Dapper dan talks his gucci partnership, dressing harlem’s notorious gangsters, and getting busted by sonia sotomayor gq database gale

Dap is most readily known as the tailor and couturier who gave rap music (and the cocaine ’80s) its signature style, draping everyone from big daddy kane to mike tyson in unforgettable, one-of-a kind counterfeits of the trendiest upmarket brands of the day: gucci, fendi, louis vuitton, and MCM—acts of sartorial piracy so extravagant, so daring, that they demanded to be described with the neologism “knockups” rather than knockoffs. Whereas conventional bootleggers “stepped on” the street value of their chosen logo—making expensive brands cheaper, more accessible—dapper dan made luxury even more luxurious, producing custom looks in fur and designer leather, scarcely affordable for anyone outside the elite circles of sports stars and drug kingpins.125th street

As such, he is both the keeper of a treasure house of urban lore and a legend himself. Scenes from that legend have been told and retold under harlem streetlamps—and increasingly in the publications of the straight world as hip-hop has taken its rightful place in the canon of pop culture: how he started his adult life as a professional gambler. How he was awarded a tour through ghana, nigeria, kenya, uganda, ethiopia, egypt, and tanzania via new york’s urban league, a formative experience that inspired him to “africanize” premium european brands. How he opened his boutique on 125th street in 1982 to sell high-end furs, then quickly branched out to production and design, 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).“wow this there was the huge double-G gucci logo cut out of cookies-and-cream black-and-white leather that graced the album cover of eric B. & rakim’s pioneering debut, paid in full, and the follow-up for the sophomore LP, follow the leader, which memorably paired gucci with the seven-and-a-crescent symbol of the five percent nation.

Yet chapters of the legend were still to be written. Last year, gucci creative director alessandro michele gave it a fresh layer of gloss by unveiling a balloon-sleeve bomber in mink and leather that was nearly identical to a 1989 dapper dan creation for olympic track star diane dixon (although in the dixon original those balloon sleeves were emblazoned with louis vuitton logos).“wow this the self-aware knockoff of a “knockup” sparked a furious online debate about the uneven field on which the game of cultural appropriation is played. It was a cue for dan himself to step back into the spotlight.

Speaking of what you added to gucci’s brand, much of the initial coverage of this partnership revolved around questions of cultural appropriation. Now that the atelier is opening, do you look forward to leaving that behind and focusing more on the work itself?

You know, that’s an interesting question, because that’s an issue with the public. I’ve left that behind a long time ago. Because I have seen [echoes of] my work in various forms, with various companies.Social media in fact, mecca launched their company with one of my initial creations. So I was used to seeing that. The only new idea that I had to get used to is getting credit for it! But social media was up in arms about it—you know, social media is new to me, so it all took me by surprise. But, no—I plan to just move ahead. Sometimes I would have to address it, in fairness to the public, but all in all, I’m very happy about the arrangement gucci and I have.

Between that wave of commentary on social media and the announcement of the partnership, what sort of conversations were you having with gucci? Did they reach out to you—or were you already in touch with somebody there?“wow this

Well, if the question is “did gucci reach out?” then honestly, at the time, there was no way they could reach out to me. I think we heard [of their interest] through various hip-hop artists and stylists. I was surprised about it. I thought it was a joke in the beginning. And then I said to my son [and business manager, jelani day] let’s just reflect on it, and we said, “okay, let’s have a conversation.” and that conversation led to what’s happening today.

I also understand you and jelani have been engaged in a sort of retrospective project, taking stock of the original dapper dan pieces that are still out there?

Jelani day: yes. You know, everything that he did, between ’82 and ’92, was made to order.Louis vuitton there was no fall ’86 dapper dan look book; everything was made to order, 365 days a year. So part of my responsibility is to get in touch with people who own original garments and to create a database, basically a virtual archive, of who has what, collect photos, where these pieces are located and so forth.

I was surprised to learn that one of those uninvited lawyers who raided your original shop on 125th street was sonia sotomayor [now a supreme court justice—then a corporate lawyer representing fendi].

