There is so much power in choosing the right name, the right clothing, and the right location to live. It provides purpose and meaning and sets the tone and standard for the life we choose to live. If this formula is mastered and channeled toward a purpose, the alchemist can transform lives as well as culture.
This majestic maverick did exactly that. He harnessed that power, and by applying knowledge, skill, taste, and, most of all, hustle, he rose to national and international prominence. Some believe him to be a myth, to others he is an enigma, but for the indoctrinated, he is a living legend. Monarch has had the honor to be in his presence and receive a master lesson on his life, his influences, and how he became a designer of global culture.
Ladies and gentlemen, we present the resilient visionary who is always authentic and always fly, the one and only DAPPER DAN, as he invites us to experience ONCE UPON A TIME IN HARLEM.
MONARCH: How did the Gap partnership come about?
DAPPER DAN: I would have to attribute that to growing up in Harlem and my relationship with my siblings because it was kind of a spontaneous endeavor. I went out to California to shoot a video, a promotional video for the Gap. And when I got out there, I was being my regular self, talking about Harlem, talking about culture. They were so excited about me, by the time I got back to New York, they said, “Listen, you’re incredible. We just have to do something we’ve never done before. We want to create a Gap hoodie and you be the first one to have their name—your own name—on it, so that’s how that came about. They said, “We want you to be the first person that Gap has ever used to have their name on our classic hoodie.”
MONARCH: I think that’s beautiful. I would imagine that when you started selling clothes out of your car, you would not have imagined your name on Gap hoodies. But how God would plan things, your name aligned perfectly with their brand.
I want to provide our readers with a history lesson and give our readers insight into who you are. So let’s start from the beginning and talk about your roots in Harlem, where your parents are from, and a little bit about those early years.
DAPPER DAN: I’m glad we’re starting here because that’s the sum total of who I am. Both of my parents are from small areas in the South. My father was born in Emporia, Virginia, in 1898, thirty-three years after the Emancipation Proclamation. My mother was born in Bishopville, South Carolina. As I began to study my parents’ history, it led me to the conclusion that I am a child of the first generation of the great migration coming from the South. In fact, my generation is the last generation of
African Americans that completely exceeded the accomplishments of our parents straight across the board. I look back at my parents, and I say, “Wow, they left Tiny Town, USA, and came to this big city and never came back. So I drew on all of that and have continued to draw on all of that when I see the strength that they must have had to endure.
This is something I share with the youth when I am speaking at high schools or other gatherings where I am featured—that we all need to draw on our past and be motivated by it. From being captured as slaves in Africa and making a six-month passage to America in chains to enduring 350 years of slavery, Jim Crow, and on and on. Yet still moving forward, steadily progressing like my parents. I draw upon all of that for strength.
MONARCH: I am Nigerian, and my family came to America of their own free will. But I understand that we stand on the shoulders of your grandfather, father, and mother, who endured so much so that we would not have to. I think that is so important to share, especially with young people, so we will never forget. Being a part of the Great Migration, what was Harlem like during your youth?
DAPPER DAN: Harlem was a village, not a community. I was born and raised on Lexington Avenue, by the Harlem River. There were still cobblestones in the streets, and we still had horses and buggies. An on every Sunday morning, people were emptying out of their apartments and going to church. You know what Martin Luther King said about Sunday morning being the most segregated hour in America, well, that was true because that’s what Harlem was like on Sunday. One of the most amazing things about growing up during that period was we never lost a friend through violence. We didn’t have to lock our doors at night; all the crime was downtown. Simply put, Harlem was amazing. I’m from the very last generation to see Harlem without a drug epidemic. I saw what we were like before and after, so I try to educate young people on who we really are.
MONARCH: It’s amazing that you have been able to see so much of that transformation. How would you say your surroundings have influenced you?
