‘You better watch out, you’re going to leave this place with a spring in your step,’ Daniel ‘Dapper Dan’ Day says as a waitress brings out family style size platters of cornbread, grits, mac n cheese, collard greens and fried chicken and waffles.
We’re in Sylvia’s, the famous Harlem landmark and world’s most popular soul food restaurant, which sits in the heart of the neighbourhood’s historical district, right down the street from the brownstone I lived in before moving to London.
The man most famously known as is hosting a small international group that includes museum owners and curators from South Africa and Berlin, and a very important client from Japan — in other words, people who don’t eat grits. ‘Ah! It’s like polenta!’ a Gucci employee from Milan says excitedly after the first bite
We’re on a special weekend-long experience of sightseeing and storytelling hosted by Day, the iconic designer who this week announced a new limited edition book, Dapper Dan’s Harlem, published by his collaborator, Gucci, and shot by filmmaker and photographer Ari Marcopoulos.
It’s hard to talk about Day, a man whose fame originated on the outskirts of fashion in the Eighties when he would co-opt the famous logos of luxury fashion houses to create wholly original men’s and women’s wear for famous hip hop stars and athletes, without deep diving into Harlem.
He was born during the 1950s and raised here. His newly reopened and relocated business headquarters, a towering brownstone that houses his store, office, showroom, and atelier, sits just down the road on Lenox Avenue, the street famously described as ‘Harlem’s Heartbeat’ by Langston Hughes and ‘The Avenue’ by James Baldwin. Lenox Avenue is the street off of which icons such as Maya Angelou (my former neighbour) and Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein) lived. It’s also the same street where Dan’s daughter works as the president of a local charter school.
A stroll through the neighbourhood with him is very similar to the experience of attempting to walk anywhere with a pop star or A-list actor; he gets stopped every few feet for photos and autographs.
‘You don’t want to know how long it took us to get here,’ one of his team members seated beside me in the restaurant says with a laugh, passing the hot sauce.
Harlem is as much a part of the Dapper Dan story as any celebrity. And he’s dressed many over the past three decades: Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Salma Hayek, Naomi Campbell, Mary J. Blige, the list goes on and on. He’s arguably the neighbourhood’s biggest living ambassador, a status heightened by his partnership with Gucci. His sprawling atelier, a result of their joint venture, is equal parts boutique, museum and cultural salon.
Filled with framed photographs of iconic moments in hip-hop history (Salt n Pepa, the Fat Boyz, Rakim and LL Cool J, all dressed in Dapper Dan’s iconic prints) and bolts of velvet, brocade and logoed fabrics, it’s a love letter to Harlem in brownstone form.
‘The Gucci store is like a statue — people know that they can’t own a statue in a museum. But just knowing it’s there and going to see it, they feel a part of it. That’s why you will see me outside [my atelier] shaking hands and taking photos. The average person can’t afford this, but just knowing that this is here and is open to them, that Gucci sees them and appreciates them.’
Despite having never gone to fashion school or worked for a luxury house, he’s the man credited with introducing much of the black community to luxury fashion.
While the largely white and wealthy One Percent of the Reagan and Thatcher years hobnobed in Chanel, Valentino, Oscar de la Renta and Christian Lacroix, Daniel was introducing a parallel universe of rising black affluence to Fendi, Gucci and Louis Vuitton through his flamboyant reinterpretations of the luxury giants’ wares. He’s the reason rappers and singers from Jay-Z to Bruno Mars regularly wear and name-drop high fashion labels in their music. For many, Daniel was the officiant who married music and fashion.
And his logoed knockoffs of the fashion majors would decades later influence those very same houses. Today, you can see Daniel’s influence in the swaggerific logo-covered saddle bags of Christian Dior, or the ostentatious Fendi boots with the interlocked Fs and a good chunk of Gucci’s flamboyant output dating from 2017 onward (more about this later.) Not to mention the rise of streetwear from the fringes of fashion to the heart of Paris’ gilded ateliers. Or the luxury fashion world’s relatively recent penchant for knocking off itself, churning out tongue-in-cheek reissues of archival hits made to look like the very same imitations commonly sold in back alleys.
Anyone who follows fashion, will know the Dapper Dan x Gucci story by now. Two years ago, during a Gucci cruise show staged in Florence, creative director Alessandro Michele showed a series of logoed looks in flamboyant shapes that looked familiar.
Before a fleet of chauffeured cars could take those of us in attendance back to our hotels, social media was alight with Dapper Dan fans posting images of his original designs that had clearly inspired Michele.
The moment was peak meta: a fashion giant knocking off the fashion world’s original knockoff king. ‘I didn’t call what I was doing back then a knock-off, though. I called it a knock-up,’ Day explains with a laugh. Following the cruise show, Michele invited Day to come see his next collection during Milan Style Week that autumn. It was Dapper Dan’s first time ever attending a runway show.
‘I never went to runway shows. I always went to tech shows and read everything about the latest equipment. The embossing, the printing — everything that you see here is exactly what I was doing in the Eighties,’ he says later in his atelier, showing racks of looks, including a logo printed baseball jacket with green leather blouson sleeves, from his capsule collection. ‘Embossing, I was the first one to do it. Silk screen on leather, I was the first one to do it,’ he adds.
For Day, the Gucci chapter of his career is not just a full circle moment for him, but a win for the Harlem community:
’There is a history among people of colour; where you would go into a store and be made to feel like you don’t belong there. This changes all of that. Even though they can’t afford it, it is here, it shows that Gucci as a brand appreciates them.’