Hip hop fashion has infiltrated the global mainstream and couture, moving from sportswear brands in it’s early incarnation to high-end fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci. This evolution came, in part, thanks to Harlem legend Dapper Dan.
Hip Hop Hooray
If you’re into hip hop, you’re into a lifestyle and everything that goes along with it: even if you’ve never heard of Dapper Dan you’ve seen his work adorning artists such as LL Cool J, Salt-N-Pepa, and even making its way onto the cover of Eric B. & Rakim’s seminal album Paid in Full.
From his beginnings as a fashion outlaw, selling knock-offs at a small store in Harlem, Daniel Day has now made his way to Time’s 100 Most Influential People list and launched a fashion line with Gucci; one of the brands he originally counterfeited. In Dan’s own words he went “from refashioning fashion, to having fashion refashion me”.
Hustlers and Kingpins
Dapper Dan’s Boutique found its roots in the midst of New Yorks crack epidemic in the early 80’s. Alongside the crime and poverty that plagued the streets came an influx of wealth amongst the hustlers and the kingpins that resided there. It was these criminals who became the boutiques loyal customers and who ironically would help Dan to become the legitimate fashion icon that he is now known to be. Dan himself started out as a professional gambler and, therein, “a professional conman”.
It was his own love of luxury clothes - silks, ‘gators, and furs - that led him away from street life to opening up his own store in the streets he’d walked and breathed his entire life. Catering to hustlers meant that the whole idea of a luxury clothing store had to evolve, Dan’s would often be open 24/7 as the Harlemers who frequented there did not adhere to any sort of strict working hours. As the first store in Harlem to be selling furs, the store immediately achieved a lot of attention from the right (or wrong) people: the people with the money.
It was one of these drug dealers that first ignited Day’s love of symbols and logos when he walked into Dapper Dan’s holding a Louis Vuitton pouch. Having never seen one before he was fascinated by the awe it garnered from those around him as he “knew it was nothing but $10 worth of vinyl”, he quickly ascertained that it was the power of the symbols, the draw of the logo. This was the beginning of what would become an illustrious and successful lifelong career.
Dan’s synonymity with hip hop was clear from his first works: the cutting and sampling used throughout the music was to become exactly what Dan would use in his own work. After teaching himself textile printing, Dan went on to make reversible fur coats whose inside would be lined or printed with Luis Vuitton, Gucci, or Fendi, which took his boutique to that next level. A lot of the upcoming rappers at the time couldn’t afford his clothes, it was only the gangsters who could, but the rappers wanted to look like the gangsters: first with gold chains and Kangols then to bowler hats, furs, and three-piece suits.
In the Rap Game
Hitting the fashion scene at the time that hip hop exploded was perfect timing; as the crack epidemic resided, the hustlers got packed off to jail, and the rappers were now the ones with the money. Big Daddy Kane, Boogie Down Productions, Slick Rick, and a host of other legendary names were flooding the store and Dan, from this small store in Harlem, was on his way to global recognition. If the rappers helped him on his way, then Diane Dixon cemented his rise.
Diane Dixon was an olympic gold medal winner and native New Yorker who also happened to frequent Dapper Dan’s Boutique. One of these times she had asked Dan to make her something really special: “I don’t know what, I just want it to look high fashion”, and that’s exactly what he did. The photo of Dixon wearing this balloon-sleeved, mahogany fur, Luis Vuitton jacket would eventually catapult Dan way beyond the climbs he had already reached. But not before the industry had tried to batter him down.
As Yo! MTV Raps became immensely popular Dan’s garments were getting airtime through the countless rappers that wore his clothes; they even did a segment visiting the store. This is when the brands started to take notice and say “who is this Dapper Dan, we didn’t make those clothes!”. Eventually Fendi and Louis Vuitton would start raids on Dapper Dan’s boutique in an attempt to bring him down. A cease and desist order was filed so that they could seize any clothes in the store that showed their logo. Dan continued to build back up after each raid, a cycle of big industry against the innovator until eventually Fendi took everything in one final raid and, just like that, it all came to an end.
In a testament to Dan’s passion and vigour for his work he refused to let this stop him, he just had to think of a new way to do things, a new outlook from a new beginning. He found himself an underground place to work and, just like back in the day, he hit the streets, only this time in a car loaded with his creations. He continued to create and sell in this way for twenty years, he’d made a success that had to lurk in the shadows, hiding from the very houses that had inspired him so many years before. It would be many years until Dapper Dan could finally come out of hiding, and he did so with the same spectacular fashion that he had built his career from.
“I was used to white folks taking stuff from us, that was a given”
In 2017 Dapper Dan’s Diane Dixon coat popped up on the Gucci catwalk, without his knowledge, and as is common in the age-of-the-internet there was uproar. Gucci rightly made contact with Day through his son and he told them to come to Harlem. Amazingly they did. At first there was trepidation, a fear of selling out, a fear of the white powerhouse as a black man who’d grown up in the sixties. But this only spurred him on further: “What I learned watching the civil rights movement in the 60s, is that the most important thing a person of colour can do, is to get inside, to have a seat at the table”. The Gucci partnership meant that Dan could continue to work the way he had worked for 30 years but exclusively with Gucci fabrication. It meant that his work could go global and, most importantly, legitimate.
Dapper Dan has spent his entire career promoting his culture and translating this into his love of fashion. It has taken him most of his life to get here but that’s why his work has endured and become the global success that it is today: simply put, culture and fashion are his life and now it is finally his time to come out of the shadows and shine across the world.