Before he came to give rappers and other black power figures an in-demand style distinctly their own in the 1980’s and long before pricey Italian garments bearing his signature spin could be seen on the runway in Milan and in the windows of Gucci’s flagship store on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, Dapper Dan was gambler. Not only was he good with dice and cards, which he was, he prided himself on his “salesman’s personality,” he told the New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh. “I knew how to generate excitement. Plus I could dress.”
Born and raised in the 1950’s in Harlem, New York, Daniel Day occupied a neighborhood some 65 blocks north of midtown’s high-end retail epicenter, including the midtown Gucci boutique, flanked by Giorgio Armani and Tiffany & Co. outposts, and which now offers up garments and accessories emblazoned with his name. The street-smart upstart that was young Daniel Day did not set out to dress the likes of rap royalty or runway royalty, for that matter, but it turns out, gambling was not all that different from selling clothes.
“Selling clothes, like gambling, was a way for him to liquefy his social capital,” according to Sanneh. And slowly, the idea for a shop of his own started to percolate until, in 1983, Daniel Day, who would soon become better known as Dapper Dan, opened up shop.
In a storefront on 43 East 125th Street, located just between Madison and Fifth Avenues, Day got his start making garments from furs and other skins, always selling them cheaper than the market price. For ten years, the often-times 24-hour store was the go-to marketplace for Harlem style, a style that was all its own. “Harlem likes a certain extravagance,” Day told Vice in 2014. “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 would not take long until the Dapper Dan name was behind the looks of everyone from Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather Jr to LL Cool J and Salt-N-Pepa, and still yet, not too much longer thereafter, until his archive photos of his work – which highlight his use of luxury design house’s logos and his custom designs for rap and sports stars – would make waves in the fashion industry.
Day moved from skins to a different specialty: logos, “using leathers printed with Gucci and Louis Vuitton logos, re-imagining them into handsewn creations that drew liberally from athletic wear with nods to the practicalities of gangster life (including Kevlar elements and hidden double pockets for contraband),” as GQ put it.
“I think the first [logo] that I became aware of was Christian Dior, because the Christian Dior hat was popular. That was the big one; the hat and the umbrella,” Day told The Cut in 2015. “Logos signify status, and money, which go hand in hand. The thing is, you can have the status but nobody will know you don’t have the money. So that’s what gives it such an impact in your look.”
It was here that Day would really make a name, ironically, by using others’ names. At the time, luxury fashion “houses were [not] reaching out to rappers and black celebrities to be clad in their ensembles,” according to Teen Vogue’s Faith Cummings. “And his rise preceded the ability for a slew of black shoppers to traipse into a high-fashion boutique and drop thousands of dollars on designs they coveted.” In this way, Dapper Dan was serving a clientele that was not over overlooked but one that was actively being turned away.
Hell, he was even prohibited — on more than one occasion — from purchasing products from these brands, and instead, turned to flipping their logo-covered textiles on their head.
The most in-demand logos amongst his clients, Day says: “Each had their period, but Louis [Vuitton] stayed with it. Louis never wavered; it always had that impact.” Another buzzy brand? “Gucci had a greater impact because there was so much more you could do with it. Louis just had the basic print … You had people that didn’t want the letters all over. So they could have the [Gucci] piping — the red and green, and that’s the signal right there. So, that was powerful.”
Unsurprisingly, Day’s design tactics did not find him fans in the luxury brands he was channeling. “His clothes were emblazoned with the monograms of European fashion houses at a time when those companies — Gucci, Louis Vuitton — were mainly producing leather goods and accessories,” per Vice. Eventually, the fashion houses caught on and Day’s boutique was being regularly raided by U.S. marshals, who seized equipment and counterfeit textiles; he was forced to rely on fake logo-printed leathers since brands would not collaborate with him.
At the same time, most of the brands whose logos he was ripping off began taking legal action. While few actually filed lawsuits, the cease and desist letters addressed to Mr. Day flowed freely. “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,” he says years later in an interview.
Ultimately, he was forced to close up shop in 1992. “However, I never stopped doing what I was doing, I just went underground, and no one knew,” he says.
The thing about Dapper Dan is that his work is far too dynamic — and culturally relevant — to simply slap a “counterfeiting” title on it; such a classification arguably fails to recognize or understand the depth of his work, the transformation at play under his creative hand, or the argument that the likelihood of confusion (the central inquiry in trademark infringement matters) very well might be quite low.
While he may have been incorporating other brands’ intellectual property into his designs, Day — who now works with private clients across the U.S., and with Gucci, of course, after the brand got caught red-handed copying one of his designs and then offered him a collaboration — “I didn’t do knock-offs. I did knock-ups!” He further noted, “I never used or designed anything that [the luxury houses] would think of — I was too cutting-edge for that.”
As Day has always seen it (and as many are now catching on to), he was filling a gap, because big luxury brands were not working this form of fly-guy logomania on their own clothes. Indeed, Louis Vuitton was not selling ready-to-wear at all at the time. And even though his boutique was short-lived, “the flashy leather and fur sportswear he crafted for the black elite was way ahead of its time and became a pivotal influence on men’s fashion and the aesthetics of hip-hop culture.”