Exclusive: Dapper Dan on Why He's Collaborating With Puma

Dapper Dan speaks on his looks for Puma's "Futrograde" presentation, how he is supporting a younger generation of designers, his Puma Forever campaign, and more

Dapper Dan Puma Collaboration Interview

Image via Puma/KITH

Dapper Dan Puma Collaboration Interview

In September, Dapper Dan unveiled a collaboration with Puma at New York Fashion Week during Puma’s “Futrograde” presentation, which was curated by creative director June Ambrose. The garments were true to Dapper Dan’s timeless reinterpretations of logomania that’s influenced nearly every luxury house. Tracksuits, oversized puffer jackets, and classic Puma sneakers were covered with a distinctive monogram by Dap and finished off with studded logos spelling out the fashion pioneer’s name and initials. 

“It’s perfect for me to come along at this time to be able to align myself with such a powerful brand that also represents us,” Dapper Dan tells Complex from his atelier. “This is the biggest thing for me since I started making clothes for hip-hop. We are at the crux of a new era: athleisure. When I started out making clothes, I was at the crux of a new musical genre. So this falls right in line with what I represent and what my story is about. So I’m loving it.” 

But Dapper Dan’s collaboration with Puma isn’t limited to those runway looks, which will be exclusively released at Kith on Oct. 29. Dapper Dan is also a member of ‘’The Collective,’’ a team of creatives, influencers, and storytellers Puma will highlight in video campaigns that detail each member’s impact on the culture. Members of The Collective, which includes designers like Rhuigi Villaseñor and the filmmaker Hype Williams, will also personally pick a rising creative from a younger generation to provide a $20,000 financial grant, mentorship, and support, for eight months. 

“Fashion to me is a platform that I can use to address a bigger issue,” says Dapper Dan. “And I tell young guys in Harlem all the time, ‘Listen man, I’m not here to dress young bodies. I’m here to dress young minds.’ I’m using fashion as a way to do that.” 

It’s clear for Dapper Dan that the mentorship element of his collaboration with Puma was as important as the clothes. Days after his surprise appearance at New York Fashion Week, Dapper Dan was a guest of honor at the 11th anniversary gala for SoHarlem, an East Harlem-based incubator that provides spaces for artisans, young designers of color, and other creative entrepreneurs to grow micro-businesses and earn liveable wages. In a suit by Javier Valencia, an East Harlem fashion designer supported by SoHarlem, Dapper Dan surprised attendees at the event by revealing that he picked Mario Miguelito as his mentee for Puma. Miguelito is a Bronx-based fashion designer who graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology. The designer launched his label Void Asylum in 2020 shortly after he took up a design apprenticeship at SoHarlem, which is where he first met Dapper Dan. 

“What I look forward to the most is working with Dapper Dan and being a sponge. I want to sit next to him, soak in all the knowledge. It’s not just from the fashion and business perspective, but also life,” Miguelito told Complex minutes after receiving the news. “Dapper Dan is an elder and there’s nothing more that I enjoy than getting knowledge and wisdom from those that have come before me so that I can use it in my art and then pass it down to future generations.” 

Complex exclusively spoke to Dapper Dan to learn more about his ongoing collaboration with Puma, the creative process behind his looks for June Ambrose’s Puma “Futrograde” presentation, how he looks to support a younger generation of designers, and more. 

View this video on YouTube


Puma is such a classic brand and you mentioned in your “#ForeverPUMA” campaign how impactful it was to see Clyde Frazier become Puma’s first brand ambassador in the ‘70s. Why did it feel natural for you to collaborate with Puma today?    

Well when you talk about Clyde Frazier and Dapper Dan being associated with a brand that he was involved with, Clyde Frazier was a cult hero for us in sports. That’s super important because, coming along, he was the biggest thing for us here in Harlem since Sugar Ray Robinson. Sports have a way when it comes to lifting up people of color’s sense of belonging to society. Our self-esteem is always elevated when we have heroes. So Clyde, like Sugar Ray Robinson, we always saw him in Harlem. So that’s a big deal. Now when you fast forward today, and you think about the culture and athletics, present day culture is like a combination, a fusion if you will, of what we call athleisure. 