Yeah, and you know what? She was the one I respected the most. Because an odd thing happened. MCM came in at the same time, but they didn’t have a court order for seizure.Social media they wanted to seize things, and she told them, “no, you can’t do that.” and I wasn’t aware of that. She was very cordial, and one of the things that she said that made me remember her so well—I had big daddy kane’s coat there; it was a full-length black-on-black plongé leather MCM with a shawl, black glamour mink collar—a really classy piece. And she looked at that and said, “wow, this guy really belongs downtown.” so my first big raid was my first big compliment.

What’s striking about the pieces from that era is that there’s such a strong sense of the wearer’s personality. You can tell that they are collaborations, in a sense, with the client—are you still looking to have that approach?Social media

Of course. Everything I do has to have the ability to be transformative. Back then, people wanted to be recognized—they wanted to be transformed. Today, a lot of brands are catering to the people who weren’t catered to back then. I gave them a chance to see themselves on a higher level.

So much of the creativity of those ’80s pieces was about your ability to achieve that sense of elegance and extravagance with limited resources. Now that many of those obstacles have been removed and you have fabric supplied directly by gucci, are you looking at a different set of creative challenges?

The difference between then and now is that now I can build the house in the sun.“wow this back then I was building a house in the storm. I had to be completely vertical. Now I’m horizontal, because even though I’m creating the pieces myself, I don’t have the burden of dealing with the materials. And I don’t have the burden of the brands raiding me and taking away my machines and all that. So it leaves me free to be more creative now than ever before. That’s what I’m most excited about. The only limitations will have to do with the perception of what I think is hip and what they [gucci] think is hip, keeping the essence of gucci and the essence of alessandro’s mind. I have to work within his mind frame, but [within that] there’s so much space—he has embraced the whole world.Social media he’s the first one that I see that has done that. There’s nobody who cannot find a place within what he’s been producing.

You’ve spoken in the past about how much traveling in africa influenced you as a young man and the idea of the “africanization” of high-end european brands. Have you been abroad recently, and what kind of inspiration did you find?

My biggest fascination was going to italy. When I got to italy and I met the head of the factory and I saw how they dressed, I said, “wow, this is us.” I called jelani and said, “listen, they was wearing gator and suits like we used to wear.” those italians are so fly. A big influence on us [in harlem] was the italians, because they was right here with us.125th street

Which highlights something about your sensibility that isn’t just about hip-hop—it has elements that draw on earlier eras of harlem, going right back to the harlem renaissance.

Everything is the outgrowth of that, you know? It wasn’t like this in harlem in the beginning. In the beginning, there was two dress forms in harlem. One was called ivy league—those was the goody-two-shoes guys—and the other one was called hustler style. Hustler style took over. Ivy league was always intimidated, you know? The hustler’s style won out. You know, these were like robin hoods to us. The number men, first. Because I pre-date the drug epidemic. But also on the big screen: james cagney.Louis vuitton edward G. Robinson. That’s why we would even say on the street, “yo, you trying to bogart me?” or “you think you’re cagney?” george raft, he not only played gangsters, but he was a real gangster. Then what followed them was sammy davis jr., nat king cole—you know, the rat pack. That was [at the same time] as the last great store in harlem: nat nevins. We wanted so much to keep that look, the alligators and crocodiles. But when the riots came, they got broken into, and that was it.

Harlem has such a strong sense of legacy. I think of somebody like puffy combs, who didn’t come up in harlem but is still harlem royalty in a sense because of who his father was—melvin combs, an associate of frank lucas, of american gangster fame.Social media are some of your customers now from those second and third generations?

Yes. And there’s a conflict, too. The older guys say, “I know you ain’t gonna let all them guys who be wearing them sissy pants up in this store.” [laughs] those tight legs, man. “we’re going back to the real thing, right?” but I’ve seen it before. I know when pants went in, got narrow, and got wide…. They don’t understand that because they’re locked into their time.