Book Review: Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem

Many of the best clothing-industry memoirs, such as Martin Greenfield’s Measure of a Man, spend less time describing the writer’s time in the industry than they do the circumstances that led the writer to the business. Or, as Daniel “Dapper Dan” Day calls it in the fascinating Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem, the hustle. And for him, it was the attraction of, for the first time, carrying out “a hustle with no vic[tim]s.” 

Bloated luxury brands begged to differ. Louis Vuitton, Gucci, the infamously creatively bankrupt MCM, and Fendi (represented by Sonia Sotomayor, whom Dan evokes with great respect) obtained numerous court orders against him and eventually caused him to shut his Harlem shop in the 1990s.  His crime? Knocking “up,” rather than “off,” their logos and trademark prints in endlessly creative ways, exaggerated, amplified, repurposed, reimagined, reinvented for a client base all of those brands, still stagnating after the licensed and logo-happy 1970s ended, spurned: black people.  

Dan has an uneasy relationship with the term “appropriation,” the borrowing of work and heritage that’s the easy characterization of what he did, unsanctioned, back then. He suggests that slavery was “the greatest appropriation ever,” and reminds the reader that, for its part, Louis Vuitton announced (without getting his permission) fashion collections inspired by the designs Dapper Dan had created using fake LV prints in the 1980s and 1990s.  To him, appropriation is just an aspect of exploitation, and to characterize what Dan did as appropriation is to miss the central role of institutional exploitation in Dan’s life story, that of Harlem itself, that of black people in the United States, and of people of color all over the world.  And these memoirs gracefully tie all of those themes together.

Well, as gracefully as Mike Tyson decking fellow boxer Mitch Green outside Dan’s shop late one night in 1988. Like Iron Mike (whom Green allegedly wouldn’t stop harassing after Tyson beat him by rare decision instead of knockout in 1986), Dan doesn’t pull punches, sharply pointing out that his parents arrived in Harlem during the Great Migration, the phenomenon of southern blacks braving poverty and uncertainty to leave the far more overtly racist South in the earlier 20th century, finding community in neighborhood after neighborhood of fellow immigrants – communities that would be destroyed by the creation of gigantic housing projects, ever-cheaper and more-addictive drugs, and increasingly harsh, brutal and punitive policing and laws.  Dan wrenchingly recalls realizing he had to fend for himself as a small child, when his parents, unlike those of the other kids, were unable to give him change to buy sweets at school, despite working four jobs between them.  If he wanted to eat well, or to wear shoes without cardboard-patched holes in the soles, he was going to have to find other ways to get by.  His parents encouraged their children to read and learn in ways they themselves hadn’t had the opportunity to, a point driven home when the young Dan read the fine print of a finance agreement for a suit his father, a fellow sharp dresser, had been wanting to buy.  Until Dan told him how unfair and expensive the installment payments would have been.

In these circumstances, the myth of the American Dream – that honest hard work is all it takes for advancement to a comfortable middle-class – shows its hideous falsity.  Numbing – through gambling and alcoholism, in the case of Dan’s parents, and drug dealing and addiction, in the case of his brothers – in the face of this futility should be understandable.  Dan notes, too, that the far more lenient drug laws of the late 1960s meant that once he was arrested and jailed at the Tombs for a month (instead of in prison for a lifetime, as he could have been once our current racially discriminatory drug laws were passed), he was able to get and stay clean, with a drive to improve himself once he got out.  

And improve he did, using his incomparable skill as a dice player (based on years of study and practice) to make ends meet while taking college courses and becoming a journalist and activist, culminating in several trips to Africa where he first explored the postcolonial world of new leaders like Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere (trading in his Western clothes for African robes) and then, later, met his first custom tailors, Guinean expatriates in Liberia who made him flamboyant clothes to his exact design specifications and measurements.

All came together when he thought of leaving the dangerous hustle of fleecing gangsters and dealers in dice games to instead sell clothes using his unique eye.  But “[f]ashion for me wasn’t about expression. Fashion was about power,” “a vehicle to getting around my situation in life”: looking fly was essential to his identity, and the clothes the Dapper Dan store sold quickly became new claims to power in the face of adversity.  He was able to retail high-quality furs because the quality fur merchants didn’t think black people would buy enough furs to be any threat to their other retailers.  But Dan knew that customer base existed, people who knew and trusted him, at first the same gangsters and pushers whose money he’d been taking in illegal dice games.  As Dan notes, they didn’t want the embarrassment of going to a downtown store to pay with a bagful of cash.  But as he also noted, centuries after slave ships first landed in the New World, more than a century after Emancipation, decades after supposed civil rights victories half-heartedly implemented, Fifth Avenue luxury shops didn’t want African-American people shopping in them. On his first trip to Louis Vuitton, he felt the whole shop “tense up when I walked in” because he was the only African-American person in there. No way was a formal partnership, like he’d had with some new luxury brands, in the realm of possibility for him.  

He made his own power.  He studied fabric and leather printing techniques, found the best quality inks and machines, and began creating his own versions of the stamped and printed F’s, G’s, LV’s and MCMs that were those brands’ lazy shorthand. Once those prints had supposedly been the way makers attempted to protect the designs of their quality workmanship.  By the 1980s, they were the main selling points for generally tacky branded items of often debatable quality.  Dan created new items those brands didn’t sell, from jackets and sweat suits to cherry-red MCM-printed upholstery for his jeep.  With Senegalese immigrant tailors worked around the clock to make up his clothing designs. He even created heritage crests for brands that didn’t have them.  In addition to his earlier client base, music stars and pro athletes began to patronize him.  Dapper Dan stayed open 24-hours a day to cater to them, so that they could stop by after the clubs closed.  Dan kept a cot in the backroom to doze between their visits, but also promoted other local designers and artisans in his shop, and encouraged the local kids to get off the streets with movie nights and exercise programs to keep them out of trouble.  

Like a good boxer, he didn’t stay down after the brands forced his shop to close.  He relearned the clothing business, kept a trade in individual designs for personal clients, told Tommy Hilfiger to get bent, kept hustling – and now, with the official support of Gucci, reopened his shop to make clothes and designs that really are Gucci, thanks to the crazy faux-Gucci clothes he had invented decades ago.  His shop’s community-centered activities are back, too. Dan ‘s not been appropriated into the system. Instead, it’s good it recognizes the creative power that reanimated their bankrupt shells.

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