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How Dapper Dan, Harlem’s Tailor, Mainstreamed “Ghetto Couture”

Gucci sued Harlem’s Dapper Dan for bootlegging logos, then appropriated his designs. Two decades later, the Italian house wants to collaborate with him.

How Dapper Dan, Harlem’s Tailor, Mainstreamed “Ghetto Couture”
Daniel Day [Photo: Renell Medrano, courtesy of Gucci]

Daniel Day—better known as Dapper Dan—recalls the good old days in the ’80s and ’90s when he was pioneering luxury streetwear, or what he likes to call “high-end, ghetto-fabulous clothing.”

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In 1983, Day opened his tailoring shop, Dapper Dan’s Boutique, in the heart of Harlem on 125th Street. At his prime, he was creating custom outfits for boxers, rappers, and gangsters. Everyone from Mike Tyson to LL Cool J wore the jumpsuits, bomber jackets, and hoodies he crafted using lambskin and mink and plastered with bootleg logos of European fashion houses like Gucci, Fendi, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton.

Ten years later, Day was famously sued into oblivion by these luxury brands for copyright infringement. While he still operated a small tailoring operation with his son and grandson out of a brownstone in Harlem, he faded from the public eye.  “I was underground,” Day tells me. “I wasn’t available to the mainstream media, but all the rappers and hustlers knew where to find me, yeah. I was the best-kept secret for a long time.”

Then, last year, something curious happened: Day came out of the shadows in a big way. If you flipped through the pages of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar, you might have spotted him in a glossy Gucci ad in which he’s standing on various street corners in Harlem, with brownstones and bodegas in the background. He’s wearing tailored suits featuring pinstripes and tweed, paired with bow ties and shiny leather loafers.

The story of how Day went from being Gucci’s public enemy No. 1 to a source of inspiration (and one of the reasons Gucci is among the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies for 2018) is not just the story of a fascinating man. It is also about how black culture has been appropriated, and how black consumers have been treated by the luxury industry.

[Photo: Renell Medrano, courtesy of Gucci]

“Dap Doesn’t Knock Off, He Knocks Up”

Creating super high-end knock-offs was no easy task. When Day set up his store, he built an onsite workshop full of machines that could emboss logos onto leather and cotton. It was around the same time that American manufacturing was being shipped off to China, so many factories were auctioning off their equipment, he says. Day would show up to put in bids, often the only black person at these events. He then taught himself how to use the machines. “It was trial and error,” he says.

But then, through reading musty old manuals and tinkering with the equipment, he mastered the art of creating logo-covered garments. Today, the idea of bootleg clothing conjures up images of poorly crafted bags and T-shirts, made from cheap materials, ripping off designs that luxury brands have created. This bears no resemblance to what Day was doing in his studio. “Everything I did was original,” he says. “So, the only thing that I [copied] was the logo itself, and even then, I did them in ways that had never been done before, not even by the people who owned the rights to the logos.”

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Day believed he was filling a legitimate need in the market. At the time, European fashion houses were not catering to the sensibilities of African-Americans. Their ads and runway shows featured predominantly white models. Chanel was putting out tweed jackets, faux pearls, and two-toned pumps, while Gucci was doing suits and knee-length suede skirts—looks that then would look absurd on the streets of Harlem.

So, Day took the situation into his own hands. “I wanted to create designs that fit into the style of the people in my community,” he tells me. “And when you’re creating something that has such appeal, people don’t tend to care whether the original manufacturer was making it. People knew that Dapper Dan doesn’t knock off, he knocks up.”

Me and @LLCoolJ at the store in custom Louis Vuitton and Gucci jackets. #dapperdan #harlem

A post shared by Dapper Dan (@dapperdanharlem) on

These looks were catnip for black stars of that time. Day clothed boxers Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather Jr. He dressed rappers and hip-hop stars Salt-n-Pepa, LL Cool J, Rakim, Jam Master Jay, and Bobby Brown. He outfitted drug dealers like Alpo Martinez. But it wasn’t long before the luxury brands noticed his work. And ultimately, Day believes they didn’t want to be associated with black people. “I think they thought it might hurt their brand,” he says.

