Don’t let anyone tell you differently. When it comes down to 80s and 90s Hip Hop, Harlem native Dapper Dan is the originator of luxury streetwear.
His efforts transformed hustler flash and b-boy styling into the most coveted and influential apparel — designs that for the last forty years have influenced high fashion and European runways.
Born on Aug. 8, 1944, Daniel Day grew up seeing old Harlem, where people got dressed to go to Club Baby Grand on 125 or the Savoy on Lenox Ave. Bumpy Johnson walked through the streets, bumping into Malcolm X or laughing it up with A’Lelia Walker. More than cultural currency, which has made for fantastic urban legend, these are the types of icons that had a direct influence on his understanding of style.
In an interview with The Guardian, he shares, “Even though we had a class that was capable of moving out [of Harlem], segregation wouldn’t allow that. That’s why the Harlem renaissance – all these dynamic writers and poets – they were there because they had to be there.”
He continued to talk about the lessons he learned as a Harlemite that would follow him all the days of his life. The first thing he said he learned about was “the gospel,” and the second thing was “gambling.” But his sense of style came from his family, his uncle, Fishman Eddie.
But Harlem, as beloved a sanctuary as it was for him, was not the only oasis of inspiration. In his early life, he was a writer that toured all over Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Egypt, Tanzania, Lagos, Nigeria, and Monrovia in Liberia). Once while in Africa, he met an African tailor there who made him a fresh outfit from scratch, fashioning it with vivid local fabrics. That was the genesis and inspiration of who he knew he was born to be. Upon his return to America, he immersed himself in making the hood folk fly.
In 1982, Day, who was nicknamed Dapper Dan, opened his haberdasher-come-boutique on East 125th Street.
Because of his clientele, a mixture of get-money folk, hustlers, rappers, celebrities, and the like, Dap’s spot seemed to be open 24 hours, seven days a week. He took no time off in curating an aesthetic that has defined Hip Hop cool.
One of his biggest breakout moments happened in 1989 when he made a fur-lined Louis Vuitton jacket with balloon sleeves for U.S. Olympic track star Diane Dixon. Story has it, back then, Gucci tried to bite his style, but the community rallied in support of their vanguard and blasted them for trying to siphon off his swag.
What was it that made his mystique permeate throughout Hip Hop culture? He did exactly what DJs and producers were doing with the music, but with gear. He would sample a swash from Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Fendi, and MCM and flip it into his own.
Tramp from Lady and A Tramp productions said, “What Dapper Dan did for us was take the methodology of classic Hip Hop production and aligned it with his approach to streetwear culture.”
“He would take a piece of something that was existing and do something new with it,” the Naughty by Nature affiliate continued. “And sometimes create that piece of art into something better than what was there originally. His work was pioneering and laid a foundation for designers in and out of the culture.”
“We don’t even look at what Gucci was doing back then with any awe. The Gucci stuff that captured our eyes, were the items that he placed on our favorite personalities.”
It’s true. Consider who Big Daddy Kane hit up for elite apparel, for his one-of-a-kind designer lay. LL Cool J made us believe we needed the same butter leather jacket, accented with ill MCM logos all over it. Other artists that you’ve seen dance DNA on their 80s and 90s fashion sense are Slick Rick, Mike Tyson, Bobby Brown, Salt-N-Pepa, KRS 1 and all of the BDP crew, Biz Markie, the Fat Boys, Funk Flex, Mr. Cee, The Real Roxanne, Flavor Flav and so many more. Probably the most iconic examples of Dan’s reach into the community are the multiple bombers, leather sweatsuits, and fly guy leisurewear that he created for Eric B and Rakim.
Dapper Dan says what he made were not knock-offs, but “knock-ups.” Back in the day, Gucci did everything to tap into that market — except break bread. Instead, they found a way to sneak in during the mid-nineties when the brand started to personally woo artists.
Fat Joe often talks about growing up in the era when Dapper Dan was a kingmaker. In his song, “My Lifestyle,” Crack tells fans to check his gangsta which had already been validated by the style god.
“What you know 16 Beamers and Benzes/Rope chain down to my dick, the beef looks tremendous/Me and my niggas flip holes in bitches/Back then, when I wouldn’t even pose for bitches/A-Yo, you can ask Dapper Dan who was the man/Back in ’88, every other week tricked 30 grand.”
30 years later from the time that Fat Joe rapped about, Dap was hired by Gucci to curate a capsule collection. Some people had the knickers in a bunch, thinking why would Dap play with them and give them some of his sauce. Dap says, with the most Harlem reasoning ever, he was participating in a give and take.
“Cultural appropriation and cultural exchange breaks down to one thing: economics. An exchange involves somebody getting something, for whatever it is they have. Appropriation means you ain’t getting nothing,” he said.
In 2022, the Dapper Dan brand is still making noise.
The designer dropped a piece with Gap (the DAP GAP hoodie) that sold out globally in less than three minutes. After its success, he dropped an NFT with the brand.
“As some have dubbed me ‘the Godfather of Hip Hop fashion,’ it was amazing when an iconic American brand like Gap and I got together to create something that would take our culture even further,” Dap said. “NFTs are a huge part of what’s shaping culture right now. From analog to the metaverse—I am excited for the opportunity to explore this space with Gap and bring the newly hyped DAP GAP Hoodie to a whole new audience.”
As we celebrate and salute 80’s and 90’s Hip Hop fashion, we also pause to salute Dapper Dan.
To learn more about Dapper Dan go to his website: https://dapperdanofharlem.com/ or purchase his book Dapper Dan Made in Harlem.