In the early days, Dapper Dan’s Boutique sold furs and expensive-looking clothes at a fraction of the typical price. He used any textiles he could buy, as wholesalers refused to sell to him due to his race and the location of his store. This was a common occurrence and Day, having learned many hard lessons growing up, was resilient and relentless.
One day, a gangster came into Dapper Dan’s and placed a Louis Vuitton pouch on the counter. Everyone close by gathered around in awe of it. Ownership of a luxury item signified that you’d made it. From that point, Day started teaching himself textile printing techniques and produced fabrics covered in luxury brand logos, such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Fendi. In the ’80s, luxury brands weren’t splashing their logos on clothes, but Day saw an opportunity to bring a bit of luxury to the Harlem community through fashion.
His design aesthetic started to evolve, as he manufactured looks that remixed casualwear with his sought-after knock-off logo fabrics. Day, describing his ’80s designs, said: “The style is African but the logo is more American – the rich designer guy look.” In African-American culture, it wasn’t seen as copying luxury fashion, rather tapping into the status of the logo and reinterpreting it in their own way. Day referred to his designs as “knock-ups” instead of knock-offs. This was how it was done, as luxury brands had made clear their prejudice by drawing a distinct line between whom they would sell to and whom they wouldn’t.
Around the same time, hip-hop emerged as a cultural phenomenon, not just in music but also in fashion. Dapper Dan was uniquely positioned to make clothes for regular folk, gangsters, rappers, and hip-hop artists. Catering to his wide customer base, Day kept the boutique open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
As business was booming, Dapper Dan’s flair for remixing luxury brand status with ostentatious designs became the beginning of luxury street fashion in African-American culture. He was the man to see for the latest. Very quickly, he was styling artists such as LL Cool J, Salt-N-Pepa, Jam Master Jay, and Bobby Brown.
Rising from gambling and drugs
Getting to that point was not just a natural progression for Day. Born in 1944, he grew up in poverty and learnt to fend for himself from an early age. By 13, he was a successful gambler, making hundreds, even thousands, of dollars a week. It was his mentor, the original Dapper Dan, who gave him his moniker.
In Day’s late teens, during hard times, he turned to drugs, eventually being arrested for dealing and sent to prison for a month. It was the jolt Day needed to quit drugs and that month saved his life. Upon his release, he recalibrated and started writing for a progressive Harlem publication – Forty Acres and a Mule.
From there, he travelled to several African countries as part of a programme Columbia University sponsored. On his journey, Day met a tailor who made him a custom suit from local fabrics. This sparked the origins of Dapper Dan’s Boutique.
Upon Day’s return to New York, he started selling stolen luxury items out of his car boot, saving enough money to open his store on 125th Street. For most of the decade, Dapper Dan was the king of hip-hop clothing. Until the raids began.
The counterfeit raids
Day had a good run with his boutique in Harlem. For the most part, his illegal use of luxury brand logos was undetected by the wider fashion industry. However, in 1988, an altercation in front of Dapper Dan’s Boutique between pro boxers Mike Tyson and Mitch Green drew a media frenzy. Tyson was photographed wearing a “knock-up” Fendi jacket from Dapper Dan’s. Suddenly, Day’s business was in the spotlight and it caught the attention of Fendi.
Through several small raids of the boutique over the next few years, Fendi and then-US Attorney Sonia Sotomayor (now a Supreme Court justice) gathered integral evidence. In 1992, the biggest raid yet sent Dapper Dan’s Boutique to its demise. It may have been the end of the small boutique on 125th Street, but Day’s relentlessness and determination lived on, along with a solid reputation. Dapper Dan went underground for another decade, continuing to serve luxe streetwear to his top clients – never staying in one location long enough to be tracked down.
An influential force
Though his pathway into fashion was unusual, Day persevered and conquered, even through raids and a gunshot wound that almost killed him. The Dapper Dan name and his iconic fashion designs for African-American culture and hip-hop artists started a global fashion category. Ironically, major luxury fashion brands then adopted his style.
At a Gucci runway show in 2017, a model wore a distinctive jacket that caused an uproar in the African-American community. It was shockingly similar to a Dapper Dan fur jacket from the ’80s, with balloon sleeves in a Louis Vuitton print worn by Brooklyn-born Olympic gold medallist Diane Dixon, who owned the original. Celebrities and fashion icons from all over the world called out Gucci immediately.
The backlash was too significant for Gucci to avoid or ignore. Ultimately, Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele reached out to Dapper Dan. To everyone’s surprise, that connection resulted in an official collaboration and partnership in Harlem between Gucci and Dapper Dan. The endeavour is now known as the Dapper Dan atelier studio, which pays homage to the original boutique but on a much more extravagant scale.
In 2020, Dapper Dan was named one of Time magazine’s Most Influential People. Rapper Missy Elliott summarised his impact, acknowledging his contribution to the black community through standing up to racial discrimination in fashion. She described his aesthetic as “a blend of hood and expensive”.
Daniel Day, aka Dapper Dan, from Harlem. The godfather of hip-hop fashion, luxe streetwear style and a true icon in African-American culture. His ascent into fashion will be studied and referenced for years to come. He stands as an inspiration for African-American designers all over the world. In the wise words of Dapper Dan “what you create today tells a story about tomorrow”.