me, ‘How do they feel?’ I told him, ‘They feel good.’”
Day learned from a young age how the clothes we wear reflect our social status. This fed a need to dress to impress. As a result he became the flyest kid in the neighbourhood, earning his nickname while hustling craps on 123rd Street and Lenox. But after seeing speeches by Malcolm X, Day gave up the gig. He went back to school through a program sponsored by the Urban League and Columbia University, toured Africa in 1968 after being chosen by the program, and gave up drinking, smoking, and drugs.
It was the tour through Africa that inspired Day to become a clothier in Harlem: “The tailors in Africa were making their version of a westernized, American suit.” He started by buying garments from “boosters” - people who shoplifted from the big department stores - and reselling them out of the back of his car for a profit. It was only a matter of time before he quit selling from his car and opened his iconic boutique on 129th Street and Lexington Avenue.
When Day tried to buy up the furs and leather he would need, though, many would not sell to him. The exception was Fred Schwartz, his brother Harold, and Harold’s son Andrew Marc Schwartz; originator of the Andrew Marc label. When Day began selling leather Andrew Marc jackets at $400 cheaper than the nearest competitor, representatives from that shop demanded he stop. When Schwartz suggested removing the Andrew Marc label from the jacket to appease the representatives, Day’s idea of brands was codified: “The label is everything,” he said. “The label is the thing the gangster clientele use to let the other gangsters in the street know, ‘You ain’t got what I got.’ The label or logo sets you apart.”
Day began designing garments that featured high fashion logos prominently and often, paired with the most lavish materials he could get his hands on. No company was safe; Day appropriated the branding of Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Fendi, just to name a few. Contrary to the counterfeiters of the time, making cheap knockoffs and hurting the reputation of the brands, Dapper Dan remixed and applied the logos to garments that were in some cases even more impressive than what the European fashion houses were putting out at the time. Day said, “People know that Dapper Dan doesn’t knock off, he knocks up.”
Eric B and Rakim sport custom Dapper Dan bomber jackets adorned with the iconic Gucci double G.
But in the early 90s, the lawsuits started coming in. Lawyers representing the luxury brands began raiding the boutique, and, in 1992, Day was forced to close up shop. He was, after all, committing copyright infringement. But many thought that that was merely an excuse, and that in truth the fashion houses of Europe didn’t want their brands associated with hip hop and black culture.
Cut to last year, when a Gucci model walked down the runway in a jacket almost identical to a piece that Dapper Dan created for Olympic gold medalist Diane Dixon in 1989; the only difference being the original featured Louis Vuitton logos instead of Gucci. The backlash was intense; yet another case of appropriation by a big brand. But then Gucci acknowledged the controversy, saying that the jacket was “a homage to Dapper Dan,” and mentioning that Alessandro Michele himself (Gucci’s creative director) had reached out to Day about the idea of a collaboration.
Now things come full circle. The Gucci x Dapper Dan collection released on July 17 received positive attention. The collection features designs that harken back to Dap’s lavish pieces from the 80's and 90's, unapologetic in its indulgence. Some say it’s a sell out, others are excited that Dap finally has a chance to be creatively free without fear of litigation.
And what does Dapper Dan himself think? “The big houses can keep pulling people in, but they have to first become relevant with the have-nots. It's all about the have-nots. People who rise to a certain level, they're less likely to look for an identity. They're comfortable with who they are. They're motivated to validate themselves the way I did. You gotta say, ‘Hell with y'all. This is who I am.’ And what springs out of that is the fountain of brand-new culture. Everybody is feeding off that.”
Peep the new collection here:
Gucci x Dapper Dan Collection 2018
More stuff about Dapper Dan:
How Dapper Dan, Harlem's Tailor, mainstreamed Ghetto Couture