Fashion guru and designer Dapper Dan styled in his personalized Gucci ensemble share details about his life, triumphs, and pursuit to a successful fashion career at the N.C. Central's Rock the Lyceum. Photo by: Jalliyah King (Echo Staff Photographer.)

Harlem raised designer Dapper Dan tells all about his journey to high fashion success

February 27, 2020

Fashion guru and designer Dapper Dan explained to an N.C. Central University crowd on Wednesday, Feb. 19 how the culture of Harlem in the ’80s influenced his passion for fashion. 

He began his lecture by painting a mental picture for students of what Harlem was like while on stage with junior Zaria Johnson in B. N. Duke Auditorium at the Rock the Lyceum lecture series.

“(My interest in fashion) came from the older guys in the neighborhood who were basically in the hustling business,” Dan said.“They were the sharpest guys and of course the gamblers, so my first influence came from them. (I) always wanted to dress like they did, they always had money, (and) they had the first cars, the first pretty cars you saw.”

Dan described the street culture in Harlem, growing up poor, and not wanting to be apart of that stereotype. After getting arrested for selling drugs, he decided to make a change in his life.

 “That moment came when I decided that I did not want to be a part of the street culture anymore,” Dan explained. “I didn’t want to be a part of the criminal culture, so I said that I was going to open up a store and sell to the people in my community.” 

In addition, Dan used a clever marketing strategy to brand his debut clothing line in 1982. As a part of this marketing strategy, Dan emphasized that he wanted to focus on designing for “boy wonders” within his community and capitalizing on his status as one.

“Every generation has what’s called a boy wonder before hip-hop became popular,” Dan explained. “A boy wonder is a person in your community, like myself, that people wanted to dress like.” 

Dan connected the “boy wonders” of his generation to the controllers of fashion and style of this generation such as Jay Z, Beyonce, Rihanna

“Strong people are the ones who control fashion,” Dan emphasized. “It’s not necessarily the fashion itself, it’s the power behind the fashion.” 

Dan designed leather jackets and tracksuits for celebrities with designer logos from major clothing brands such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Fendi, and Michael Cromer Munchen without obtaining permission from these brands. 

The Harlem native has styled several celebrities by using this marketing strategy such as the hip-hop group Salt-N-Pepa, hip-hop rapper Big Daddy Kane, and professional boxer Mike Tyson just to name a few. In 1992, his brand was raided for trademark infringement and he was forced to start over.

The 75-year-old said that he lost a quarter of million dollars after his brand was raided.

“All the artists that you (saw) on Yo! MTV Raps,(referring to a 1992 two-hour television music video program) was when (Dapper Dan Boutique) closed. Once the major brands found out how powerful the music is and how fly the clothes (are), they started raiding me.”

He added that the media used four key tactics to raid him.

“The first part of the plan was to keep raiding, and raiding me so that I couldn’t stay in business,” he explained. “The second part of the plan was to go to Yo! MTV and (tell the producers) that if they show any rappers wearing my clothes on Yo! MTV raps, they wouldn’t advertise for it. Part three was to go get the rappers. Part four was to make the clothes and sell them.”

In regards to the outcome of the raid, Dan added, “by the time you guys grew up, y’all didn’t even know about this whole big thing that was in the works for them to take over exactly everything that started with us – with rapping and the brand that I created.” 

Dan began to build up his empire again by designing t-shirts and slowly rebirthing his store, known as Dapper Dan’s Boutique that is located on 125th Street in Harlem.

Within the lecture series, Dan referenced a variety of topics on African American’s connection to Africa and the gentrification issue that is prevalent within metropolitan cities.

Dan explained that with the emergence of gentrification within Harlem in the 1970s, he advised the people around him to purchase property that would appreciate in value for years to come. According to Dan, people did not listen to his advice.

“We didn’t lose Harlem. We gave it away,” Dan said. “Gentrification changed the whole face of Harlem.

Topics such as these and memories of Dan’s upbringing in Harlem and career are referenced in his 2019 autobiography, “Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem: A Memoir.” Within his autobiography, Dan illustrates the trials and tribulations that he faced to garner the success that he as today and uses his story as a source of inspiration for fashion industry aspirants. 

As for advice to individuals who want to divulge into the fashion industry during the lecture, Dan emphasized that “embracing the culture and being your garment” is the first step to starting. 

“Your personality, who you are, and what you stand for have to be your first garment,” Dan said. “As the substance of who you are expands, your reach will expand with it.” 

 Dan also made the point of giving advice to aspiring fashion designers and stylists to focus on the “culture” that is prevalent within their lives and community. 

“I think that the most important thing that young students in fashion should pay close attention [to] today is culture,” Dan said. “If you can put your finger on the pulse of culture, then you don’t have anything to worry about. You’re always as relevant as the culture in your community.”

According to NCCULife, N.C. Central’s next Rock the Lyceum lecture will take place Wednesday, March 25 in the B.N. Duke Auditorium featuring actress, film director, and producer Meagan Good.  

Story by: Aaliyah Bowden (Echo Co-editor-in-Chief) and Brittany Cowan (Echo Co-editor-in-Chief)

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