Martin Scott Powell
In 1982, a gambler turned clothier started sampling old-money status symbols, remixing the trademarks of Europe’s top fashion houses for Harlem’s biggest rappers, from Salt-N-Pepa to LL Cool J—even a future Supreme Court justice came knocking. Daniel “Dapper Dan” Day revisits the shop that brought the runway to the street, and the street to the runway.
One day, I was working in the store, sleep-deprived as usual, when Little Man, a hustler who worked for the Harlem boss James “Jack” Jackson, walked in with his girl. Everyone in the place started crowding around her. When I walked over to see what all the commotion was about, the girl held up a small brown leather clutch with a repeating pattern of gold letters—an L overlapping a V.
That was the first time I’d seen a Louis Vuitton up close. It was a beautiful bag made with amazing craftsmanship. I could tell it was expensive. As someone who knew all about leather, I marveled at the stitching and the way the ink rested on the skin. Most of all, I was fascinated by the excitement it was creating among my customers. Immediately, the gears began to turn. “You excited about a little bag?” I said to Little Man and his girl. “Imagine if you had a whole jacket.”
There was silence.
“Yo,” said Little Man, his eyes lighting up. “You can do that?” “Hell yeah I can do that,” I told him.
Really, though, I had no idea how I was gonna do that. I was too tired to even realize the extent of what I’d offered.
To make good on my spontaneous promise to Little Man, I threw on my best suit, hopped in my Benz, and rode down to Fifth Avenue, watching the neighborhoods transform within minutes from crumbling buildings and vacant lots to immaculate townhouses and gleaming storefronts. New York fashion was going through a lavish era. Wall Street was booming, and the drug game was booming, ushering in a new period of conspicuous consumption all over the city. Luxury goods were becoming status symbols, and European heritage brands that nobody had ever heard of, like Louis, Fendi, and Gucci, were entering the mainstream.
The drive to the Louis Vuitton store was only a couple miles, but it was a world away from Dapper Dan’s Boutique. I was the only black person in there, and I felt the place tense up when I walked in. The doorman’s eyes never left me. No wonder none of my customers liked to spend their money down here.
I ignored the unwelcome reception to study the merchandise. Approaching the owners of a brand like this and asking them to partner with me was out of the realm of possibility, even though the clothes I sold in my shop were just as expensive and well made as the ones down here. If I couldn’t be trusted to walk around their store, how could I be trusted to sell their clothes? No doubt they assumed there wasn’t a market for their brands uptown, and they probably wouldn’t have believed me if I told them otherwise.
The research mission was turning out to be a bust. All I saw in the Louis Vuitton store was bags and luggage.
“Can I help you?” said a saleswoman.
“Yeah,” I said. “Do you carry any clothing?”
She seemed confused.
“Leather jackets? Coats?” I said.
She shook her head. “We’re a leather-goods company,” she said.
“You can try Gucci next door.”
I started to worry about whether I’d made a promise that I couldn’t keep. Like Louis Vuitton, the Gucci store specialized in leather bags, luggage, wallets, and loafers. The store had a small section of clothing, but one look at what they had and I knew that my tamest customers wouldn’t wear it, let alone someone as flashy as Little Man. The sizing and the cuts were all wrong. Most of all, none of the clothes had the beautiful Gucci logo. Crests and logos stayed on the inside of clothes those days, tucked away like a secret.
Just as I was about to leave the store, disappointed and mentally preparing my apology to Little Man for getting his hopes up, something caught my eye. Gucci sold garment bags. Unlike the other pieces in the store, the garment bags were made from long lengths of fabric, enough uninterrupted cloth to play with and possibly use on a jacket. I took one of the garment bags off the rack. Ran my hand along the thin, pliable canvas. I could definitely work with this. “Just the garment bag today, sir?” said the cashier when I went to check out.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s it.”
Little Man’s jacket with the Gucci trim was my first effort at incorporating logos on a piece of clothing. Even though it wasn’t Louis Vuitton, he seemed happy enough with the final product. Not long after, he was at an event with Jack, his boss. The drug crews were always throwing lavish events where they tried to outfly each other. I don’t know what Jack was wearing, and nobody else cared, either. Everybody was crowding around Little Man. The same excitement people had felt when they’d seen the Louis Vuitton pocketbook in my store was now radiating out among the hustlers in the neighborhood. Little Man’s outfit was attracting more attention than his boss’s, and as the night wore on, Jack got tired of hearing people say, “You see what Little Man wearing?”
