Few can be honoured with the acknowledgement that they started movements way before their time, irrevocably impacting the cultural shifts of the decades to come. It is no understatement, that Dapper Dan is one such person. Born Daniel Day in Harlem in 1944, Dap originally planning to begin a career as a fashion wholesaler, but faced prejudice when the established fashion companies refused to sell him the luxury furs and rare textiles he needed as a result of his race and postcode affiliation to Harlem. In the fight against prejudice and battle for freedom in creative expression, Dap saw opportunity and decided to be a clothier, conceptualising and producing his own garments through his self-taught dedication. In 1974 Dap began by selling his designs from the boot of his car, bringing the ostentatious flare of the European ateliers to the streets, operating as the Robin Hood of aesthetics in the projects. Dap continued his influence, jumpstarting and legitimising bootleg culture in a way which was reflected to be as much innovative as it was illegal, in the beginning dressing LL Cool J, KRS1 and Run-DMC. Through designing distinguished and rarefied fits by way of his flagship opening, ‘Dapper Dan’s Boutique’ operating from 1982 – 1992 and open 7 days a week for 24 hours a day, Dapper Dan was Tom Ford before Tom Ford was Tom Ford.
Presenting as the industries anti-hero but the peoples champ, in his own signature way Dap provided Harlem with access to the once unattainable high end luxury markets, all while fundamentally maintaining craftsmanship and clientele awareness. Dap’s ability to identify and creatively manipulate the power found within the image culture of the fashion/hip hop crossover undeniably helped to transform hip hop from a genre into a lifestyle. Believing he designed “knock ups” not “rip offs” Dap worked in similar means to how artists around him produced, by sampling and mixing styles and logos to make something of his own voice. Providing the full atelier experience with the luxury to match, Dap silk screen printed logos onto leather and boasted a deep knowledge of exotic materials, piecing together ostrich skin suits and bombers made from crocodile. From spare tyre covers to trench coats with bullet proof vests stitched inside, ASAP Ferg, whose father Darold Ferguson actually worked at Dap’s Boutique, states “Dap created hip hop culture” – and he did.
The image below from 1988 shows Mike Tyson with his DD designed jacket, personalised with “Don’t Believe the Hype”. The shot is taken in reference to an unregulated boxing match taking place outside Dap’s Boutique between Tyson and Mitch Green. On Tyson, Dapper Dan states ‘Him punching was like rapping. He represented a certain element of hip hop.’
In 2015 documentary Fresh Dressed, Dap explains of his vision “Fresh is something that always has to be new, and hip hop always has to stay fresh. Dap’s influence upon, and contribution towards, the iconography of hip hop culture is undisputed to most, apart from perhaps the US government in the early 90’s. After donning Dapper Dan jackets showcasing the Gucci printed fabric complete and perfectly mirrored logo on their 1987 album cover for ‘Paid in Full’, Erik B and Rakim gave spotlight to both Daps craft and creativity but also disputed counterfeit conduct. As a result, government marshals raided the flagship Harlem store and confiscated fabrics showcasing other brands logos, forcing Dap to close the store and go underground in a way which made his designs only more lucrative and more embossed within the hip hop legacy. The trickle up fashion theory however, is arguably nowhere more at work today than in streetwear. This being the concept that fashion ideas originate from the streets and are adopted later by couture designers at luxury design houses, in 2018 Gucci put this theory exactly into practise. A full 29 years after originating the Diane Dixon jacket, Gucci appropriated Dap’s original creation for their own, by way of supposed ‘homage’, if nothing else, affirming Dap’s impact upon the image of the brand and so many others like it.
It’s important then, to understand why it became so commonly celebrated to see A$AP Rocky head the Dior Homme Menswear campaign, for Diddy to win the CFDA award for Menswear designer of the year in 2003, and even for Lil Pump to release Gucci Gang. It’s because Hip hop embraced high fashion before high fashion embraced hip hop, and it’s because one man from Harlem sought to change this dynamic in a way never done before.
Attending his first MET Gala in 2019, dressing 21 Savage and Ashley Graham alike, you can follow Dapper Dan on Instagram @dapperdanharlem