It’s perfect for me to come along at this time to be able to align myself with such a powerful brand that also represents us. This is the biggest thing for me since I started making clothes for hip-hop. We are at the crux of a new era: athleisure. When I started out making clothes, I was at the crux of a new musical genre. So this falls right in line with what I represent and what my story is about. So I’m loving it. 

SoHarlem has been doing a lot of good for over a decade now, helping young designers like Mario Miguelito create their own labels. Why did his work resonate with you and why was it important for a SoHarlem designer to be your Puma mentee pick? 

Nothing continues that story better than SoHarlem and Mario. They both personified the dream that I had to build on myself, for myself, and by myself. In doing that, I had to teach myself certain skills because I was raw. Mario came along with those same skill sets that I had to teach myself. But he was just in the rudimentary stages. And then, SoHarlem was something that never existed for me. So what took me 35 years to do, Mario might be able to do it in three with the skills that he has alongside SoHarlem. That’s the ideal situation. 

Dapper Dan Puma Collaboration KITH

How long have you been working with that nonprofit, and could you further detail what your relationship is like with them?  

It’s been two years now. In the span of those two years, I’ve seen so much energy and self-belief there that I just had to attach myself to it, you know? So I feel like I’ve been there forever because the energy is so great. 

You’ve been in Harlem since the building that gala was hosted in was storing furs. Harlem has changed a lot. But aside from your atelier, shops like The Brownstone and Harlem Haberdashery/5001 Flavors are still in business today. What excites you the most about Harlem’s fashion industry now? 

Every day, I’ll walk through Harlem on the way to work or take a train or bus for all my activities. During that process, I encounter so many people who are excited about what’s happening with fashion. That in itself means something to me. That’s consistent with Sugar Ray Robinson and Clyde Frazier. So that same inspiration, I’m filtering it out to the community. I think my greatest contribution to fashion in Harlem and the greatest thing that’s coming out of Harlem in terms of fashion now—everyone has to listen to this closely and you have to know something about subculture—when I was growing up, we didn’t have men in fashion. 

They were very few because our parents considered it a feminine trait. I am the first guy to come from the hardcore corner to trailblaze in fashion. What does that mean today and how does that affect Harlem? I am so totally shocked, even myself coming from Harlem, by how many corner gangsters are walking away from crime. Every day two or three young men, I mean I can’t even walk down the street, tell me, “Dap, I got my own brand. I got my own line. I got my own T-shirt.” There’s so much of that now and hip-hop is pushing that even more. So what was once upon a time considered to be girly, young men are getting in because they feel like they can be worldly. 

September was an exciting month for you. Dapper Dan’s name on the official calendar of NYFW was a pleasant surprise. How did those looks come together for Puma’s “Futrograde” presentation?

What people must know about Dapper Dan is this: I was underground for like 30-something years. So what people saw me create was only a fragment of what I was capable of. Let me tell you why—I had to be responsible for all my self resources. I couldn’t funnel anything else for somebody to do the printing or any portion of the garment. So everything I did, I had to be self-sufficient in every area. So to see what they’re showing today, I’m proud of it. You see a lot of reflections. If you are a fan of mine, you see it on the runway. But I’m excited about what I can do now that I’m able to access all these resources that I never could before and see how creative I can get. Say you’re drawing with crayon. When I first drew with a crayon I only had five colors. Now I got the whole rainbow.

The tracksuits you designed felt like classic Dapper Dan and Puma. But I would love to hear more about the puffer silhouettes you designed. Generally speaking, your vision for luxury outerwear has constantly been copied and replicated by larger luxury houses. So I would love to hear the thought process behind that. 

