The Father of Logomania.
By Jason Kwame
Dapper Dan is the epitome of unlimited, unwavering black creativity and innovation. The Harlem trendsetter – always dressed to the nines in a clean-cut tailored suit and signature oversized glasses – possesses a story of value to every black person in fashion. Or every person, period.
Labelled a “street cinderella” by his good friend Diddy, Dan’s success story started as one born out of frustration. Despite growing up in the poorest parts of East Harlem in the 60s, Dan had a desire for the finer things – from cars to clothes – like many of the black hustlers, gamblers and street savvy entrepreneurs on the come-up with new money to spend. It’s something he calls ‘aspirational luxury’. “We always aspire to have higher end things, it’s human nature […] it comes from wanting something that is unreachable”.
At the time, there was a huge gap in the market; a high demand for black luxury that had gone unserved, untapped and unrewarded. These men – and women – wanted custom furs, alligator skin accessories and had to look the part for business upkeep. It was all about looking fly and made. What’s more: the uptown luxury dealers and suppliers were unwilling to serve this crowd. Dan took matters into his own hands. Along came Dapper Dan’s Boutique – his first store.
Dapper Dan eventually garnered a name for himself and became the only supplier and seller of furs in the Harlem area, catering to the black community. This man was not one to be outworked; he ensured his store was open 24 hours to cater to all kinds of business – from legit to black market – taking private requests from the biggest street legends and gangsters of the era. After all, the gangsters were the showmen, at the helm of street culture, setting the trends everyone soon wanted. Being that Dan was also on the pulse of fashion, he began to notice the high demand for designer logos. He may have been one of the first people to take advantage of the logomania we’ve all come to know so well (see Kim Jones’ highly-coveted Louis Vuitton x Supreme pieces, for example). It was Dan’s wits and creativity that started the game. Thereafter, he essentially came to be the go-to man for custom tailored outfits, all from reworked Gucci prints, LV monogram fabrics and the likes. He went from strength to strength.
As hip-hop was on the cusp of becoming the conglomerate it is today, rappers soon followed the hustlers and sought Dan for custom fits. From LL Cool J, to Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane, Dapper Dan made outfits for stars that were hard to replicate and hard to be missed. His signature style approach oozed flamboyance with elaborate experimental cuts and finishes. An archetype of black avante-garde fashion. It was the perfect marriage of black culture: breakthrough rappers getting their hands on high fashion and luxury, and Dan’s untouchable street credibility as a pioneer – from lyrics to word of mouth. It even seeped down into the world of the sports stars. Dan recalls a young Mike Tyson bringing a 19-year-old Naomi Campbell late night for custom pieces. An unforgettable piece was the legendary jacket made for trackstar Diane Dixon: one with oversized puffed-up sleeves and LV monogram leathers. Dan had the industry on lock, it was his own cultural ecosystem. That wasn’t until 1992 that Dapper Dan was forced to shut-up shop following backlash from luxury brands.
Who would’ve thought that years down the line that same Diane Dixon design would unexpectedly be embroiled in controversy. Gucci’s Alessandro Michele was accused of cultural appropriation when his SS18 cruise collection showcased in Florence, looked all too similar to that of Dapper Dan’s 80’s puff-sleeved bomber jacket look. The backlash pressured Michele’s team to swiftly respond by claiming the 2018 collection to be “in homage to the work of the renowned Harlem tailor Dapper Dan…in celebration of the culture of that era in Harlem.” The heat from Twitter and all fashion publications was enough to hold Gucci accountable, and ensure Dan was paid his dues. Alessandro expressed his “interest in a collaboration that would celebrate the influence his creations had on fashion and hip-hop culture in the 80s.”
Dapper Dan was commendable in making his negotiations more about a seat at the table for the culture, rather than a flash in the pan deal. The deal with Gucci afforded him a long-term partnership for custom fabrics and materials with prints to his liking, and a funded multi-million dollar atelier studio to work out of. He also holds posts as both consultant and mentor in Gucci’s diversity and Multicultural design initiatives. Not forgetting, the first 300+ piece Gucci x Dapper Dan collection providing everything from apparel to shoes, eyewear, leather bags and hats.
Dan’s full-circle story is enough to inspire any black creative. One Ghanaians would refer to as Sankofa – literally meaning “go back and get it.” Little do people know that Dan at a young age had the rare opportunity to travel around Africa, taking inspiration from the works of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah amongst others. It’s a no-brainer that he brought that revolutionary spirit to fashion – as we all should. He went from self-taught, underground community fashion influencer to a renowned fashion atelier who is now spotlighted on Times 100, Vogue and styling for the Met Gala red carpets. It speaks to the wealth of innovation, drive and pioneering done in our culture. Also, an eye-opener to the underserved black luxury market – even to this day. Dapper Dan’s story is one for the history books.