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Dapper Dan Reigns As The Revolutionary of Fashion

With the current outrage and disgust many are feeling about Gucci and their lack of respect for Black people, not once through this very hurtful reminder of racism and white insensitivity delivered via a campaign packaged in blackface were voices immediately heard publicly expressing concern for Dapper Dan.

Born Daniel Day, he was one of six children who attended church religiously. By the age of 10, he knew the ins and outs of the streets of Harlem at 127th Street and Lenox Avenue Housing projects-the place he called home. Growing up in poverty creates a hustle, drive and ambition that cannot be manufactured elsewhere.

By 13, his savviness taught him everything about the streets; how to survive while simultaneously masterminding a way to live a better life. Some may say this was too much for a boy, not yet a man, but this is street culture in Black America in the inner cities for most children without obvious opportunities, so the smart ones create them. Gambling became his grind and he found himself one of the best dressers in school and the streets.

There is a swagger acquired in Harlem that sets it apart from the other four boroughs in New York. The fashion-forward youth garnered the name Dapper Dan, which was befitting and set him apart from early on. He became famous in his own right, and each time he rolled the dice, his stock went up. The forerunner to marketing plans and branding, he was already his own empire of Black excellence.

Desiring more out life as he got older, he immersed himself in the teachings of Minister Malcolm X, and writer and scholar John Henrik Clarke. He read the works of Black Journalist Earl Caldwell, who covered the Black Panthers and challenged the Supreme Court in regards to reporters’ rights. Dap absorbed all of this Blackness, activism and wanted to be a writer.

Following his desire, he began writing for 40 Acres and a Mule Newspaper in Harlem. He was granted a tour of Africa through the New York Urban League to learn and explore. It was during these trips that he bridged the gap between African fabrics and the cut of European design. As a visionary, he set out to Africanize the latter, which he did seamlessly.        

By 1982, the legend-in-the-making opened his own boutique on 125th Street in Harlem when he was close to forty years old. His initial focus was furs, but that shifted quickly by the demand and the emergence of Hip-Hop culture, which was quickly transforming. As a business man, haberdasher, couturier, and designer he has always represented the culture. Black entertainers, athletes, hustlers and even Italian mobsters all wanted to be seen in Dap’s designs.

In an interview he laughed saying “We didn’t do knockoffs, we did knockups…that creative flow had a lot to do anger because they wouldn’t sell to me. So part of that is me saying I can do this better that you’re doing.” Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Fendi and MCM were brands that refused to do business with him. They denied him access, so he built a door and a technique that revolutionized fashion-forever.

He had the creativity, precision and ambition that surpassed them. As a result, Gucci and other brands had his boutique raided, lawsuits began to fly and that was supposed to end his livelihood. He was shut down and officially closed the boutique in 1993 and very little is known about what happened after that.

Two plus decades later after being called out by former Olympic runner and former Dapper Dan client Diane Dixon, Gucci found themselves in hot water after copying the design made for Dixon who paid somewhere between $3500-$4500 for the exclusive mink coat that Gucci “knockedoff” and had in their 2018 Cruise Collection.

In a PR move to save face and dollars, they offered Dap a collaborative deal and his own atelier-not because it was the right thing to do (that could have been done in the ‘80s or ‘90s while he was still in his prime.) The world was watching and they were caught red-handed. Black people spend 1.4 trillion dollars as consumers are were mocked in blackface in 2019. Many find it inconceivable that this was done without thought to Dap, people of African descent in the diaspora and the Black people that they employ.  

Boycotting or a full ban on Gucci is a choice up to each individual. The Black community our backs on Dap and the legacy he built is disrespectful and counterproductive. It is like turning our backs on President Barack Obama while he worked tirelessly to run the White House and enforce change within an administration that was not built with Black people in mind. It would be like turning our backs on Rosa Parks, who on December 1, 1955 refused to give up her seat on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama, so that we can ride the bus and sit where we choose today.

While supporting and starting Black businesses is crucial to the growth and economic development of Black people, not everyone is ready or able to take on that responsibility, financially or otherwise. Until then, Black people need to see their faces, sentiments and presence within these larger white owned companies.

It is always good to implement change, have the opportunity to learn and have allies within these structures. With forty plus years in fashion, Dap’s works have been on display at The Smithsonian, The Museum at FIT, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art.   

Dapper Dan is and should continue to be honored with high regard. In 2018 his designs breathed life into Tracee Ellis Ross at the American Music Awards, Salma Hayek at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party and Beyoncé at the On the Run II world tour.

CARDIFF, UK – JUNE 6: Beyonce performs on the opening night of the ‘On The Run II’ tour at Principality Stadium on June 6, 2018 in Cardiff, Wales, UK. (Photo by Raven Varona/Parkwood/PictureGroup)

Who knew that his designs for Eric B & Rakim’s “Paid in Full” or leather jackets Salt-N-Pepa wore that perfectly meshed with door knocker earrings, spandex bodysuits and African Kufis would leave such a lasting impression? FUBU, Phat Farm, Sean John, Cross Colours, Walker Wear, Wu-Wear and Karl Kani happened because Dap paved the way. He is the very thread in Harlem, every block in the inner cities, Hip-Hop culture, runways, suburban America, and every runway globally that keeps fashion connected.            

His memoir Dapper Dan: Made In Harlem: A Memoir is set to be released July 9, 2019.

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