Dapper Dan’s “Made in Harlem” is the American Dream

Jul 8, 2021

Daniel Day, better known to the world as the dashing Dapper Dan, is the definition of a hustler. In his memoir dutifully titled “Made in Harlem,” the Harlem bred designer and street style icon details his unconventional rise from a journalist for a Black-owned newspaper to becoming everything from a slick-talking dice roller and credit card scammer to transforming into an undeniable fashion icon and savvy business owner.

Born in 1944 to Robert Day (a tireless city worker) and Lily Day (a God-fearing homemaker), Dapper Dan was raised in the heart of Harlem alongside his six siblings. Dap describes his early childhood days as growing up in a neighborhood overcome with the hardships of poverty yet filled with an abundance of love and a strong sense of community. As a very intelligent and observant child, Dan kept his eyes on the movers and shakers in his neck of the woods. Like most kids around his age, the poor life he was accustomed to began to wear on him and he was eagerly looking for something more.

Inspired by the fast money, luxury cars, and stylings of the drug dealers and number runners on his block, Dan began to make fast cash as the corner lookout boy for the highly competitive and dangerous dice games in his neighborhood. This would eventually lead him to pick up a few tricks and become a masterful dice roller himself as a young teen. For the next few years, this was Dap’s main hustle. When Heroin and Crack began plaguing New York’s inner cities, Dap took full advantage of his skills by beating local gangsters out of their extra stash and building up a name for himself in the streets as a smooth and stylish local hustler, thus gaining the moniker Dapper Dan by a highly respected OG in his hood.

“What about clothes? Fashion for me wasn’t about expression. Fashion was about power.” p.160

Day’s first introduction to fashion ultimately came from street life. From birth, he was surrounded by fly kingpins and number queens who ran Harlem’s underworld in the 1950s and 60s, drawing inspiration from how well his neighborhood connections were outfitted. Their influence helped to shape Dap’s sense of style and knack for understanding the power behind having swagger. Eventually, these close ties would lead him to a life of crime for several years as he became a victim of both the heroin and crack epidemic that ravaged Black Harlem during this era.

The widespread effects broke apart families and destroyed entire communities in its wake. Dan watched as his brothers and childhood friends became casualties, pushing him to turn his life around and use the power of spiritual teachings instilled in him by his religious Mother to heal his addiction and take control of his life. Soon after, new doors opened for him and Dap was granted the rare opportunity to tour Africa as part of a program from Columbia University and the Urban League out of NYC. This stint in the Motherland reintroduced him to his passion for fashion and he brought back a newfound knowledge of African tailor techniques that he would implement into his clothing that would ultimately become his trademark. This enlightening experience led Dan to build his own fashion empire.

Throughout Dapper Dan’s life, there has been one constant: his heavy influence from his surroundings. This is where he draws inspiration and is able to tap into his creativity. For Dap, fashion wasn’t just a new hustle to provide for his growing family, it presented a way for him to give back to the community that raised him.

In the same way that journalism gave him a voice in his 20s fashion gave him an even bigger voice in his late 30s. Dapper Dan was (and in many ways still is) the voice of the streets when it came to hip-hop fashion and street culture. In the 80s and 90s, Harlem was depicted as low class, drug-infested, and grimy by those living in the “superior” Manhattan. However, they failed to see what was brewing beneath the surface. Dapper Dan, knowingly or unknowingly, was in tune with the beat of the streets. You may even say Dapper Dan’s Boutique on 125th Street in Harlem was the heart of the city. Dap was able to thrive in an industry that shunned Black designers and labeled their work as second class. Racism and discrimination against Black folks in fashion were well documented and cultural appropriation by their European counterparts continues even today.

Dap started making custom garments using luxury textiles from such European heritage brands as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Fendi, and MCM, selling them from the trunk of his car and using the money he made to invest in his own storefront. Dapper Dan’s success from the onset has been his willingness to work with the “rejects” of our society, those that went against the status quo, from the dealers to the pimps and everything in between.

To think that he possessed the ingenuity to teach himself the fashion game from scratch during a time when there were no Black fashion schools, renowned Black designers, or access to Black-owned textile plants for him to learn from and work with to bring his visions to life. Instead, Dap used his two greatest assets, his hustle and his clientele, to create opportunities for himself in the world of fashion. His hard work and diligence led him to create pieces for his customers that were not flea market knock-offs but instead plush knock-ups.

Dap invented his own method for bringing these pieces to life. For example, he would visit the Gucci store in Manhattan and purchase a large leather garment bag and proceed to cut strips from the fabric and use them to sew handmade garments unique to each client’s specific wants and needs, even adding secret pockets to stash contraband and pistols. The Harlem underworld flocked to Dap’s designs because of his mastery of adding a street element to luxury wear that hadn’t existed before.

In the streets, rocking one of Dap’s custom pieces represented wealth and, in the mind of mob bosses, wealth equaled power. And what better way to show off your wealth and power than through status symbols.

It didn’t end there, as Dap fully capitalized on this mindset. This success eventually led him to make custom garments for some big names in hip-hop, sports, and entertainment over the past 3 decades such as Mary J. Blige, Mike Tyson, Russell Simmons, Eric B. and Rakim, Aaliyah, Nelly, and Salt N Pepa.

Dapper Dan’s rise to notoriety was not without its trials and tribulations, from surviving a calculated murder attempt on his life and the attempted kidnapping of his child to his infamous Dapper Dan’s of Harlem Boutique being raided by the US government on the behalf of the aforementioned European high-end brands followed by numerous lawsuits which accumulated to Dan shutting down his store and going back underground for several years. But, as they say, you can’t keep a true hustler down for long.

In 2018, Dapper Dan re-emerged on the scene with his first official collaboration with the legendary Gucci (funny how life works) along with opening up a design studio in his hometown of Harlem.

“Made in Harlem” is not a story about fashion. “Made in Harlem” is a story of one man’s transformation to success through a spiritual awakening, discipline, and an unparalleled work ethic. It is a story of not being afraid to be an outlier and not asking for permission to enter an industry that wasn’t made with your skin tone in mind. It is a manual for not allowing your environment to destroy you but also using what that environment has taught you to catapult you to success. It is a triumphant tale on how to take whatever you’ve been given in life and turn it into the life of your dreams.

“Made in Harlem” is the definition of hip-hop culture and Dapper Dan is living proof that no matter what obstacles we face in life we have the power to overcome them and do it with passion and, of course, style.

“Made in Harlem” is the American Dream.

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1 Comment

  1. Zay

    Dapper Dan is, and will remain an ICON in my book! This review sums up the message, in its entirety as to what I feel Dap was attempting to convey. We all have a choice, regardless of our surroundings, or the hand that we were dealt. It is up to us to write our own story. When you come from where I come from or 90% of black men in America for that matter. You choose to be a product of your environment, or a victim. Often, we choose victim, along with the toxic mentality that comes with that choice. True enough, being a product of your environment can be good or bad. For this sake, “product of your environment” means triumph, overcoming hardships, along with conquering any obstacles that are, and have been placed in your path. When you truly are a product of your environment, just as Dan did, you take the good with the bad and choose to allow nothing to stop you from achieving your goals, dreams, or simply living your life on YOUR terms. Just as Wes More brilliantly displayed in his book, The Other Wes Moore, we all have a path to travel, it’s up to you as to which path you take so choose wisely. Great review Bobby, I look forward to the next one, keep them coming!


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