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Dapper Dan on Harlem, Gucci and Fashion’s Tech Future

If you don’t know Dapper Dan, then you are unaware of a fundamental part of fashion’s history and it’s future. Dapper Dan is the fashion industry outsider from Harlem, who is now working alongside Alessandro Michele at Gucci, hot fashion property. Before you had Gucci Ghost and his bootleg inspired luxury art/fashion or Alexander Wang reimagining the Adidas logo by flipping it on its head and selling out of the back of vans, Dapper Dan was the originator of these custom creations. Dapper Dan kickstarted personalized high fashion from his store in Harlem in the 1980s. He realized early on that real culture and style came from the street, but that fashion’s infrastructure was the machines, factories and suppliers working with high fashion luxury labels. So he decided to bridge the gap between those worlds, he watched Harlem residents, admiring their style, seeing what they wanted from fashion, and then he went to trade shows and factories, to see the machinery in action and discern how he could make beautiful fashion that would service his community. His store was a huge success, so much so that the luxury labels wanted to shut it down, and in the early 90s he closed. But now, thankfully, he’s having a fashion renaissance.

Dapper Dan and interviewer Maria Bobila

On Friday November 3, we headed to the Fashionista ‘How to Make it in Fashion Conference’ to hear a live Q&A with the man in question to find out everything from how he started in the business, to the news of his store reopening with support from Gucci.

Dapper Dan on his fashion start: I didn’t know anything about fashion, but I knew that fashion and culture are two sides of the same coin, and I started my business because I wanted to serve my community. We didn’t have social media back then so I had to try and figure out the nature of a garment and how it was constructed. I wouldn’t go to the runway shows, I would go to trade shows, and see the factory machinery, and go into the garbage and see discarded garments to work out how they were made. I went to auctions and I would be the only person of colour there. Then I would go back to Harlem and ask what do the people in the community want? Well, I realized everyone wants to be recognized, and an outfit can transform you, so I started playing around with luxury symbolism and making full outfits.

Dapper Dan on style: How I approach fashion was always from the customer to myself not the other way round, I built on the ideas of what they wanted. I worked in my shop for 10 hours 24 hours a day, so I was coming up with endless ideas. I think that fashion should be exciting. I liked to captivate the culture, not trends.

Dapper Dan on diversity: I’m from east Harlem and I’m proud of the fact. At the time it had an Italian community, an Afro-Latino community and Dominican community, I used to think the whole world was like that, and that enabled me to be creative.

Dapper on his fashion future: Gucci is helping with re-opening of my store, it’s opening really soon and I’m really excited. It will be like Harlem meets Florence, or Harlem meets Milan.

Dapper on fashion’s tech future: I love mentoring but I notice a lot of young people will stop me in the street with a sketch, but what about the fabrication and technology and all that makes a garment possible. I tell them they need to learn a good software package, new technologies and machines.Technology is the key, I started screen printing on leather and at the time no one else was doing that. Fashion is all about generating excitement!

All Photo credits: Ashley Jahncke/Fashionista

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