Tailor-made in Harlem: How a fashion outlaw conquered the catwalk

25 years after being forced underground, the Hip Hop Tailor of Harlem is back in the game and being bankrolled by one of the luxury fashion houses that shut him down
Tailor-made in Harlem: How a fashion outlaw conquered the catwalk
Dapper Dan, the Hip Hop Tailor of Harlem, in 1989, courtesy of Wyatt Counts

Surveying his new Harlem atelier, Dapper Dan tells Grazia, “I never could afford the suit that rich people had. And it’s like now I have that suit. That’s what it’s like having this atelier,” he admits of the Lenox Avenue property. He explains, “You go to Gucci Downtown and you come to the atelier, you feel the opulence, you feel important, you feel everything you feel if you was Downtown. Gucci did not hold back. People marvel at what they have here in Harlem. Each time a person comes in, I get excited with them.”

Dapper Dan in his new Lenox Avenue atelier, photographed by Renell Medrano

Among the plush, velvet partition screens and cherry-red boiserie wall panels that scream Alessandro Michele, hang photos of the young Daniel Day with his iconic roster of celebrity clients captured in the golden age of hip hop, each one, he promises us, with a story behind it. Fitting, since the story of Dapper Dan is so inextricably linked to the birth of hip hop. “I’m largely a product of the two. In one sense, hip hop and my creative skills emerged together. Being born and raised in Harlem is without a doubt the most important influence responsible for everything I’ve done.” 

Dapper Dan's opulent, by-appointment-only atelier has been built by Gucci

On the early fashion influences that shaped his signature style, he says, “Let me explain. The Harlem that I grew up in had the first little Italy in New York City. The diversity of the culture gave rise to my taste, and my perception of fashion was influenced by the Italian community here, the Latino community here and the African-American community here.” He observes, “This synergy that took place among these different groups and created this unique culture that we have here, developed the attitude I have about fashion, and enabled me to have this global perpsective and this big idea about what fashion should be, and how it should relate to people of colour.”

The Hip Hop Tailor of Harlem rose to fashion fame in 1982 by dressing New York rappers including LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim and Salt-N-Pepa in the earliest iteration of athluxury – tracksuits emblazoned with bootleg Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Fendi monogramming screenprinted by Dapper Dan himself. “My original intention was to bring high-end European brands to my community,” he insists. “The major brands weren’t even producing clothes that were consistent with hip hop, the new genre of music that was coming out of the neighbourhood, nor was it consistent with the style of dressing that took place in my community.”

Salt-N-Pepa wearing custom-made Dapper Dan jackets, photographed by Janette Beckman 

Dapper Dan’s Boutique was open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 10 years until legal action by Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Fendi forced him to shutter his store in 1992. “What’s so amazing about this story is being forced underground as a result of all the cease and desist orders I was receiving from the major brands added to the mystique of who I am and what I was doing. However, I never stopped doing what I was doing, I just went underground, and no one knew,” he admits. “I was the best-kept secret for all that time until I emerged again.”

Dapper Dan's Boutique was open for 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 10 years until 1992

That moment came when Kim Jones namechecked him as the inspiration for the most-hyped luxury fashion and streetwear collaboration – present company excluded – between Louis Vuitton and Supreme for Autumn/Winter 2017. However the tipping point came last May when Alessandro Michele showed his interpretation of one of Dapper Dan’s balloon-sleeved bombers on the Gucci Cruise 2018 runway. This came as no surprise to the man himself. “I think that everybody else was surprised, but myself? Not the least bit. I first noticed it early on, before the big brands themselves were even conscious of the impact of what I was doing. Bootleggers from Canal Street in New York City, who used to replicate big-brand items, would see what I was doing, and they did the same to me. Then later on, major companies started referencing me. When I saw Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford reference what I was doing, I knew I was entitled to have a global effect,” he declares.

“It wasn’t appropriation, it was a homage,” responded Alessandro Michele about the Cruise piece in question. Yet following a visit to Harlem to shoot Dap for the Gucci men’s tailoring campaign, an unprecedented collaboration was born with the Italian fashion house not only building him a new Dapper Dan atelier, but also supplying the GG monogrammed fabrics.

