Ask anyone who is the master of hip-hop luxury wear, and the answer will always be Dapper Dan. Straight outta Harlem, his custom-made outfits using luxury fabrics and designs have over the years attracted the likes of LL Cool J, Fat Joe, even Beyonce. But there is a lot more to the story of this fashion icon.
Here are 15 things you should know about Dapper Dan.
Dapper Dan’s Boutique opened in Harlem in 1982. And, “for the next decade, turned high-end logos into covetable, custom pieces for the hip-hop era,” Vanity Fair reported. For Jam Master Jay he created a Louis Vuitton bomber tracksuit, LL Cool J has been photographed wearing Gucci jacket a la Dapper Dan style, and Salt-N-Pepa wore Dan’s leather outfits.
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Before he was Dapper Dan, he was Daniel Day, a Harlem hustler. And his hustle was good — he once won $50,000 playing dice. “He devised scams so ahead of their time that police didn’t even know what to charge him with.
He’s gone from prison to penthouses, partied with L.L. Cool J and peddled T-shirts on the street,” The New York Daily News reported. And he wrote all his life in “Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem,” a gritty memoir.
Born in 1944, Day faced some hard times in his life. He “remembers going hungry, and stuffing pieces of linoleum in his shoes, to patch the ragged soles,” The New York Daily News reported.
In grade school, Day picked up the moniker Dapper Dan because he’d come to school wearing creased jeans and polo shirts.
Unfortunately, in junior high school, Dan started doing drugs. He began sniffing heroin, eventually dropping out of high school to sell drugs. He was also using heavy. He wound up going to prison and completed rehab, but still, he returned to street life.
He raked in enough money gambling to buy a brownstone and his eight children to private school.
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“One night, Day was up over $50,000. He also noticed the mood in the room changed. Suddenly he didn’t like the way people were looking at him. He casually put his winnings in his pocket, then slapped another $500 down,” The Daily News reported. He took a break in the action and acting like he had to go to the bathroom, he snuck out. Dan later found out that the gangsters in the gambling den planned to kill him and dump his body.
From gambling, Dan turned to running a stolen credit cards racket.
Recently the hip-hop fashion pioneer stopped by “The Breakfast Club” and discussed why he feels hip-hop artists should partner with large companies before launching their own. “Our culture is very powerful so if we want a luxury brand we have to have distribution that’s powerful enough that we can get our brands in [other] countries,” he explained. “We are the influencers and our ability to influence goes around the world. I’m not just concentrating on just getting this Black money here. Why I can’t get that global money if I [have] that global culture?”
Although others in the hip-hop world were calling for a boycott of Gucci after Gucci debuted a sweater design resembling blackface, Dapper Dan, 74, decided to go ahead with a partnership with the fashion company in 2017. He explained to the team at Power 105.1’s The Breakfast ClubOn that Gucci did for him what other brands wouldn’t.
“Gucci comes and they say everybody’s paying homage to Dapper Dan but nobody’s paying him. We gon’ change that. We gon’ allow you to do what you’ve always done in Harlem and we’re going to do a partnership and you get a percentage of that globally,” Dan explained. “I could never get that. That’s my foothold.”
He added about the boycott: “Don’t tell me there’s any organization in the world that don’t have a number of people who are racist because we don’t hear them say it, that doesn’t mean it ain’t happening. So forget that part, let’s look at what can we get out of this? This will be the first boycott Black people have ever had in America that we get zero results. That is too damn stupid. You walk away because you’re insulted and you end up with zero? You can’t be no hero like that.”
When asked during the Breakfast Club interview about the lack of Black-owned luxury brands and why Blacks are willing to pay more for Gucci and other European luxury designers, Dan answered: “It’s what I call the pimp program. When you see a pimp he’s all dressed up, fly, he’s more attractive. People want what they can’t get. The mentality associated with luxury, with aspiration, has to do with things people can’t afford.”
On the topic of why Black people put more value on Gucci than Black-owned brands he added, “Our culture is very powerful so if we want a luxury brand we have to have distribution that’s powerful enough that we can get our brands in [other] countries.”
And as for Black consumers putting more value on white-owned brands, he replied, “That’s an individual choice but I’m not going after what we buy. I’m not going to argue with Black people in Harlem or [anywhere in] the U.S., about whether you want to buy luxury. No! Our culture is so powerful and selling around the world, I want to get to where they are selling it at.”
While Dan has a foothold in the hip-hop arena, he’s still looking for more, reported Vibe magazine. “We are the influencers and our ability to influence goes around the world,” Dan continued. “I’m not just concentrating on just getting this Black money here. Why I can’t get that global money if I [have] that global culture?”
He added: “If we [Black people] had a sustainable economy that can support a luxury brand I wouldn’t have to be here.”
About the time Salma Hayek wore a Dapper Dan original. Hayek wore a Dapper Dan Gucci outfit on Oscar night and the outfit was used to make a statement about “the favelas of Brazil, and in Soweto, South Africa, and in every ghetto in a world where people are trying to find a way to ‘make it from The Corner to the rest of the world.’ It is important because they know that my story is their story, and that if someone of Salma’s stature would wear something of mine, then they, too, can be a designer,” explained Dan on his company website.
Fashion wasn’t Dan’s only passion. He was also lured by the field of journalism. And in the 1960s, Day worked for a Harlem newspaper called “Forty Acres and a Mule.”
When Dan first started out he was using the designer labels legally, and this led to counterfeiting raids and litigation. All of this ended in his first store closing. He reopened but Dan was still only known in a small circle. That was until boxing champ Mike Tyson got into a fight with fellow boxer Mitch Green in 1988 outside of Dan’s store. Suddenly, Dapper Dan’s was in the media spotlight. The media infatuation continued after Tyson was photographed wearing a “knock off” Fendi jacket from Dapper Dan, leading the New York Times calling the store “an all-night clothing store that caters to performers.”
Dapper Dan used his memoir published by Random House to tell all — the good, the bad, the ugly. “I had trouble sewing my life together, so God made me a tailor. Then, a dream of being a designer was born. I didn’t let anything nor anybody rip that dream away from me. Now, from the corners of Harlem to the runways of Europe, by way of Africa, I’m living that dream. Thirty-plus years later, with no tears nor regrets, I’m telling my story,” the designer and haberdasher wrote in “Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem.”