“Dap make you that?” he finally asked Little Man.
Best believe Jack was in my store the very next day.
“Damn,” said Jack. “How you gonna have my workers looking sharper than me?”
Jack wanted a Gucci jacket, too. I knew that as soon as people saw Jack walking around the neighborhood with his new outfit, I was gonna need a lot more fabric. He was the Boy Wonder, and every hustler in Harlem was gonna want a Gucci-trimmed jacket. So I went back down to the Gucci store and bought every single canvas print garment bag they had in stock. Week after week, I’d buy them all out.
I wasn’t just selling clothes anymore. I was making them. As more and more clients started asking for monogrammed designs, I realized I couldn’t keep up with the demand just by going to the Gucci store every week. The garment bags didn’t provide enough material. I could only do accents with them, not a whole outfit, and people wanted whole outfits. With hustlers, flyness was competitive, and I had a chance to fan the flames of that competition with new designs that generated excitement.
How did Louis Vuitton print ink on leather? How could I do it with the same high-quality skins and techniques as them? How could I keep the ink from fading over time? And how could I do that on leather that was intended for clothes, not suitcases?
I didn’t know the answers to any of these questions, so I did what I always do: I started reading and experimenting and sciencing it out.
Once I’d refined my silk-screening process after months of experimentation, I didn’t need to make trips to Fifth Avenue anymore to buy up all the garment bags at Gucci. I could make a whole jacket or jumpsuit out of leather that was covered in any logo or crest my customers wanted.
As demand grew, I had to hire more workers, too. Soon, I had a team of skilled craftspeople, all of them from the growing Senegalese community in Harlem. In addition to hiring more tailors, I had to hire people to manage the store some late nights to keep from burning myself out. We were open at all hours of the day. I’d never once hung a closed sign on the front door. I started getting really into the symbolism of fashion-house crests. These brand logos have a power over people that I wanted to understand better. I was already heavily into symbolism and numerology from my spiritual reading, so when I started printing Louis Vuitton patterns on leather, one of the first things I did was look up the symbol. I went down to the main branch of the New York Public Library in midtown, where there was this huge room dedicated to the history of European family crests, and tried to find all the fashion-house crests: Gucci, Burberry, Fendi, you name it. I wanted to see how these symbols had evolved.
While I sat in that library reading room, delving into this history of symbols, I was beginning to see the light about the timeless, mythic power of logos, like the symbol of the tree, which shows up in the Old Testament and in Buddhist scripture, or the symbol of the star, or the symbol of the circle. Words and numbers, after all, are just symbols representing a certain shared understanding. One of the things I learned from all my spiritual readings and delving into other religions is that there are many pathways to God, but that, across religions, there are visual and narrative symbols which often seem to be in conversation with each other: snakes, eyes, wheels, stars. Symbols are doorways to myth and information.
Now that I’d figured out how to silk-screen onto leather and schooled myself about the meanings behind all the heritage-brand symbolism, I still had to convince guys like Jack, who were looking for more than just trims and accents in Gucci canvas, that my self-made monogrammed leather was worthy of being worn. I knew none of them would be caught dead in a knockoff, so I had to convince them that, while it had the high-end materials and craftsmanship of a luxury item, it was something new and different. They had to see that I had taken these brands and pushed them into new territory.
I knocked them up; I didn’t knock them off.
I blackenized them.
Jack took a second, looked at his new Louis print leather jacket in the mirror. He turned left, right, left again. He ran his hand over the screen-printed monograms on the leather. At last, he said, “That motherfucker mean!”
I slapped my hands together. If the Boy Wonder approved, I knew the rest of Harlem would be at my door in no time. And I was right.
Customers flocked to the store knowing full well that Louis Vuitton didn’t make clothes, and Gucci didn’t make jackets with logos all over them. I was doing something else. I was doing Dapper Dans. I deconstructed the brands down to the essence of their power, which was the logo crest, and reconstructed that power in a new context. My customers wanted to buy into that power, and that was what I was offering. They didn’t have to go downtown, didn’t have to wear something done in colors they didn’t like, with sizes that didn’t fit them right, made by someone who hadn’t taken the time to know them and understand the specificity of their lives and experiences. At Dapper Dan’s, they didn’t have to compromise.
