Three decades ago, when Daniel Day opened a small shop in Harlem, he wanted to sell furs. He was a popular guy in the neighborhood, known as Dapper Dan, so he called his store Dapper Dan’s Boutique. He read every book he could find about the fur trade, because he wanted to offer his customers higher-quality coats than other Harlem shops were selling. People started asking for designer jackets, and when Day couldn’t buy them from the European fashion houses, he resolved to make his own. In secret, he found a way to print name-brand designs onto high-quality leather, using huge silkscreens and special paint.
Dapper Dan’s versions of Louis Vuitton and Gucci weren’t exactly bootlegs, though; the logos were borrowed (that is, stolen), but the designs were entirely his. If you bought a Fendi short set from him, maybe you would have known that it wasn’t an authentic Fendi product. But what mattered was that it was an authentic Dapper Dan product—in some circles, his name was more important than the names on the clothes.
This was the crack era, and some of his best customers were drug dealers—they had the money to pay for Day’s creations, and the nerve to wear them. After Alberto “Alpo” Martinez wore a knee-length, Louis Vuitton-print leather jacket from Dapper Dan, people started calling it “the Alpo coat.” As rappers adopted Dapper Dan’s creations, his reputation spread internationally: he created the regal faux-Gucci jackets that Eric B. and Rakim wore on the cover of their first two records, and he put LL Cool J in colorful leather suits. Almost by accident, Dapper Dan helped invent hip-hop fashion, influencing many of the same fashion houses whose logos he once appropriated.
You grew up in Harlem in the ’50s. How did you get interested in style?
The biggest influence when I was growing up was my older brothers and ’em, who I used to try to dress like. All the older guys in the neighborhood were influenced by the jazz musicians. They were wearing traditional-style shoes, but the shoes was alligator and lizard. Silk and mohair suits, alpaca sweaters—the suede-front sweaters. It was the age of the hand-me-downs. In other words, my older brothers, whatever they wore, I could wear. There wasn’t no teenage style; everybody dressed like grown men.
What about the dashikis, and the Afrocentric look?
The dashiki never touched the corner guy, the hustler. But there was a time, in the ’70s, when everybody was getting their clothes tailored. It leaned away from the Rat Pack. The sweaters went out. But the same shoes remained in. You used to take your sneakers to the park and change—you didn’t walk around with sneakers on.
Obviously, that changed in the ’80s.
You know what triggered that change? Basketball became big—we got more Black guys playing basketball. So the athletic look was more accepted. And the Italians came out with a sweat suit that was real popular back then: Sergio Tacchini. I wasn’t too into it, myself, but it was selling back then, when I first opened my store.
How did you get all these powerful neighborhood guys to wear your clothes?
I would take their underlings, and make them fly. They’d show up at the same party, and the bosses would come back and say, “Dap, man, you’ve got the goddamn workers looking better than me!” They was mad about that. The chicks paying more attention to the workers? They couldn’t have that.
And once the bosses started wearing your stuff, everyone else followed?
Yes, because the guy with the money was the power player—he made it right or wrong. That’s my philosophy: there’s no right or wrong in fashion, there’s just weak or strong. So the tough guys with all the money, those are the ones that determined style. Today, style is determined by people who are prominent, who made it—their toughness is their celebrity.
Back in the ’80s, these fashion houses barely even knew that rappers existed. Now, the hip-hop and fashion worlds are much closer.
Yes, and artists can get away with wearing something because the name is big. It’s not, “I like this ’cause it’s fly.” It’s, “I’m doing this because it’s already an established name, and if I put it on, they got to say I’m fly.” That’s the difference.
But the flip side is that, for kids growing up in hip-hop culture today, mainstream fashion no longer seems so foreign, so far away.
Yeah, it generates excitement. It has the young people thinking, “Oh, I could do that.” And I guess eventually we will do that—we will be in there.