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Encore: Dapper Dan, telling stories in leather, fur and logos


Last night in a cream and floral Gucci jacket, fashion icon Dapper Dan accepted a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers.


DANIEL DAY: I can't tell you enough of how important this is to people of color.

CORNISH: He wasn't always beloved by the mainstream fashion industry back when he used designer logos without permission.


DAY: I used to ride up and down Madison Avenue with my children in the car, pointing at the stores. Yeah, doll. Versace - that's my partner.


DAY: Gucci - that's my partner. I was the greatest silent partner in the world.

CORNISH: He's the first Black designer to receive this honor. So we wanted to revisit the time I met with Daniel Day in 2019 to talk about his memoir "Dapper Dan: Made In Harlem." And, of course, he was dressed to the nines.


DAY: This is fine polka dot Gucci loafers.

CORNISH: Are those gold moths on the back of your shoes?

DAY: Are they? Yes. The cheapest jacket I have inside is 2,700. So the people in my community I know can't afford that, so I make sure I stand outside and engage them every day.

CORNISH: Oh, this is beautiful.

DAY: Isn't it?

CORNISH: So now he's selling jackets for nearly three grand. But when he was a kid here in Harlem, his family didn't have that kind of money. He tells a story in his book about shopping for an Easter suit with his father.

DAY: We went to Ripley's department store. I was going to get my first suit. Now, I think I was in eighth grade, and we went to Ripley department store. I saw chocolate brown suit with pinstripes. I loved it. My father wouldn't give it to me, right? But he was going to get it on credit because we couldn't pay cash. We didn't have the money. And so I said, Daddy, let me see the contract. And I read the contract and figured out the mathematics. And I said, Dad, you're going to end up paying two and a half times what the suit is worth. I said, don't get it there, you know?

And we came one day out the store. And on the way down the steps, my father stopped me. And he said, boy - I got to take my glasses off. He said, boy, don't you know you can read? Boy, you can read, you know? And I'm seeing - I'm looking at my father's face, you know, and the intensity of his face, right? Then it all came back to me because my father only went to the third grade, and he had to teach himself to read. So everything I'd encounter, I know that I could read my way out of it.

CORNISH: Did you ever get your Easter suit?

DAY: My Easter suit - no, I never got it. I never got it. I got a better suit. I got something that suited me for life. So I'm glad. That's one suit I'm glad I didn't get.

CORNISH: Daniel Day is now partners with Gucci. The fashion giant struck a deal with him in 2017. But when he was making clothes in the '80s, he wasn't asking permission to use the Gucci logo. Back then, after he'd been making and selling furs for a few years, he noticed a trend. Designer bags by brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton were printed with the label's logos all over them. And Dan thought, I can do that but bigger.

DAY: So when I saw the designer bag, I said, wow. Just imagine. If I can have them walking around looking like that bag, I could change the whole game.

CORNISH: He bootlegged the logo prints and made bespoke suits and dresses, even custom upholstery for cars with the material. The actual clothing labels weren't making anything like this. And so Dapper Dan became a favorite designer for rappers and hustlers, Harlem's Black and Latino clientele with money to spend, money the major fashion houses did not welcome. Dapper Dan was the king of hip-hop fashion before the labels shut him down in the '90s.

Oh, my gosh. So where are these photos from?

DAY: Each picture that you see on the wall tells a story.

CORNISH: Now, one photo jumped out at me. It's the rapper Rakim in the legendary Gucci patterned jacket Dapper Dan made for him.

DAY: The black leather jacket, black leather plonge with gold-colored Gucci G's all over and trimmed in metallic gold. That's a historical jacket. That is probably the most important jacket in hip-hop.

CORNISH: It's also, if I'm reading the book correctly, part of the transition from outfitting gangsters in the neighborhood to having more of hip-hop artists come in, right?

DAY: Back then, the rappers wanted to be like the gangsters. They wanted to dress like the gangsters. Today we have the opposite going on. The gangsters want to be like the rappers. And Eric B and Rakim - those were the first ones that really - gangsters really, really liked their style.

CORNISH: When you wanted to get into furs, you studied and learned in the business. When you wanted to get into making custom clothes, you studied and really went around to manufacturers and learned things. And you always call this process sciencing (ph).

DAY: Very challenging.

CORNISH: And you do it over and over again, though.

DAY: Over and over again. And you know what? I find it exciting. Right now my children think I'm crazy because I stay on the internet. They have no clue to how important this is to me. I can press a button and get information that I used to have to go into garbage and get, you know, that wasn't revealed to me. I had to find the factories to sew it, find a way to get in there and talk to the owners, talk to the workers. But I'm glad. In a way, I'm glad because I did work that nobody else was willing to do and nobody else had even thought about. And that's what made it exciting for me - to find out how something is put together.

CORNISH: You said that you now have access to information that you used to have to scrounge around to get. Can we talk about that? Like, what are some of the obstacles that any other person who is opening up a store at that time wouldn't have had to go through? - because you talk in the book about people not selling to you, right? You know, the kinds of furs you got at first were not very good. It just seemed like there was a lot - you could never just get a straightforward contract for something.

DAY: I started by going to trade shows to see what kind of machinery was involved in making a garment. In addition to that, I would go to people who made these machines and people who use these machines to try to pretend I was going to place an order with them so I can see how they work.

And the first thing I do when I go in there to talk to them and tell them what I want to do - I would shake their hand, look in their eyes and look behind them to see what they're reading or see what books are on their desk. I would look for information like that. And I would always try to find a person of color that worked there. If I couldn't get that information, then afterwards, I would, like, pay them, you know, to tell me something. And if that didn't work, then I go through their garbage when they close - all kind of things like that.

CORNISH: So when did you start to think of yourself - and I don't know if you do now - as a designer and think of the business not just business and another kind of hustle but a creative part of yourself?

DAY: See; that's the good word. I like that. The first word you used, designer, I don't like. Last word you used, creative - that's what I do like. That's what I think it is.

CORNISH: Now do you think of yourself as a designer?

DAY: I consider myself one who creates clothes, and fashion is clothes and uses that vehicle to fashion young minds. That's my goal. I want to tell stories that change people's lives. Like, I made clothes that change people's attitude about how they feel about they self. That's it. That's the core of who I am. I tell stories about what I did, how I did it that could change them. I make clothes to make them feel different right away. You understand? Those are the two things I like doing.

CORNISH: Daniel Day, Dapper Dan, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DAY: Oh, thank you. Thank you for coming here and listening to a crazy man from Harlem talk about his life.


CORNISH: That was Dapper Dan in 2019, talking about his memoir "Dapper Dan: Made In Harlem." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.