Dapper Dan: An Interview with the Godfather of Swag
“Customising clothing for Harlem’s local street hustlers in the early 80s via his store on 125th Street, Dapper Dan was creating such lavish garms, he literally spawned urban culture and streetwear as we know it. He took European luxury brands and created hybrid apparel, designing original menswear in luxury materials. Fastidious about quality and detail, he was outfitting Harlem’s finest.
Following the drug epidemic of the 60s, Harlem was a tough neighbourhood. There was great aspiration for clothing, but when Dapper Dan found no-one would sell to him as he was black, he came up with the idea to ink leather and make clothing himself.
It was a vicious circle, having been the look-out guy for the neighbourhood hustlers, who were now his first customers, these were followed by the rappers and celebrities of the time, who essentially wanted to look like the hustlers. His influence on hip hop culture is well documented, being responsible for the bold style displayed on various album covers, and within the work of photographers of the time including my good friend Janette Beckman.
Setting the tone for the era, when Eric B & Rakim released their ‘Paid In Full’ album in ’87, holding wads of cash and dripping in thick gold rope chains with a backdrop of superimposed hyper-green dollar bills, then backing him further on their 1988 ‘Follow The Leader’ album cover, others followed, including Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, LL Cool J, KRS-ONE, and Salt N’ Pepa. He was the go-to tailor for what you’d wear on your 12″ single cover. For 8 years, his store was practically open 24 hours a day, then by the early 90s, following several anti-counterfeiting lawsuits, namely from Fendi, MCM and Louis Vuitton, he had to start travelling the East Coast to sell his wares.
His son Jelani always gets in touch when I’ve featured him on blogs or Tweeted about him, so I sent him a couple of questions for Dapper Dan for my LOVE Takeover:
ML // What was your proudest moment as a designer?
DD // Seeing a piece of my work at the Museum of the City of New York in their ‘Black Style Now’ exhibition, and then being asked to give an impromptu speech to the attendees on the day that I went to see it.
ML // Is it your fault that I’m obsessed by logos?
DD // My intention was to take them and adorn my customers with them in a way that made someone wearing one of my garments feel cool, giving them that sense of “I’ve arrived!” I wanted to really make my customers stand out so that they felt like a celebrity in one of my pieces, and I hope that that’s what they do for you.
ML // How do you feel about the changes in Harlem over recent years, and what does that mean to you?
DD // I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, it reminds me of the Harlem that I grew up in, with all of the cultural diversity that you see now. But, on the other hand, I feel for people who have been displaced due to things like eminent domain [power of the state to take private property for public use with payment of compensation to the owner] and gentrification.
ML // How did you learn your tailoring skills?
DD // Somewhere around 25% through trial and error, and the rest through reading and studying on my own.
ML // This was a bespoke service you were operating; how many fittings did it take before the final item, and at the outset, was it just a discussion with the customer about what they may want, or did they just want anything you could create for them?
DD // Well, it varied with men and women, but I never recall anything taking more than three fittings. And generally, after the second fitting, the customer would be there through the completion of the garment. As far as design, some customers wanted me to create a look for them, others had their own creative ideas, and then there were those who wanted things that they saw other customers with. For the customers who came to me with their own ideas, I had a slogan that I used to repeat all the time in the store, which was “the idea that you have in your mind, might not look good on your behind!” and what that means is that everything is not for everybody. A successful ensemble is one that compliments two things; the way a person looks, and also the way that they carry themselves.
ML // Do you think they realised just how exclusive your work was – and is? I mean a lot of it was one-off special commissions, right?
DD // Yes, absolutely. In fact, that was the driving force for every customer that came into the store, from the richest to the poorest.”
Images courtesy of Dapper Dan
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May 28, 2013