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Dapper Dan: Harlem hustle

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‘I was born outside the box’ – the tailor reflects on his hustle from gambler to style icon, as well as the thinking behind his iconic collaboration with Gucci

InterviewMiss RosenPhotographyPetra CollinsStylingEmma Wyman

Taken from autumn 2018 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.

“I’m from the east side of Harlem, which was the power base when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s. I was always in awe of the Rat Pack – they influenced fashion. Before that, it was James Cagney and Edward G Robinson, the guys who played gangsters in Hollywood movies. But my biggest influence came from the Italians in East Harlem. Those were the first people in the ghetto we saw with Cadillacs, diamond rings, silk suits, all that.

“The experience that shaped my relationship with clothes and how transformative they could be came about as a result of how poor we were. We used to put paper in our shoes to cover the holes in the sole. Then we got more innovative and started putting in linoleum, because it didn’t wear out as fast. One day, when I was eight years old, I came home and my feet were killing me. My oldest brother took me to a Goodwill store. He asked, ‘You see any shoes you like?’ I saw some split-toe shoes with tassles. I took off my shoes and tried them on. They felt good. He said, ‘OK, take your shoes, put them on the rack. Let’s go.’ I will never forget that. I took care of those shoes like they were a living thing. They made me feel like somebody.

“Those shoes were also my initiation into elements of criminality. Later on, I used to boost my own clothes. I call it the ‘Robin Hood complex’. It’s OK if you need it. That led to me being involved in street things. I grew up before the drug epidemic. When that came, I chose to retreat. I went back to school and got pretty radical.

“While I was at college, I was a professional gambler. I held all my money while I was hustling. In 1981, I bought a $40,000 Mercedes Benz and said, ‘I don’t wanna gamble any more.’ I was going through a spiritual transition and had to find something else to do. I said, ‘Since all the street people in Harlem know me, I’ll open a store and sell to them.’

“When you’re a professional gambler, you have to be this guy that everybody wants to be. I was always fly. My position was to win money; their position was to win me so they could accumulate some of that magic I had going on. The store was a continuation of that. If you follow fashion in inner cities, Harlem in particular, you’ll know we accumulate things to show we are moving up in the world. On the street level, a shift was taking place. It was no longer the Rat Pack; it was exclusive brands that cost money. Then it shifted to me.

“Initially I started with furs, but I needed another outlet. I got into brands when a guy came into the store with a Louis Vuitton pouch and everybody got excited. I thought, ‘Wow, if they all got excited about that pouch, imagine how they would feel if they had a coat like that?’ It went from that point on. What made my spot so hot was that all the gangsters knew me coming up. In each neighbourhood, we have those who rise to the top and, like Flannery O’Connor says, ‘Everything that rises must converge.’ In Harlem, that’s what it is. Everybody knew who I was.

“125th is the boulevard – it’s where everybody goes and knows everybody. It’s like the jugular vein that feeds the brain and the heart. Everyone passes through there. So I wanted to be there but, you know what, everything I needed was here (on Lenox Avenue, the new atelier’s location), and Gucci recognised that. The partnership happened because Marco Bizzarri and Alessandro Michele have a vision about fashion: what it should be, what it should mean to people, where it should go, and how to reach this new immersion. All these elements came together to make this happen.

“They looked at me as someone who thinks outside the box – without realising that I was born outside the box” – Dapper Dan

“In the beginning, I didn’t accept that. I’d never seen that. They looked at me as someone who thinks outside the box – without realising that I was born outside the box. Marco and Alessandro made me realise the outside world is changing.

“Every day, people stop me on the street. When I get up in the morning, I put on the flyest outfit and take the bus so I can interact with people, see what they are wearing, and see how they respond to what I’m wearing. I have to connect. Everything under God proceeds from the forces of energy and information. I’m picking up things. I’m looking for coolness. I’m looking for how to make them say, ‘Damn, I wanna be like Dapper Dan.’

“This isn’t Hollywood. This is the real thing. I’m not playing with this game, man. I’m gonna live this Harlem thing. You’re never gonna see me in the plastic world. When I can’t interact with the young kids who come out of school, with the old guys, when I can’t feel that vibration, I don’t need to be here any more.

“When I walk down these streets, I see it the way it is as well as the way it was. I get multiple visions from the growth that took place, the hardships, the joys... I see all of that. I’m completely connected to the people here. I belong to them. To have somebody who has always been here, who can walk among them and jive-talk with them – that is the Harlem I grew up with. I grew up with James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Count Basie, Tito Puente and Joe Cuba. I grew up with a multicultural Harlem. How could anything compare to that?”

– Dapper Dan

Grooming John McKay at Frank Reps using Koh Gen Do, talent Camille Elliot, Coco Gordon-Moore at Midland Agency, Willa Best-Doyle at IMG, Tori Alexander, Si Yuan Chen, Dasede Harris, Evan Luis, Gabriella Nunez, Aaqil Oliver, Avah Rose, Vicky Sun, Edwin Villafana, Youma Wague, photography assistant Lumia Nocito, styling assistant Jessica Aurell, production Kalena Yiaueki at North6, production coordinator Irina Chelidze, production assistant Will Thompson, casting Midland Agency at Management + Artists