Alessandro Michele's Dapper Dan homage for Gucci Cruise 2018

“I’ve always existed outside the fashion world, and I have mixed feelings about it,” Dap confesses. “I’m excited by what took place on one hand, and I’m very gratified by the approach and the relationship established between Gucci and myself, but given the fact that Louis Vuitton was the first to reference me, I thought that it would’ve been appropriate for them to approach me.” Note to Vuitton: that wouldn’t have happened on Virgil’s watch. Although he adds, “I’m more excited about Gucci because Gucci has always been my favourite.”

On the Italian Creative Director’s visit to the hood, Dap reflects, “The way Alessandro Michele was capable of identifying with this culture, and how he embraced it, was just amazing. And the fact that he came to Harlem and did this campaign in Harlem was just phenomenal.” He elaborates, “My goal has always been to stay here and serve my community if I couldn’t be accepted as a part of a major European fashion house.” But as the Gucci x Dapper Dan Made In Harlem billboard dominates Lenox Avenue, it’s clear that he’s achieved both those dreams.

Dapper Dan in the Gucci men's tailoring campaign, photographed in Harlem by Glen Luchford

“I am so proud and so elated, and my community is so elated by the opportunity that Gucci has given me to be with a major house, and to have a partnership with the same respect that Tom Ford or Marc Jacobs receive is so amazing.” He continues, “Each and every day when I walk through my community, people congratulate me and they’re excited about it. Gucci has had such a profound affect on Harlem which is going to reverberate around the planet. What people fail to understand is we have a powerful culture here, but like all cultures, there’s a dark side, and my mission is to change that dark side. People take pictures of the billboard Gucci put up in Harlem. Rappers are bringing their children to the store so they can take pictures and let them know that this is a special moment in history. How profound is that?”

Were any of the his original clients among them, we wonder? “To give you an idea, when Gucci announced the partnership, Floyd Mayweather, the world champion boxer, came to my house to congratulate me. Ten minutes later Diddy came to my house to congratulate me. Swizz Beatz came to my house at the same time to congratulate me. Busta Rhymes called me. This has been something that’s connected not just to myself, or to a small number of rappers, but to the culture itself,” he declares. “People could not wait to get here. That answer your question? Are they coming? Yes, they’re coming.”

Dapper Dan calls the Gucci billboard in Harlem is a "special moment in history" 

So far, he’s had Diddy, Rick Ross, DJ Khaled and CeeLo Green through the doors, but the significance of the new atelier goes far beyond these bespoke pieces. “Here’s the bigger story. There’s a lot of rappers who cannot connect with the birth of hip hop, and that is so important. But now they have the second opportunity to connect with something that has been so essential to the culture and the music genre of hip hop.”

Taking us behind of the seams of his creative process, Dap reveals, “Generally designers create from their perception of themselves and where they see culture and society. I feel so blessed to be in my community, to interact with the customers, feel what they feel, get to know how they want to dress to transform themselves, and to be part of that transformation. I see regular designers with a palette they create and they paint from, and from that idea, their artistry goes out into the world. I see my palette as a combination of each customer that I serve as well as myself. I love to collaborate with the customer, to go into their minds, to see how they feel about their bodies, see how they feel about colours, how they feel about the way they should look. With Dapper Dan, individual flavour comes through.”

A post shared by Dapper Dan (@dapperdanharlem) on

Or it will once he’s done making garms for DJ Khaled and Jay Z, that is. “Here’s the thing,” he explains about his waiting list. “What Dapper Dan does, and what Dapper Dan represents is excitement. Customers get excited about what I do, but they get more excited about who I’ve done it for. So I’d say the customers thoroughly understand the nature of what I have established, and I don’t think they have a problem with that. They say, ‘Don’t forget about us,’ and I won’t forget about them, but they have to know, they are as connected to me as they are to the stars. They like to see what the stars are wearing so they can get something similar anyway, so it works itself out.”

And after a 25-year-long wait, Dapper Dan promises us this: “When you come to Harlem, you can look forward to taking something away that you could never have imagined. Remember; I was open for 10 years, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he points out, “and there’s nothing to stop me from doing that again. I have two shifts a day, and I have not lost one drop of energy associated with achieving what I want to accomplish.”

Photos: Janette Beckman, Wyatt Counts, Jelani Day, Glen Luchford, and Renell Medrano courtesy of Gucci, and Getty Images