DAPPER DAN: Although I come from a family that was very, very poor, I was blessed. I lived in the poorest neighborhood in Harlem, but the beauty of the timing was we were all there together. We had middle-class and upper-class Blacks all living in Harlem at the same time—all the great stars, all the great athletes. Everybody came, and everything was right there for us. Harlem didn’t deteriorate until we lost the Black middle class, you know. That’s when it began to change. So when America was a heavily segregated country, Harlem was segregated as well. But once redlining stopped and middle-class Blacks could buy outside, they began to move out.
MONARCH: It’s interesting to hear you say that. Maybe you could expand on that or what your feelings were. Was that a good thing for the Black community? Was that a bad thing for the Black community?
DAPPER DAN: It was more of a lesson than anything else. And I don’t think people even realize today how significant that lesson was. Case in point, when we refer to Black Wall Street and the prominence and the way Black Wall Street was able to do what it did in those days economically, well, when they brought them down—when racism took place and they burned down Black Wall Street—we could never replicate that again, because Black Wall Street existed because of segregation.
When laws became more lax and white businesses opened their doors to Black patronage, Black-owned stores could not compete with white businesses, but we could put pressure on the stores and corporations to get on the inside. Once inside, we learn how to expand and do business on a global scale. This is what I share with young people.
MONARCH: I understand your point and the connection of drawing upon all of our experiences to empower ourselves. Understanding that connection, when did your love for fashion begin?
DAPPER DAN: When we were growing up, you could not go on 125th Street if you weren’t “dressed.” That was unheard of. It was like the Easter parade. So I was influenced at a young age, and when I got that first outfit, I saw the difference in how people treated me when I walked into the room. At that moment, I realized how important clothing is; it’s a transformative experience. I was fascinated with having the opportunity to not be who I was for a half a day or a day. Nobody knew that I lived in the poorest neighborhood in Harlem. Nobody knew that I could look under my sink and say hello to my neighbor. All of that vanished when you put on a nice suit and you could go up, go downtown, or go anywhere and just fit in.
MONARCH: I understand how much Harlem impacted your sense of style, but was there anyone you can remember that made you say, “Wow, this is the person I want to dress like”?
DAPPER DAN: Back then, the sharpest guys were always criminals. It wasn’t like the drug dealers today. Back then it was the bankers or the policy people. Those were the sharp dressers at that time. I was also influenced by my brothers, but my biggest influence came from jazz musicians.
MONARCH: When or why do you think the way we presented ourselves with fashion changed?
DAPPER DAN: Fashion changed as the social structure changed because they go hand in hand. You might hear people talk about Sugar Hill. There was sugar on that hill. Those were the uppity Black men, and we saw them every day. They gave Harlem this amazing lift. Then there were the street hustlers, so the narrative began to change. In Harlem, it was like we went from a renaissance to an expansion to a drug epidemic, which was an implosion and was reflected in the wardrobe.
MONARCH: When you traveled to Africa is when you really began to awaken. How did Africa change you?
DAPPER DAN: When you go, you have to be ready—ready to accept the good and the bad. So that’s the first part. The second part is this: What’s happening to us here and the way we relate to each other here is like we got to understand the beauty and the contribution. The universe doesn’t make any mistakes. I was mad and angry, but the universe placed us here and sent us through all these trials and tribulations for a purpose. I’m part of the African American tribe.
I understand that what we as African Americans did here—the liberation movement—speaks to all underprivileged people around the world. So I know there’s a powerful reason for us to be here. That transcends the years of slavery, and I’m sure that history is going to show that.
MONARCH: When did you transform from Daniel Day to Dapper Dan?
DAPPER DAN: Dapper Dan is who I am, the person I am based on the circumstances that I was involved in at the time. When I became a good gambler, I got the name Dapper Dan, and I got that from a guy named Danny, an amazing hustler in the neighborhood I grew up in. He was a Geechee. A Geechee is as close to a Nigerian as you can get, so you are Geechee.