The emphasis for what I do is based more on graphics than it is on silhouettes. Graphics for me is the vehicle for symbolism. So how do we bring together Dapper Dan and Puma? There’s more emphasis on that and how to expand how people feel about that rather than the silhouettes. But the silhouettes are there. What is Puma? Puma is a leopard. You’re going to see how I bring all the jungle out of the leopard. We cannot have a passive puma. With Puma, more than anything else, I do not want to take away what it represents in its classical sense because I admire that. But what kind of statement can I make with Puma to let them know something is happening?

That something is the rawness of the jungle. I’m bringing that from the streets. And so nothing manifests that feeling more than taking the puma and making it more aggressive. Early on, when I was doing things like Polo, I said look at the Polo, it’s only one horse. Instead, I’m going to come out with a herd to take it further and give it a bigger impact. So I took that same mindset to Puma. I got to make this stronger. People go to feel a difference. That difference has to personify itself in the symbol. They have to say, look at the Puma, the Puma is raw. So going forward, an attacking puma. The leopard is gonna be roaring into the world to let everybody know that something is happening with that leopard and that something is Dapper Dan.  

Dapper Dan Puma Clyde Sneakers Collaboration

I assume June Ambrose was the one who reached out to you about this NYFW show. Would love to know what your relationship is like with June.

Me and June go back 30 years. We both represent an era, which is considered the golden age of hip-hop. So we evolved together. The interesting thing about us, and what makes us such a great team, is that June came up the formal staircase and I came up the subculture staircase. So to bring that energy together was amazing. She understands me and I understand her mission. That’s what made it such a great team and working with her was just amazing. 

This collaboration feels more about making an impact. Like you said in your speech at SoHarlem, you don’t want these young designers from Harlem to wait as long as you did to get the support that they needed. Is that what your main priority is as a fashion designer these days? To look out for the next generation of youth?

I’m glad you asked that question because it gets down to the essence of my mission and where I would like it to go. I came into fashion through religion. I was trying to discover myself being a part of a minority that’s been so disenfranchised in so many ways in America. While at the same time, redeeming my spiritual self and not letting that box me in. So I felt like my mission was to first understand my spiritual side. During my endeavor to find that out, I studied a lot of religion and I saw the impact of symbolism in religion. When I transferred that energy over into fashion, I saw that it’s the power of images that makes a difference. 

So going forward, I would like to partner with a brand and incorporate images that bring us closer together. And nothing brings us closer together when we have the ability to find ourselves as we walk down this road together, right? So up until this point, luxury fashion has been defined by images and symbols of the controllers in the fashion industry. I’m not saying that they denied us that, but I’m thinking for the world to go forward, for us to make a difference in the world, we all need to have some physical presence. Nothing personifies that better than a symbol. So with Dapper Dan and Puma, the symbol is the “DDP” [emblem]. But we need something stronger than that. 

One of my favorite symbols, believe it or not, are the symbols on the dollar bill. One of my favorite slogans is also on the dollar bill, which is “E pluribus unum.” People didn’t get it. When I was with Gucci, they asked me when they were making the medallion for the Hercules chain, what we should put on it. I said let’s put “E pluribus unum, ‘’ which means “Out of many, one.” 

That’s what I want it to be. I want my brand to come together with other brands and say, “Let’s be one.” You see brands engage in a lot of messaging around social media and things. But we can’t go in and out. Let’s have something that flags and reminds us to be together, to do this together, to live together. I think it all comes from my high school experience. I had a teacher I was very fond of. She asked, “What is aesthetics? What should the story do?” 

Her answer was that it should take us apart, put us back together, and make us a better person. I think everything we do should have that ingredient in it. Everything. Fashion to me is a platform that I can use to address a bigger issue. And I tell young guys in Harlem all the time, I say, “Listen man, I’m not here to dress young bodies. I’m here to dress young minds.” I’m using fashion as a way to do that.

Kith will be holding a meet and greet with Dapper Dan at Kith’s SoHo flagship on Saturday (Oct. 29) from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. ET.​​​​​​​

Latest in Style