CLIQUE WEAR: Dapper Dan, the tailor of Harlem
Behind Eric B. & Rakim’s jackets, and Mike Tyson’s leather overalls, hides a total pop culture genius. This figure managed to rework luxury brands’ codes to bring them back to the street with devastating humour, even becoming as famous as the brands themselves in certain circles.
Daniel Day, AKA Dapper Dan, was born in the 50s in Harlem, New York, with something less than a silver spoon in his mouth. He grew up wearing rags with three older brothers, and a group of cousins who were already well on their way to a life of crime. All around him, appearance was important, and when you live in the pits it’s one of the only ways to still look like a million dollars. The pimps and crooks on 125th Street had the right idea, at a time when most of the locals couldn’t afford English suits or silk shirts.
Dan later became a professional gambler, under the protective eye of his older brothers. Even at this point he dressed to impress, both for his personal pleasure and to get a psychological upper hand on his future opponents. A local hero for his look and gambling victories, he realised that although his cardsharp sense was unique, he could share his style with the world. Aided by his energy and business sense, he started by bringing the fashionable brands from the lower districts to Harlem, as the people in his area rarely made the trip downtown to buy clothes. He then turned his hand to fur, as demand was high but sales outlets were scarce above 110th Street.
Dan opened a shop in his name in 1983, at 43 East 125th Street, where he made furs and always sold them cheaper than the market price.
His margins were smaller, but sales volumes made up the difference and business was booming. His customers were all competing to get the flashiest coat, and Dan started thinking about how to sate their appetite for luxury. He started by buying up stocks of Gucci bags, before cutting them up to use the monogrammed leather in his own creations. It was fabulous, and horribly expensive, but the Harlem hustlers had bottomless pockets when it came to dazzling the crowds.
Thanks to his industrious attitude, Dan and his team managed to create high-quality, monogrammed leather and fabric. And that was just the start of the adventure. Dan wasn’t stupid, however; he was aware the luxury brands would come calling once day. But like any professional gambler, he trusted his instinct and went all in. From then on his creativity went from strength to strength, and happened to coincide with the explosion of the crack cocaine market in New York.
This was no small detail, and it made all the difference. Infamous drug dealers like Alpo Martinez and Azie Faison were raking in up to $100,000 a week and wanted a style to match. They splashed out excessively at Dapper Dan’s, who created the wildest, specially-made pieces for them.
“Uptown was Alpo, son, heard he was kingpin, yo” Nas, Memory lane, illmatic.
Just like today, rap stars admired dealers, and so shopped at Dapper Dan’s to look the part. And vice-versa, dealers admired rappers and copied their style. Dan’s creations were Harlem certified, blends of Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Fendi and MCM, with mixtures of mink, ostrich, crocodile and python. A true example of taking back fashion by pulling it closer to surrealist prêt-à-porter.
I personally find his pieces should be viewed with the same consideration as Andy Warhol’s piles of Brillo boxes.
Dapper Dan shot to fame in the blink of an eye, and his shop (open 24/7) became the epicentre of the NYC criminal hip-hop hype.
LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, The Real Roxanne, KRS-One, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Run DMC, Fat Boys, Public Enemy and Eric B. & Rakim were just some of his customers. Rap royalty, as well as hundreds of wealthy, anonymous shoppers all sported Dapper Dan’s creations in the sketchier bits of the city.
One summer night in 1988, Mike Tyson, a big-spender at Dan’s, got into a fight in front of the shop with Mitch Green, a heavyweight hater looking for trouble.
Meanwhile, it was business as usual. From jackets, bags and hats to two- or three-tone suits boasting every pattern under the sun, Dapper Dan produced everything to order, and every piece customised. He also created Gucci and Vuitton car interiors, and printed his brand on trainers he pimped out in his workshop.
His pieces were copied by all of the cut-cost producers in New York, and he changed the face of the leather industry forever. Dan made a killing and shot to stardom alongside his famous customers, but his glory came before his fall. The luxury brands, tired of his riches made on their backs, turned against him. Fashion moved on, and so did his customers. Dapper Dan cashed in on his success and went underground, but hip-hop lost its chic as a result…
His influence is still felt today when you visit the Clignancourt flea markets in the north of Paris, where poor knock-offs of goose down and leather zipper jackets with the Algerian flag embossed on the back vie for first place. It’s a shame, I’d have paid a pretty penny for the Fat Boys’ Louis Vuitton jacket…