The Highsnobiety Crowns are an annual awards series celebrating the very best in streetwear and street culture over the past 12 months. See the full list of this year’s winners here.
In his 1951 poem “Motto,” Harlem writer Langston Hughes summarized the hustler’s approach to life: “I play it cool / And dig all jive / That’s the reason / I stay alive / My motto / As I live and learn / Is dig and be dug in return.”
Born Daniel Day in 1944, the tailor who would become “Dapper Dan” grew up in Harlem on the corner of 129th Street and Lexington Avenue. He went to elementary school three blocks from where Hughes lived and became the living embodiment of the poet’s “Motto.” He was into personal style from an early age and his mom would gift him a new pair of shoes whenever she won money on scratchcards.
He earned the name Dapper Dan by beating a stylish neighborhood saxophonist with the same nickname at craps, and as he came of age, he fell into a crowd who were looking to make their fortune by any means necessary — even if that meant breaking a law or two. His peers included street basketball legend Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland, an NBA prospect who found the drug game more profitable than a professional sports career.
These figures helped shape Dapper Dan’s perception of style: men who wore clothes as an outer manifestation of their inner self-confidence — and illicitly fueled buying power. These were also the guys whose lavish lifestyles informed young rappers’ aspirations and lyrics.
“The rappers wanted to be like the gangsters because the gangsters is the ones that had money,” said Dapper Dan in a 2017 Highsnobiety profile. “Then the hip-hop artists became rich and they became the ones who everybody wanted to be like.”
During the nascent period of hip-hop style, there really wasn’t much to choose from in terms of brands and designers that understood hip-hop’s language and culture. In fact, there was nothing.
High-end luxury brands like Gucci, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton certainly weren’t speaking to these consumers — but welcomed their money nonetheless. Elsewhere, you had basic outfitters that peddled sneakers, workwear brands such as Carhartt and Dickies, standard commercial brands like Levi’s, sportswear from adidas, FILA, and Le Coq Sportif, and military surplus gear including Alpha Industries’ MA-1 bomber jackets.
What Dapper Dan did was pay attention to the silhouettes and luxury labels that were popping off in neighborhoods like Harlem and create one-of-a-kind pieces that fused the status-making logos of luxury houses with the casual style of the streets. He opened his atelier in 1982 at 43 East 125th Street and established a reputation for taking bona fide materials from Gucci, MCM, Fendi, and Louis Vuitton and remixing them into bomber jackets, puffy-shouldered coats, and tracksuits.
Dapper Dan’s atelier was the first of its kind, a boutique clothier that understood the power of luxury status symbols and a need for clothing that spoke to how young people of color actually wanted to dress. For a decade, he ran his boutique 24/7, even including a VIP entrance for special customers, and along the way dressed some of the most stylish rappers in the game.
That wave of success lasted for 10 years until he was pretty much sued out of existence in 1992 by the fashion companies whose logos he immortalized in the realm of hip-hop style.
Among the indelible looks he created were Chanel tracksuits for Eric B. & Rakim, color-blocked custom jackets for Salt-N-Pepa, and a mink coat with puffy Louis Vuitton-monogrammed sleeves for Olympic gold-winning runner Diane Dixon. It was the latter piece that inadvertently helped bring about Dapper Dan’s triumphant return to the fashion world.
During Gucci’s Cruise 2018 show in Florence, Italy, eagle-eyed fashion fans couldn’t help but notice the similarities between one of creative director Alessandro Michele’s designs and that Dixon jacket from 1989. Both had a mink body connected to monogrammed puffy sleeves, although Michele’s version proudly repped Gucci rather than Louis Vuitton.
The Italian fashion house was quick to admit the look was an homage to Dapper Dan’s work and immediately began talks with him to ameliorate the situation. The result was Gucci working with Dapper Dan to reopen his Harlem atelier — this time with official fashion house backing. Gucci also gave him a collaborative capsule collection, bringing many of his design codes to a broader audience.
It might have been a long time coming, but Dapper Dan’s return marks the fashion world finally acknowledging the power and impact of hip-hop culture. In the period Dapper Dan’s boutique was shuttered, the relationship between street culture and the runway grew far beyond what anyone would have imagined in the ’80s.
Modern crews such as the A$AP Mob readily speak of Dapper Dan’s legacy. After all, A$AP Ferg’s father once worked for the Harlem tailor, and to this day Ferg and Dan have a truly familial relationship. But more than anything, you could say the reason Dapper Dan remains as relevant as ever is simply because he still digs — and is dug in return.