‘I remember hearing Kurtis Blow saying “It can’t get better than this”. ‘Til Run DMC blew my brains to bits from leather coats to shell toes to the Stan Smiths, to Dapper Dan kicks.’ Nas on UBR (Unauthorized Biography of Rakim)
In 1982, on 125th Street in Harlem, an entrepreneur by the name of Daniel Day opened the first hip-hop fashion boutique store. Day, commonly known as Dapper Dan, would go on to create an everlasting legacy that has allowed the likes of Kanye West and Pharrell Williams to venture into the world of fashion.
While custom clothing was his core product, personal identity was the service he offered. And it was of immeasurable value to black and Latino people.
For black people, self-identity is an act of resistance and protest. Creating spaces where you are made to feel alien and not welcome has been a white supremacist pastime. Fashion has been one of many ways marginalised people have crafted their own identities and challenged the status quo.
Dapper Dan sought to bridge the worlds of hip hop and high-end fashion.
One of the first rules of business when it comes to providing a product or service is to find a unique selling point. Apple has simplicity and an integrated ecosystem whilst Nike boasts technological advancement and performance. Dapper Dan sought to bridge the worlds of hip hop and high-end fashion whilst making the latter accessible to those who weren’t considered to be Dolce & Gabbana’s target market.
At the time, hip hop was still in its infancy. Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five had just released their debut album The Message and veteran emcee Kurtis Blow was posing on album covers bare chested, wearing a white suit. Dan worked with fellow hip-hop luminaries who had not yet made the big time and once they had, they knew who to turn to.
‘More G’s on me than a late ‘80s Gucci leather, worn by the great Rakim himself, stitch my Dapper Dan.’ Jay Z on Poppin’ Tags
During the street-gang days of the Bronx in the Seventies, crews would wear biker and denim jackets with a unique emblem on the back, for example a skull wearing a Native American headdress. Identity was as important back then as it is now except the difference was that if you were caught wearing the ‘wrong’ clothing, there could be consequences.
Whilst Dapper Dan’s activity was illegal, he was seen as the Robin Hood of Harlem and the wider hip-hop community.
When a truce between the rival gangs was called at the infamous Hoe Avenue peace meeting following the death of peacekeeper ‘Black Benjie’, the gangs sought to channel their competitive nature through the means of non-violence. It was the birth of hip hop.
A crucial aspect of Dapper Dan’s success was his innovative approach to fashion. Whilst Dapper Dan’s activity was illegal, he was seen as the Robin Hood of Harlem and the wider hip-hop community. No one before him had walked up town, taken clothes which weren’t made for black people, then repackaged and repurposed it with a sprinkling of ‘Black Cool’.
Fashion is the fifth principle of hip hop after rapping, DJing, graffiti and breaking.
From LL Cool J and Eric B & Rakim to Mike Tyson and underworld gangsters, Dan’s clientele all had something in common: they all sought their own distinctive style. It could be said that fashion is the fifth principle of hip hop after rapping, DJing, graffiti and breaking. It was another part of the culture in which black people could find identity.
Dapper Dan provided individual identity which was incredibly important for those wanting to make a name for themselves, whether they were a rapper, B-boy or hustler. Compared to the likes of Rocawear which is considered premium, Dapper Dan’s boutique was reserved for the upper echelons of black communities, only those with status within the hood could attain such garments. Whilst brands such as Rocawear and Sean John were more focused on volume, they were proof that there was a market for clothing that reflected hip-hop culture and by extension black culture.
‘Way back where them Dapper Dan jackets with the hat to match, all that’ KRS-One on Just Like That
Kanye West has embarked on his fashion career. But the foundations were laid some thirty years prior to Yeezy. Fashion was a natural destination for Kanye, over the years he’s developed his own style which has permeated hip-hop culture. Not only does the Chicago native want to be seen as an authority in music but in fashion also.
Kanye has relentlessly pointed out the classism and racism that exists within the fashion industry.
For all his faults, Kanye West hit the nail on the head in his interview with Zane Lowe in 2013. He has relentlessly pointed out the classism and racism that exists within the fashion industry. That’s what Dapper Dan did too. Knowing that the barriers to obtaining high-end fashion were set particularly high for black people, Dapper Dan sought to bring it to the hood. The success of brands such as Rocawear, Sean John and Cross Colours didn’t happen by chance. Just like Dapper Dan, they identified that black consumers – just like their white counterparts – had aspirational desires for owning exclusive and luxury items.
For years, hip hop has been lambasted for its flashy and braggadocio nature. Big gold chains, expensive cars and ostentatious clothing are synonymous with the culture; the heightened visibility during the Nineties and early 2000s proved this. Whilst the balance between that and humility was not always visible in the mainstream, hip-hop culture mirrored what was being presented in pop culture but instead made it relatable for black people across the world. If rich, white people were afforded the space to flaunt their wealth with shows such as The Simple Life, then why couldn’t black people do the same in their music videos?
Growing up in the UK, I saw that this was an important element of African-American identity; and while this may have only shown one side of the story, it was their story.