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How Dapper Dan Went From Harlem's Best-Kept Secret to International Fashion Icon

The legend shares his career journey in his own words, from dressing "street people" to collaborating with Gucci.
Dapper Dan and Fashionista Associate Editor Maria Bobila at Fashionistacon 2017. Photo: Ashley Jahncke/Fashionista

Dapper Dan and Fashionista Associate Editor Maria Bobila at Fashionistacon 2017. Photo: Ashley Jahncke/Fashionista

Dapper Dan may have closed his Harlem couturier in the '90s, but the crowd of young fashion hopefuls forming a long line to greet him after his talk at Fashionista's "How to Make It in Fashion" conference on Friday proved that he's more relevant than ever. The Harlem legend first made a name for himself in the '80s by creating unique designs for ballers, rappers and "street people" that leaned heavily on logos "borrowed" from major fashion houses — a habit that made his designs unique and enviable, but one that also eventually forced him to shut down when the brands in question resorted to legal action. 

Decades later, Dapper Dan was once again thrust into the mainstream fashion consciousness when a lookalike of one of his '80s-era designs paraded down the Gucci runway. Plenty of social media outrage ensued as fans claimed that the house's Creative Director Alessandro Michele had ripped off Dapper Dan's designs, but then the story took an unexpected twist: Gucci announced that it would partner with Dapper Dan on a future capsule collection, feature him in an ad campaign and help him re-open his Harlem atelier. How's that for collaboration?

On Friday, Dapper Dan sat down with Fashionista's own Maria Bobila to discuss how he self-educated his way into a thriving fashion career, why the cultural milieu in Harlem is so important to his creativity and what role he thinks technology has in shaping the future of fashion. Read on to hear Dapper Dan's story, in his own words.

Dapper Dan in Gucci's Fall 2017 campaign. Photo: Glen Luchford/Gucci

Dapper Dan in Gucci's Fall 2017 campaign. Photo: Glen Luchford/Gucci

"I got interested in fashion because I was always denied new clothes, so it was a passion of mine to dress up one day. That's why I can't do the sneaker thing, because I was forced to wear sneakers. I said, 'When I grow up, I wanna wear suits and ties.'

I'm the first generation of the migration of people from the South. We were denied clothes and there wasn't a lot of money in the community. But after awhile, the subculture in Harlem began to change and there was a lot of money in the street. That enabled me to open up a store with the clientele from this subculture. Those were my first customers — the street people who had money. I set out to satisfy them.

I didn't know anything about [fashion], but I was able to figure it out. I knew that fashion and culture are two sides of the same coin. I had a great perception of what fashion and culture were like in Harlem. I serviced my own community and it mushroomed from there.

The biggest challenge I had to face was figuring out the nature of a garment and how it's made. I never went to runway shows, but I always wanted to know how a garment was constructed. I wanted to be able to walk into a store and know exactly what was involved in making any garment I looked at. 

So, I began teaching myself. I used to go to the factories where things were produced and I would see the type of machinery they were using and everything that was involved. If I couldn't get any information, I would wait until the factory closed and I would go into the garbage to see exactly what they were using. 

It was the '80s, so all the major factories were moving offshore. I never bought a sewing machine from the actual dealers. I went to the auctions. I can't remember ever seeing anybody of color besides myself at these auctions. I would get there early so I could follow the guys around and hear them discuss the machines. I would ask about the machines so that I could understand exactly what they did.

Still, I would see everything in the mind of a guy from Harlem. Even though the machine was designed to create something in the fashion that they wanted, I would do other things with it.

The second step was to see what the people in my community wanted and what they gravitated toward. As the first generation from the South raised in Harlem, there was this identity crisis. Everybody wanted to be recognized. I said, 'Let me feed into that.' Everybody thinks about buying a house or a car, but an outfit transforms you the next day.

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I'm proud of the fact that I'm from East Harlem. Harlem had Latinos, African-Americans and Italians all living together. We have a Dominican community and we like to interact. All these elements are what enabled me to be as creative as I am. I see this fusion of cultures that takes place as how I develop style. People who are already prominent, there's no reason for them to change. But when you're coming into a new identity? You want to have a style that goes with that identity.

How I approached fashion was not from myself to the customer, but from the customer to myself. They would come into the store with a general idea of what they wanted, and I would build on that. I used to have a saying: 'Everything in your mind might not look good on your behind.' I would try to transform their ideas into something workable.

When I started the store, it was to elevate. Some people ask why I dress the way I do now. I think I am every hip-hop artist tomorrow. If you look at Jay Z and Puff Daddy, they're wearing more suits [now]. It's a natural progression. It's a gradual level of maturity; it's refined.

I've got mixed feelings about the way hip-hop developed. I don't think that the direction hip-hop took initially elevated it. For a moment, it lost that. Everybody just started throwing things up without concentrating on quality and style. I hear of young guys paying rappers to wear their clothes now. I say, "Are they excited about it? Do they run to it?" If you can't generate excitement, I don't see the brand going anywhere. 

One day, a person came in my store and they had a Louis Vuitton pouch, and I saw everyone get excited. I realized it was symbolism. I thought, if they're happy with the little amount of symbols on that pouch, imagine if they had a whole outfit! I'm going to figure out how to transform regular clothes into these whole outfits.

At the time, Louis [Vuitton] wasn't making clothes like that; none of the major brands were. It gave me the opportunity to be first. It was great for awhile. Then I remember one of the stylists coming back and saying, 'People are going back to the Gucci store and asking for your outfits.'

I was still virtually unknown outside of Harlem until Mike Tyson had that fight [inside the Dapper Dan store]. Once he had that fight and the information started going global and the hip-hop artists started getting bigger contracts — because in the beginning, they couldn't afford to shop there — they took the culture and made it global. It's all history from that point on.

What excited me the most was when Gucci invited me to come visit all the factories in Florence. I looked at all the machines they had and I thought, 'These are all the machines I studied.' It was like this parallel universe where Gucci was doing this on a massive scale and I had all the same things on a tiny scale. Going to factories and doing that homework really paid off.

I existed completely outside the fashion structure; I've never been involved in any major fashion house. So when Alessandro [Michele] came along and embraced me the way he did, I was very grateful. I didn't have any problems with the coat [that caused so much media fuss]. Alessandro left me room to do anything. If any other brand would've picked me up, I would've felt more limited, probably, other than maybe Versace. But Alessandro's range is amazing. I'm happy to be with Gucci, and Gucci's happy to be with me.

Dapper Dan in Gucci's Fall 2017 campaign. Photo: Glen Luchford/Gucci

Dapper Dan in Gucci's Fall 2017 campaign. Photo: Glen Luchford/Gucci

When I was in Italy visiting Gucci's factories, I had to go back to the hotel and like, flip my ascot a different way, put my pants up a little so I could have this Italian style. Those Italians can get it on. I said, 'Either you Italians are light-skinned Afro-Americans, or Afro-Americans are dark-skinned Italians.' Because they were dressing just like us! So, when I got back to Harlem, I called my friend Russell, and he reminded me that the Italians had a strong influence in Harlem. Our styles modified each other. Hip-hop had such a big impact that I forgot that Italians were the first ones to control street culture.

Fashion today is driven by technology. What kept me ahead of everybody was my constant pursuit of the latest technology. Your palette to create fashion lies in technology. Do like I did and see what machines can do and then go from there and create. If you sketch something, you're just sketching something; you're not seeing fabrication and all that makes a garment possible and what technology can do for you. If you embrace that, I think you'll be successful. But if you ignore that, I don't see you going too far. Technology is the key."

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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