The day Eric B. and Rakim walked into the shop, I didn’t know much about them or their music. Most of my hustler clients liked rap, so I usually had it playing in the shop for them, but I preferred the stuff that I grew up on—jazz, R&B, and Latin music. Rakim was barely outta high school, but he had an old soul, a spiritual side to him that I connected with immediately.
He and Eric B. had just signed a record deal with Russell Simmons at Island Def Jam. They wanted to rock something special for the album cover, something that would express the personas of two young black men from the streets who had dared to call their debut album Paid in Full. They needed something iconic. For the Paid in Full cover, I made two matching leather jackets with black-on-black Gucci print leather. For accents around the collar, cuffs, pockets, I did Gucci print in white leather. On the front of both jackets, I layered the black and white leathers to do a remix on the Gucci logo, with two prominent mirrored G’s. I knew there was a B-boy look of colorful tracksuits with fat-lace sneakers that was being popularized at the time, but I wanted to push that look into the next evolutionary phase.
I wanted to turn these B-boys into B-men.
Paid in Full came out in the summer of 1987 and became a huge hit, eventually going platinum. Now you had people inside the hip-hop world asking themselves the same question hustlers had been asking each other for the past few years: “That’s slick! Where they get that?” Thanks to artists like Eric B. and Rakim, rappers started to realize that they could have a certain kind of cachet in the mainstream if they wore my clothes. But even then, I didn’t see them as doing me no favors. Long before he made the Forbes list, Russell Simmons would come into the shop stoned on angel dust and just be ogling my female employees.
If anything, I was the one doing these rappers a favor, making them look like the powerful street bosses who had popularized my clothes. I was a generation older than the musicians who were part of the golden age of hip-hop, and we didn’t see these rappers the way the rest of the world was beginning to see them. Fat Joe was working at a sandwich shop a couple blocks away. In the early days of Uptown Records, Andre Harrell couldn’t afford to buy my clothes for his artists to wear in their videos, so I had to loan him whatever I had available.
Bosses like Jack probably only wore the stuff I made them once or twice. Wearing one of my designs any more than that was looked down upon. But when rappers started spreading my reputation into the mainstream, I had to work with people who weren’t getting money like the hustlers. The exposure was good, but it affected the way I did business, bringing in a whole bunch of young artists and their fans who didn’t have money to afford what the dealers could. Remembering how a department store had tried to fleece my father for a suit, I instituted an interest-free layaway program for folks who couldn’t pay everything up front. They’d put a down payment, then I’d hang their finished outfits in the window for display. To Teddy Riley, LL Cool J, and the Boogie Down Productions crew: Technically y’all still owe me money.
Intellectual property is still a gray area when it comes to fashion appropriation. Designers are constantly borrowing and sampling and getting inspiration from different cultures and from each other. It’s even more blurry in the art world. Andy Warhol’s career was one knockoff after the next. Campbell’s soup probably coulda shut down Warhol for stealing its logo and selling it for profit, but instead of getting lawyers to seize his paintings and end his career, the company sent him an appreciative letter for the homage and a shipment of soup.
That’s how we saw it. Everyone I made clothes for knew I was making something original. My customers knew what they were paying for, and it wasn’t Louis, Gucci, or MCM. I moved the heritage-brand aesthetic away from that Madison Avenue look and gave it that distinct uptown flavor. I was taking those logos to places the brands never would and making it look good on us. What the jazz musicians did with covers, I was doing with fashion. You couldn’t get what I was making anywhere. I wasn’t no bootlegger. But the brands didn’t see it that way. Because of all the knockoffs going on at the time, intellectual-property law was starting to be a big field. Someone found out that there was a place in Harlem putting logos all over clothes without permission, and to them, I musta seemed like another crooked New York counterfeiter.
Louis Vuitton was the first company to raid my shop. One day, a bunch of armed investigators just walked right in and started taking clothes off the racks like they belonged to them. A lawyer handed me their documentation, explaining that this was a seizure due to infringement of the Louis Vuitton trademark. They started putting everything I made that had Louis on it into trash bags and carrying them outside. Even though, at that point, the company had never produced a single jacket or sweater, they were handing me papers saying that my merchandise was illegal.
