Dapper Dan took 80s Harlem hustler style into the mainstream, pimping out everyone from LL Cool J to Mike Tyson with his glamorous garms. He tells us how he redefined high fashion for the streets
Harlem outfitter Daniel “Dapper Dan” Day’s clients may have included Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather Jr and LL Cool J, but it’s the “hustlers and street people” he’s really got to thank for his success. “They were my primary clientele,” he says in front of both son and grandson in his beautiful brownstone, just minutes from the premises that once housed his clothing shop, Dapper Dan’s Boutique. “The look spread outside the hustler culture and was embraced by the whole rap world, and they just took it everywhere.”
The early-80s hustlers he initially served took their style cues from jazz and pop world figures like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr, ramping up the Rat Pack flamboyance with greater volume and louder colour. In 1985, when LL Cool J turned up at the store, Dan’s reputation reached the rap game. “He was just coming out,” Day says, “and one of the gangster guys brought him in.” Soon the outfitter was creating iconic hip hop looks for the likes of Salt-N-Pepa, Bobby Brown and Eric B & Rakim. Bypassing a US fashion system that wasn’t hugely encouraging of black talent at the time, Dapper Dan made a name for himself through his individualism and spirit of independence.
The boutique opened in 1982 on 125th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues. “I liked where it was. Madison Avenue – you get the feel? Fifth Avenue – you get the feel?” he says, riffing off the luxury ring of those famous addresses, even though his shop was at least 65 blocks north of midtown’s high-end retail. For ten years, the 24-hour store was the go-to marketplace for flash Harlem style, a way of dressing that had its very own ecosystem. “Harlem likes a certain extravagance,” Day explains. “The mainstay are items made out of silk, linen, leather, exotic skins, minks and furs. Those fineries determine your status. The only variation you’ll find is among the young people for a period in their life, and as they graduate, they go right into that.”
It’s hard to imagine the local teens and 20-somethings of today abandoning their Jordans, camo pants and busy jeans for old-school Harlem suits and shoes, but Day has lived in this neighbourhood long enough to know its cycles. Gentrification might also prove a threat to Harlem style, as the area’s “re-renaissance” pushes trueborn Harlemites out of certain areas. For now though, a stroll anywhere north of 110th Street suggests that the distinctive local culture continues to remain mercifully dominant and visible in the area.
Day started selling on the street way before he decided to open up shop. From the age of 25 he was capitalising on his reputation for always looking the part. “If people didn’t like the way I dressed, I wouldn’t have had the attention or the credibility. I grew up in a poor area in East Harlem – I can’t think of any of my friends who didn’t have holes in their shoes at any given time – so we were always attracted to clothes. That was the catalyst to make me want to be really sharp.” When asked if he ever goes low-key with jeans and a tee or whether it’s always about statement dressing, he replies emphatically: “Statement! Statement! Always have to look like I’m made. I have to dress to generate excitement, so people can say, ‘Damn! I wanna do that!’”
“I dress to generate excitement, so people can say ‘Damn! I wanna do that!’” – Dapper Dan
While archive photos of his work tend to focus on his use of luxury design-house logos and his custom designs for rap and sports stars (his puff-sleeved Vuitton monogram creation for American track and field star Diane Dixon is the most reblogged of his designs on Tumblr), it was actually enormous fur coats that kicked things off for him. “There were only three black furriers in the United States and I went to visit all three of them. I went and checked out their business and talked to them, and then I read all I could about the fur business.”
Rather than being scared of the competition, the older furriers schooled him about the industry. “They were nowhere near capable of supplying the demand, and they were fully familiar with the struggle,” he says, referring to the obstacles African-American businesses faced at the time. It was that struggle that then forced Day into designing his own clothes. “Originally my intentions were to buy wholesale and sell, but the things I wanted to buy weren’t available to me. The major companies would not sell to me – I would attribute it to either prejudice or location – so that inspired me to start making the things I made.”