Dapper Dan was a fashion legend well before the industry actually gave him credit. The Harlem-bred tailor has been called the originator of luxury streetwear, due to his eye-popping custom designs that incorporated the logos of well-known fashion houses like Fendi, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci. Though his pieces were a hit among black celebrities and Harlemites, a number of labels weren’t too thrilled about his “bootleg” work and eventually sued Dan for remixing their patterns and logos. After multiple lawsuits and anti-counterfeit raids, Dan’s atelier finally closed in 1992; however, his name was permanently etched into street culture history.
In spring 2017, Gucci came under fire for unveiling bomber jacket that looked nearly identical to one of Dan’s original designs. Following accusations of plagiarism, the storied fashion house announced their decision to collaborate with Dan on a capsule inspired by his iconic garments. He was finally getting the respect he deserved.
Less than three months after the Gucci-Dapper Dan range hit stores, Surface magazine published a piece profiling the designer. Writer David Walters conducted an in-depth interview with Dan, touching on everything from his childhood to the struggles he faced in business—specifically his slew of trademark infringement complaints.
“You know that Clint Eastwood movie [A Fistful of Dollars]? When the guy shoots the metal [plate he’s wearing] and he just keeps coming? I tempered myself like that, to the point, well, they knock me down, I’m going to get up,” he said. “[…] I looked at it as a civil rights issue. ‘Y’all won’t let me in? Okay. The hell with all of you. If I can’t come up the staircase, I’ll build my own.’ People act like it’s unusual, but look at [black] music. We have to innovate. The thing about people of color in America is that it hasn’t been that long—a hundred-fifty-something years of liberation. You’re looking at people who were completely denied of their heritage. When that happens, to instill dignity, you have to have a powerful cultural platform. Otherwise you’re not going to grow. I took that and I translated it into fashion. And that’s what I do today.”
Another highlight in the Q&A is Dan’s description of Harlem style and the ways it influenced his approach to dressing:
"You didn’t come out on the street unless you was dressed. That’s the kind of climate it was. If you go to 116th Street right now, you see people lined up by the church with carts, waiting to get food. Back then it was the same. But people had so much pride and dignity that they would cover the wagon. Nobody wanted anybody to know they were getting government cheese and peanut butter and Spam. And the whole neighborhood was first migration, so it was a different sense of pride. That set the stage for how you carried yourself."
Of course, he also touched on his collaboration with Gucci, claiming it was just the beginning of something bigger.
“The structure’s there. I’m having fun. But I haven’t played in the yard yet. You know what I’m saying?” he explained. “When I get a chance to free myself up, when the memoirs are out, the movie.... I’m looking forward to the day when I can really explore, for myself, to see exactly who I am and what I can do.”