It all began for Dapper Dan in Africa at the end of the 1960s through to the beginning of 70s. He visited the continent as part of a Columbia University and Urban League apprenticeship program.
Dan would later write in his memoir, Made in Harlem, these apprenticeships helped shape his perspective on fashion as well as his understanding of the world.
When he returned to New York in 1974, Dan was a changed man. He had given up on alcohol, smoking, drugs and had also become a vegetarian. The only thing on his mind was to be a clothier.
But Dan had to start the only way he knew: out of the trunk of his car. A good amount of the things he sold were also shoplifted from stores in New York.
Indeed, it would seem Dan’s attempt at an honest lifestyle and livelihood must have been made a bit harder by those he would have done business with. He wanted to make the clothes all by himself but he explains that textile wholesalers refused to sell him furs for instance, because he is black and coming from a part of New York they were not enthused about.
However, Dan was relentless. He taught himself industry skills such as textile printing and even invented a new way for clothmakers to print onto leather.
The biggest selling point for Dan – in fact, the reason he has become such a historic figure in recent American fashion history – was his confident but illegal use of logos belonging to established brands such as Fendi, Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
His clientele in the mid and late 1980s were rappers as hip-hop culture had been birthed at that time. Thus, among African-American youth in underprivileged areas, Dan became popular.
Drug dealers and crime bosses patronised his wears too.
His clothes were known as knock-ups instead of knock-offs. The people appreciated that although he was not making legitimately branded goods, his designs were top-notch.
Dan had tapped into the fascination people had with brands and branded goods, without particular care for aesthetics. These days, we call this fascination logomania.
It did not take long until Dan could count KRS-One, Salt-N-Pepa, Bobby Brown, Jam Master Jay and others among his patrons.
But one of such big-name clients, a certain young boxer by the name Mike Tyson, would inadvertently cause the demise of Dan’s dreams. Photographs of a fight involving Tyson caught the fighter in counterfeit Fendi jacket around Dapper Dan’s store.
What happened afterward saw Dan’s store being shut down so that he had to work in shame as an “underground” tailor in 1992. The luxury brands he was counterfeiting made sure of that.
In 2017, Gucci reacted to backlash from fashion observers who noted that the company had copied a signature Dapper Dan design from 1989. The concept had been used by Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele.
The company partnered with Dan, opening a men’s line with him. In 2018, Dan added a store in his neighbourhood of Harlem, making it the first luxury store in the area.