The next time Louis came to seize property, I made sure to move all the Louis stuff to the basement. I had a friend of mine bring a couple of his dogs over, so when they opened the basement door to search it, they heard the pit bulls. All of a sudden, the lawyer from Louis Vuitton didn’t need to check downstairs anymore.
But that trick couldn’t work forever. Whenever I thought the raids were finally letting up, they’d start back up again, this time at the request of Gucci, next time at the request of MCM. They were raiding me broke. There was an empty storefront next to mine where I started hiding clothes, but they even found them there. They were relentless. One afternoon, maybe a half hour after MCM had gotten through raiding me, I spotted the agents who’d just been in my shop hanging out at a gas station. What I saw made my blood boil. They were taking the clothes they’d seized and splitting them up between themselves. The next time MCM agents arrived, I called all the people from around the neighborhood to come to the store and said, “Y’all can have everything!”
The raids were compromising my ability to get my clothes made in a timely manner. People weren’t ordering like they used to. I needed a new thing that I could hit them with that would get them excited about my pieces again. While I was at one of the trade shows, I found it.
It was beautiful and big as a Cadillac: a six-headed, seven-color, state-of-the-art computerized embroidery machine made by the Japanese company Barudan. A salesman explained to me that it was the top embroidery machine on the market, and it cost almost sixty thousand dollars. Aside from Ralph Lauren’s little Polo horse, nobody was doing full-logo embroidery. Computerized embroidery looked to me like the future. I could add a new dimension of sophistication to what I was doing. I was sold.
I bought the Barudan, paying for it in cash. It was one of the most expensive purchases I ever made in my life and almost emptied me out, but I knew that once I had it up and running, I’d be back in the game stronger than ever. It was an investment in the future of my company and the future of street fashion. It was going to help me weather this storm. I had big plans for how I was gonna use it. As a test run to christen the machine, I embroidered the name of my late father—Robert Day—on a large piece of fabric. That was the first time I got to use the machine, and thanks to Fendi, it was also the last.
The lawyers who represented the Fendi family were from a private Madison Avenue law firm called Pavia & Harcourt. One of their up-and-coming stars was a Puerto Rican lawyer from the Bronx named Sonia Sotomayor. She would go on to be appointed the first woman of color on the Supreme Court, by President Obama, but at the time that I was running my boutique, she was working private practice, and Fendi was her first big fashion case. She helped them raid counterfeiters in Queens, and since someone musta heard that I used Fendi logos, Fendi and Sotomayor decided to raid me, too.
The day she supervised the Fendi raid on me, there were also some agents representing MCM there. I was still mad about how I’d seen MCM agents splitting up my clothes for themselves at the gas station, and they were probably still mad about how I got all the people in the neighborhood to steal the clothes back last time they raided.
When the MCM people started seizing things and putting them in trash bags, Sotomayor stopped them and said that they needed to show me the court order first. It was required by law. So we stood there waiting.
But they didn’t have one.
“No,” said Sotomayor. “Then you can’t do that.”
And that’s when future Supreme Court justice of the United States of America Sonia Sotomayor made these motherfuckers replace all the merchandise they’d stolen off my racks.
I asked myself how many of the previous raids had been done without the right documents. That’s when I started waking up to the fact that the fashion industry had gotten slick on me. I knew something was off about the way they did things, but wasn’t exactly hip to it until Sotomayor spoke up and kicked the MCM people outta my shop.
But she still had to raid me, and though she was very cordial about it, she did her job, documenting the evidence and watching the investigators carry away more bags full of my designs. I normally don’t remember the lawyers who raided me, but on top of sending away the MCM people, she said something else that stuck with me. I had a piece I’d just finished for Big Daddy Kane hanging there in the store. It was a full-length black-on-black plongé leather Fendi coat with a shawl.
As she admired the coat, I overheard her say to one of the investigators, “Wow, this guy really belongs downtown.” See, I knew before anyone else that she’d make a good judge.
Then they tossed the coat into a trash bag.
From the book Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem, by Daniel R. Day. © 2019 by Dapper Dan of Harlem LLC. To be published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC.
This excerpt originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Esquire.
Daniel “Dapper Dan” Day is the author of Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem, to be published by Random House on July 9, 2019.