Danny was in jail, and his friends started calling me Dapper Dan. And when Dapper Danny came home, I used to let him be with me and help him out and look out for him. He was a good hustler and all that; he played tenor saxophone as well. He said, “I don’t want nobody to call me Dapper Danny no more. From now on, you got the name. I want everybody to call me Tenor Man Dan.”
So that’s how I got the name Dapper Dan at 15 years old, because I mastered the street game. And I got dapper and transformed into Dapper Dan.
MONARCH: You sure did, and you’re still dapper. The transition into designing clothes—what was the catalyst for that?
DAPPER DAN: How I got into this fashion thing… I’m in Monrovia, Liberia, and I’m really dressed sharp. I go down to the market where they sell all the African artifacts, and there’s a Guinean tailor. He starts pointing out that he likes my clothes and offers a trade—an exchange of clothing for the artifacts. I ask him to make some clothing for me, and that was my first experience. During this encounter, I began to think about doing something different. I wanted out of the street life, so I decided I was going to open up a boutique on 125th Street.
I began to buy clothes wholesale; I would buy from one furrier, and I would get leather jackets with possum lining that I would pay $400 for and sell for $800. I was doing great with those jackets. My competitor was a white guy who owned a popular store called AJ Lester’s in Harlem, and he was selling the same jackets for $1,200. He had six stores, and when my competitor got wind of his opposition, he went to our supplier and threatened to pull out if he did not stop selling to me. So that closed the door on that operation, but as they say, one door closes as another one opens up. The next day I was having lunch, and there were a few Senegalese guys selling artifacts on the street. I remembered the African I met who made clothing for me. I hired him to make the same jackets for me but more elaborate. Then it grew from one African to two then three, and the next thing you know, I had 23 Senegalese Africans working for me.
MONARCH: Amazing. So how did you connect with celebrities?
DAPPER DAN: Because I grew up in Harlem, everybody knew me when I opened up my store. I was a master hustler. We have in Harlem what’s called a Sol. In Harlem, I was considered a Sol. Hustlers know what Sols are. Sols come from the wisdom of Solomon, and let me give you a little lesson on how the street jargon goes. Young people say player, right? A player was somebody who mastered a game in the street, a con game, gambling game, any of those negative games. But when one becomes a
master of a lot of games, then they call you a Sol. So I was already a Sol in Harlem. Due to that, all the gangsters were coming to get dressed by me. At that time, hip hop was on the rise, and the artists wanted to dress like the gangsters.
MONARCH: So you had no formal clothing design experience or sewing experience, yet you were still able to create all this. How would you describe this ability to see it and get the resources and ability to bring it to life?
DAPPER DAN: As I told you, my father was born in 1898, and he could fix everything. He was a jack of all trades. He could do this because he would break it down to its simplest form. In addition, I learned from Malcolm X that if you want to understand the flower, you must study the seed. So I began there and said, “I’m going to teach myself all of these things.” I began to read everything I could get my hands on, but I was doing it with intention. A lot of kids come up to me today and say, “I want to be a designer; I want to do this,”. and the first thing I ask is “Have you read anything yet? What did you do before you spoke to me?
MONARCH: I think that’s a good question to ask young people. A lot of times they don’t want to do the homework themselves. I think that also allows one to be prepared and understand the journey it may take to become a designer.
DAPPER DAN: I want anyone who is interested in becoming a designer to ask the most fundamental question: Why would anyone want to buy anything from me? And then go from there. The whole fashion industry is based on that. They use every trick in the book, every influencer they can find, every innovation that they can come up with to create that possibility. And one of the things I learned from an old Jewish friend of mine is that something is worth only what someone is willing to pay for it. So what’s the answer to that? You create a reason for them to want to pay that price for it. Those are two fundamental things.
MONARCH: When you ask yourself that question—why would someone want to buy something from you—what is the answer?
DAPPER DAN: I had to be Dapper Dan. I had to be Dancing Dan. I had to be the Sol. I had to be this interesting character. I had to be my own enforcer. Brands now hire influencers, and that influence rises and falls. But when you are in the street, it doesn’t work like that. You have to build on who you are. You have to build a connection to your community, and then, bottom line, you got to love yourself and love the people that you’re serving. And I do all that.
