If you saw a hip-hop artist or athlete wearing some unusual Gucci or Louis Vuitton in the 1980s, it was probably a Dapper Dan original. Using silk-screen printing, the Harlem-based designer made customized logo-printed clothing, car interiors, and furniture upholstery for the likes of Mike Tyson, Salt-N-Pepa, Bobby Brown, Eric B. & Rakim, and LL Cool J (as well as the flyest gangsters of the day), before getting shut down by a Fendi lawsuit and going underground in the early ’90s. In Sacha Jenkins’s new documentary, Fresh Dressed, out this week, Dapper Dan remembers some of his most famous designs and customers. Still based in Harlem, Dap is currently working on his memoir, and still outfits a few loyal customers, like Floyd Mayweather.
ON HARLEM: My father was born 35 years after emancipation proclamation in 1898. His father was born a slave and later freed. My father came to Harlem by himself in 1910—he was 12 years old. I spent my whole life in Harlem. It makes me feel blessed that I was part of that first generation born here. I read a study when I was in prep school about the process of “urban renewal, negro removal,” by Constance Baker Motley, who was the first black female borough president of Manhattan. I was writing for a student newspaper called 40 Acres and a Mule—Spike Lee was still in junior high school then. I did an article and used a picture of the State Office Building, which was the first building that they were going to put in Harlem to trigger gentrification. I made that building look like a Trojan horse. That concept stayed with me. I thought, “If I ever get me some money, I’m going to make sure I’m here.”
ON THE POWER OF FASHION: Fashion came by way of being deprived. I grew up prior to the drug epidemic that devastated Harlem—it made such a profound difference in the way people looked at themselves. When I was growing up, you did not come on 125th Street if you were not dressed. You would be embarrassed. Everything I had was hand-me-down from Goodwill. We were so poor that when we got holes in our shoes, we’d put paper in. Then we got very innovative and started putting linoleum in. I never had clothes, so it became a big thing to me. Clothes had this huge value to us. Clothes could make you feel like somebody.
ON THE ORIGINS OF DAPPER DAN OF HARLEM: When I left the streets in ’68, ’69, it stayed on my mind to wean myself away from that subculture of the streets. I went to Africa again. I decided to open up a store, thinking I could go and buy and sell to my community. But it didn’t work out that way. All the manufacturers that were popular wouldn’t sell to me. There were these young Jewish guys—the Jewish people played such a huge role in my life—who were just starting up. Their father owned a fur factory; their uncle was Fred the Furrier, who had all the fur stores in Alexander’s department stores at the time.
So I went to them when they were just starting, and they were selling these jackets to me: real soft lamb leather with a possum lining. But then AJ Lester’s, which was the most popular store in Harlem, was selling the same jackets and getting them from the same person. AJ Lester’s was selling them for $1,200—we were both paying $400—and I was selling them for $800. One of my customers bought one from me and told his friend, and his friend got upset, because he paid $1,200. He went over there and pitched a bitch at AJ Lester’s, so AJ Lester’s sent somebody over to my store to see what was going on, and that person went back and told the manufacturer, so when I went down there to purchase again, they said, “Listen, man. We can’t sell to you. AJ Lester’s got five stores; you’ve only got one store. They’re bitching about your prices. The only way I can sell to you now is if you take the label out.” You know how important labels are. I got upset, and having been in Africa making my own clothes, I said, you know what, I’m going to get me some tailors. It just mushroomed and I started making my own clothes to sell. The answer came out of Africa.
GOING UNDERGROUND: You might have seen this promo I did for the movie The Most Violent Year (2014). You might’ve heard me make a statement in which I said, “You can’t be in it and not of it.” I was in the midst of this subculture, but I was of the problems of that subculture. You can’t think that you’re going to be on the perimeters and be alright. One night they tried to kidnap me and I got shot in the back. The bullet traveled inside the base of my neck. All of that happened around the same time, so I took it as an omen that it was time for me to move on and do other things.
ON FAME AND THE DAPPER DAN REVIVAL: I was never into that. I stayed in the back of the store and people didn’t even know what I looked like—that’s why it was so easy for me to go underground. I was never in it for the glamour. My son made me come out from the underground. I never thought nobody was even interested in my story. My son said, “Dad, people want to know about you.” So I did the thing for Jay Z, and all these people started calling. When people come to interview me, I interview them because I’m still not quite sure, “What are you doing here?” I’m not used to all this yet.