That’s when the copyright infringement lawsuits began to stream in. Confronted with all this legal pressure, Day had no choice but to shutter his beloved store, which had by then become a Harlem institution. Day himself seemed to disappear into thin air.

But he had quietly continued his tailoring operation. And while Day doesn’t want to spill too much about what he has been doing throughout the years–he’s saving these details for an upcoming memoir to be published later this year–he says he’s been creating clothes for well-known African-American celebrities.

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Knocking Off The Knock-Offs

In a strange twist, in the early 2000s, the same luxury houses that sued Day began to send models down the runway in bomber jackets, jumpsuits, and hoodies that were almost identical to the garments Day had custom-made in his workshop.

Day wasn’t surprised; he had come to expect this kind of cultural appropriation. As a young man, Day spent a lot of time thinking about how black culture operates in the U.S. In the 1960S, he had written for the Harlem newspaper, 60 Acres and a Mule, musing about black politics. “Them copying me was nothing,” he tells me.

He thinks it’s part of a broader pattern of white people lifting parts of black culture and making it their own—often with no reference to the original inspiration. “It’s like how they take our music and make it their own, like rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “The music genres that I’ve seen time and time again: We start it, and they finish it. So I was quite used to that.”

But Day’s work also paved the way for a generation of other streetwear designers who elevated clothes once derided as “ghetto couture” into an art form. James Jebbia of Supreme, Shane Oliver of Hood by Air, Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne of Public School, and Virgil Abloh have all sent models down runways with pieces that pulled directly from Day’s playbook. In fact, many of them ended up collaborating with luxury brands on collections that blended streetwear with European tailoring–the very same approach that Day had used decades before.

Harlem Atelier [Photo: Renell Medrano, courtesy of Gucci]

Dapper Dan’s Second Act

Two decades after Gucci filed suit against Day, the brand’s creative director, Alessandro Michele, and CEO, Marco Bizzarri, wanted to collaborate with him. Gucci’s executive reached out to him several years ago and came to give him a presentation in his brownstone in Harlem. Day and his family listened to what they had to say. “My son and my grandson, they were more apprehensive about it than myself,” Day says.

But Day ultimately decided to take Gucci up on this offer. “This partnership with Gucci, it’s the easiest I have ever had it at my job, because I don’t have to hide anything, and I don’t have a secret shop I have to keep under the radar.”

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Last summer, for Gucci’s 2018 cruise show in Italy, Michele created a jacket that was identical to one that Day had made for Olympic gold medalist Diane Dixon in 1989. Day’s original version had puffed sleeves covered in Louis Vuitton logos, while Michele’s featured Gucci logos, but the color palette and materials were exactly the same. This happened before the collaboration had begun, so the internet erupted in outrage. People were angry that a brand that had effectively put Day out of business would so brazen.

[Photo: Renell Medrano, courtesy of Gucci]
The show was actually a kind of performance art piece. Michele seemed to be pointing to the way that fashion is circular, perpetually appropriating from other cultures and drawing inspiration from other moments in history. But at least in this case, Michele said that he was paying homage to Day. He was using this counterfeiting as a way to get Day’s attention and convince him to partner with Gucci.

It worked. Gucci is now helping Day reopen his atelier, which will now be a custom menswear store. It’s a bizarre turn of events. But Day believes that Gucci’s decision to reach out to him had profound meaning. It signaled not only that the company was acknowledging Day’s contribution to fashion–it also seemed like penance of some kind for appropriating black culture for so long without giving the community any credit. “I think what Gucci did was groundbreaking,” he says. “This partnership that we have together–in my community–it is a historical event. It’s amazing to me, you know?”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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