MONARCH: I love that. Now, with that being said, do you feel like the fashion industry is becoming more accessible and equitable to Black designers?
DAPPER DAN: The industry is a corporation. They are doing what corporations do. They bend with the times. You put pressure on them, and they’ll bend. You don’t apply pressure, and they won’t bend. If you interfere with their profit and they can compromise with you, they are going to compromise with you. We are only 3% to 5% of the spending power with luxury brands, so if you walk away from those brands, it does not hurt them as much. But we have 85% influence on the people who want to wear luxury brands.
MONARCH: Because they are still being influenced by us.
DAPPER DAN: Right. And we continue to play the influencers; unless the influencers join sides with you, nothing happens. So now you going to put pressure on the influencers. Everybody’s calling me up say, “Yo, Dapper Dan, man, fix this. All these stars calling me up; I don’t want to use their names. Dapper Dan, fix this so I can wear my Gucci.” They can’t wear their Gucci, because they don’t want to get called out by the influencers, by the grassroots. So you see how that works. We have to pull together, and instead of saying walk away from Gucci, we tell Gucci to do the right thing and open up the doors. Gucci responded with the Change Makers Program, which opened up all these programs to bring Black people inside.
Where we messed up is that we put that pressure on Gucci and then all the other brands started using variations of the Black face and we didn’t say anything. We didn’t put pressure on them. We didn’t require them to change. So we are supposed to bring all these dynamics together and apply them in all these places. And then we have more Black faces in the spaces.
MONARCH: Do you feel like these programs are really helping? Are they really working, or is some of it lip service?
DAPPER DAN: Once you learn that three and one is four and two and two is four, you can’t take that away from the learning. Every time we get in the door, we learn something that’s a benefit for us. You know what I’m saying. It’s up to us to use that mathematics to expand our learning. But initially, we just got to get it. We can’t stop worrying about how long we are going to be in it. We’ve got to get in there and learn as much as we can and increase the power of our influence. We can’t worry about what’s going to be next. We’ve got to worry about what’s going to be first and how to take advantage of the first step.
MONARCH: Through the years, do you believe activism has increased or decreased within the Black community?
DAPPER DAN: Consciousness associated with Blackness is at an all- time high, but Black activism is not. I’m so glad I grew up during the sixties. Take a look at the activists of the sixties, and look at the activists of today. There is no comparison, and it saddens me that they are not reading or researching what they did back then. I’m talking about Latino activists as well as African American activists. It’s just
MONARCH: What advice would you give to a young child or a youth that is trying to get into the industry and the business?
DAPPER DAN: We all need mentors. Prepare yourself to be led. Prepare yourself to be taught.
MONARCH: Because you have to be prepared to be taught.
DAPPER DAN: That’s right. We are the sum total of our habits, our good habits or our bad habits. In order for you to be able to master your craft, you must first master yourself. If one approaches somebody with good attributes, you will get further. But if one comes up to somebody smoking three blunts, I will believe they are not ready. You’ve got to prepare yourself for what you want.
MONARCH: Dapper Dan, this has been the most amazing interview. Before I close out, why don’t you tell our readers where they can find you on social media, a website, anything you want to share.
DAPPER DAN: You can find me walking around Harlem. You can find me on the train. You can find me on the bus, or you can find me standing on 122nd Street and Malcolm X Boulevard. I stand there every day greeting people in my neighborhood. They come by, and I take pictures with the school kids in the neighborhood, their moms and their dads. And the reason I do that is because although I have a partnership with Gucci—and the people in my neighborhood may not be able to afford Gucci because when I was growing up, I couldn’t’ afford it—you all can afford me, and you all got me every day because that’s where I am. You can approach me, ask me for pictures, ask me questions. I’m available to you. But professionally, you can get in touch through my assistant at DapperDanHarlem@gmail.com.