What a difference 25 years make. Throughout the eighties and nineties, Dapper Dan, sometimes known as the Hip Hop tailor of Harlem, clothed rappers, drug dealers, boxers and anyone else who could afford it, in designs that bootlegged high fashion brands, including Gucci, Fendi and Louis Vuitton. As might be expected, these brands were less than thrilled. In 1992, his business was effectively shut down by lawyers acting on behalf of Fendi. Fastforward to 2017, however, and things have changed. It was announced this week that Gucci would be collaborating with Dan to reopen his store and atelier, using Gucci’s fabrics with the Italian brand’s approval. A collaboration between Gucci and Dan will follow in the spring. Dan himself will star in the ad campaign.
There’s a backstory to this news. In May, Gucci were slammed for a jacket included in the cruise collection which had an uncanny resemblance to one that Dan had created for Olympic runner Diane Dixon in 1989. Dixon took to social media to showcase the comparison, posting a picture of the jacket on the catwalk with one of her in the eighties with the caption “‘Bish’ stole my look! Give credit to @dapperdanharlem He did it FIRST in 1989!” The bootlegger has, it seemed, become the bootlegged.
Chatter online afterwards was angry about the lack of credit for Dan, with Teen Vogue seeing it as an example of how the industry fails black people, and many more suggesting this was cultural appropriation. Gucci’s decision to help Dan re-open his store could, cynically, be seen as a way to avoid bad press but it would be a very expensive one. Instead, it’s a shrewd move of a brand on the up, through a kind of anything-goes inclusivity.
Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele sees the influence of Dan on his work as part of his intertextual way of working – one of his collections might just as easily reference Donald Duck, Walter Benjamin, Voltaire and Botticelli in the same breath. This partnership with Dan acknowledges the place that the Harlem designer has in fashion history though – and takes Michele’s Guccinaissance on to the next level of branding, logomania with the creative freedom of a counterfeiter. “It is the time to say that fashion is not just the windows of a Fifth Avenue store,” Michele said to the New York Times. “It’s more. It’s about culture. It’s about self-expression. It’s about expression of a point of view.”
If Dan was using the logos and branding of existing luxury brands, his fusion of these with streetwear shapes was 30 years ahead of its time, when some of these brands had yet to start making clothes themselves: the Louis Vuitton monogram reworked into a panel of a leather tracksuit or a stripe down the leg of trackpants, Gucci’s Gs on a baseball cap or bomber jacket. All of this is now part of the high fashion conversation. And Dan was the man who started the thread. He’s finally getting another chance to put his point of view across – this time, through official channels.