Harlem couturier, Daniel Day, better known as Dapper Dan, was trending on social media in early June 2017 after Gucci launched a jacket design that looked very much like one Dapper Dan had designed nearly 30 years ago for Olympic sprinter Diane Dixon.
Dapper Dan created the fur-lined jacket with balloon sleeves in the 1980s, which used the Louis Vuitton logo without the brand’s permission. The new Gucci jacket, designed by Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele, remakes the Dapper Dan jacket but with the interlocking double-G Gucci logo in place of the Louis Vuitton markings.
Dapper Dan’s Boutique went out of business in the 1990s due to a number of luxury brands that litigated agains Dapper Dan for copying their designs.
The social-media uproar concerning the Gucci-Dapper Dan affair was fuelled in part by Dixon, a gold and silver medal winner who posted photos to her Instagram account of the new Gucci jacket and Daniel Day’s jacket side by side. “Give credit to @dapperdanharlem,” she wrote in the caption. “He did it FIRST in 1989!”
Gucci acknowledged its debt to the Daniel Day. A post on the brand’s Instagram account called the jacket, which had its debut during its cruise collection runway show, an “homage to Dapper Dan.” Further, a Gucci spokesman told The New York Times that Alessandro Michele had reached out to Day with the idea of collaborating with him.
Day confirmed Friday that Gucci has contacted him. “We’re at the table,” was all he would say about it.
The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) also plans to include Day’s work in its fall show “Items.” In an email, MOMA’s senior curator of architecture and design, Paolo Antonelli, called Day a “trailblazer” who “showed even the guardians of the original brands the power of creative appropriation, the new life that an authentically ‘illicit’ use could inject into a stale logo, as well as the commercial potential of a stodgy monogram’s walk on the hip-hop side.”
Daniel Day started his business, Dapper Dan’s Boutiques, in 1982, after an apprenticeship in Africa. Dapper Dan’s Boutique was on 125th Street, lasting for 10 years before lawyers from luxury brands closed the store.
“What Dap did was take what those major fashion labels were doing and made them better,” said rapper Darold Ferguson, Jr., who goes by the stage name ASAP Ferg and whose father, Darold Sr., worked at Dapper Dan’s Boutique in the ’80s. “He taught them how to use their designs in a much more effective way. Dap curated hip-hop culture.”
Mr. Day talking to friends in the neighborhood. Photo: Andre D. Wagner
Steve Stoute, the chief executive of the marketing firm Translation, said: “I think what Dap did, he actually taught an entire generation how to engage with luxury brands. Luxury brands, at that point, were not for us. They didn’t even have sizing for black people. So every time I walk into Louis Vuitton to buy a pair of sneakers, or buy a pair of pants in my size, I know they’re only doing it because of Dapper Dan.”
Dapper Dan still lives in Harlem. A few days before the Gucci controversy, Day described how his ideas on fashion, business and life. “My sense of style came from having holes in my shoes,” he said. “I was in third grade, and I would put cardboard and paper in the bottom of my shoes, but it got to the point where the soles were just gone. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I came home from church one Sunday and told my mother: ‘Ma, my feet are killing me. They hurt so bad.’ I had tears in my eyes. The next day, my older brother Kerry said: ‘Come on. We’re going to the Goodwill on 124th Street.’ We got there, and Kerry asked me, ‘You see anything you like?’ I picked out a nice pair of shoes on the rack and tried them on. Kerry asked me, ‘How do they feel?’ I told him, ‘They feel good.'”
Day discussed the need to dress to impress as part of a generational mindset for many black men who grew up in Harlem. “My earliest experiences regarding race was in the home,” Day said. “I would listen to my mother and father talk about how the structure of white society was affecting us. I also remember Hulan Jack, who was the borough president of Manhattan, coming to my school, PS 24, to speak to us. This was a black man who was the borough president of Manhattan who came to tell our sixth-grade class that knowledge is power. That fascinated me.”
“I wanted to be a writer. I read books by Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Lerone Bennett. One of my favorite journalists was Earl Caldwell” the pioneering black investigative reporter known for his articles in The New York Times on the Black Panthers. So Day worked for a Harlem newspaper called Forty Acres and a Mule in the ’60s.
Day gave up drinking, smoking, and drug use and became a vegetarian. He toured Africa in 1968 as one of the students chosen by the Columbia University-Urban League program and returned for the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman boxing fight in 1974.
“It changed my life,” Day said. “All of the artwork on the walls” – he gestured toward the paintings in his living room – “I brought those back with me from Nigeria. I also brought some suits over there. The tailors in Africa were making their version of a westernised, American suit.”
He then wanted to be a clothier in his home neighbourhood. He knew the people who shoplifted from department stores and he bought garments from them and resold them at a profit. Originally he sold clothes out of his car before opening his boutique.
In the ’80s he had enough capital to buy fur and leather, but many merchants would not sell to him, except Fred Schwartz (Fred the Furrier), his brother Harold, and Harold’s son, Andrew Marc Schwartz, who started the Andrew Marc label.
Day began selling Andrew Marc leather jackets with possum lining for $800. A Harlem competitor, A.J. Lester, sold the same jacket for $1,200, and demanded that Schwartz stop supplying the jacke to Daniel Day’s Dapper Dan Boutique. When Day and Schwartz considered a compromise – removing the Andrew Marc label from the jackets’ insides – Day had an epiphany about the importance of brands.
“The label is everything,” Day said. “The label is the thing the gangster clientele use to let the other gangsters in the street know, ‘You ain’t got what I got.’ The label or logo sets you apart.”
A man entered the Dapper Dan Boutique with a Louis Vuitton pouch, and bragging about it. Day said, “it occurred to me, if that’s how he feels about the pouch, how would he feel if that Louis Vuitton pouch became a whole outfit?” That was the moment everything changed.
Day hired tailors and studied how he would sew the leather from the patterns of his design ideas. ‘’The exciting part of designing clothes is that you can be really creative within the context of those limitations,” he said.
Samira Nasr, the fashion director for Elle magazine, likened Day’s work to that of the innovative hip-hop DJs of the era. “Sampling was taking existing music and slicing it to recreate new sounds for original lyrics,” Nasr wrote in an email. “Dap was sampling in a way. He was taking existing fabrications and breathing new life and beauty into them.”
Photographs: Andre D Wagner (top photo), Dapper Dan wearing his designer jacket in the 1980s (The New York Times)