How Fashion Designer Dapper Dan Sees the World

Dapper Dan sees the world like he did as a boy. Growing up in his beloved Harlem, the young man then known as Daniel Day cooled off with swims in the Harlem River, but only after first throwing a Popsicle stick into the water. “That Popsicle stick would allow us to know which way the current was rolling,” he says. “That’s the way I look at Harlem. And that’s the way I look at inspiration.”

Early on, Day learned how clothes made the man, allowing him to adapt to the “different people I like being around,” he explains. “Clothes is my business, so I like to impress [people].” And even after decades of success, shoutouts, a Marvel cameo, and partnerships with brands from Gap to Gucci, the 78-year-old tastemaker remains committed to his original mission “to impress people,” he says. “Everywhere I go and whoever I’m with, my mission is to get in and make an impression within their framework of how they look and how they would like to look.” For Day, fashion has always been less about clothing and more about currency. “I do not dictate fashion. I translate culture,” he adds. “I teach people how to dress for the mission.”

Day and his storefront were a well-established presence in New York before Olympic runner Diane Dixon was photographed wearing one of his jackets in the late 1980s. The design, like many other threads crafted in his atelier, reflected not only the mode of streetwear but also the silhouettes of high fashion. Amplified logos were among Day’s hallmarks, but logomania never made him a maximalist. “I consider myself a flexible-ist,” he says. “I don’t believe in compartmentalizing the way I approach the world.”

Actor Omari Hardwick and rapper 21 Savage pose with Dapper Dan (center) in custom suits at the 2019 Met Gala

With a roster of celebrity clients, from Salt-N-Pepa to Mike Tyson, also came scrutiny. The Feds came knocking, citing the illegal use of logos of brands like Fendi, and the operation shuttered. But the liquidation of his life’s work hardly unmoored him. He knew scarcity well. “Poverty is a disease, but if you survive it, you become immune to it,” he says. “You can’t punish me with taking away money. You can’t punish me with all those things that frighten other people.” Day continued to innovate, mobilizing his business and operating underground to keep his designs in circulation. “I saw nothing and lived with nothing. Therefore, nothing could not harm me,” he adds.

A bubbling resurgence in the 2010s boiled over in 2017 when Gucci introduced outerwear on a Florence runway mirroring the jacket Dixon made famous. Amid demand for Day to receive credit, he soon emerged from the underground with a seat at the table and an offer to partner with the luxury brand on a menswear line. “One of the things that I admire most that I didn’t expect to see is the human side of corporations,” Day says.

“When I’m interacting with the people in Harlem, that’s where I get my inspiration.” —Dapper Dan

Day attributes his longevity to the endurance of his own parents, pioneers who ventured north in the Great Migration. “My father only went to the third grade and had to teach himself how to read,” Day recalls. “This is the genetic material that I inherited.”

Now located at 122nd Street and Lenox Avenue, the new atelier serves as his cultural nucleus for Harlem and the fashion world at large. Day’s designs populate red carpets like the Met Gala and are featured in the permanent collection of the Costume Institute at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. But just like the boy who once studied the tides, Day remains a man of the people, roaming Harlem sidewalks to read the currents. “I have to be able to understand that Harlem River and see the way the culture—the current—is going,” Day says. “When I’m interacting with the people in Harlem, that’s where I get my inspiration. So goes Harlem, so goes the whole fashion world.”

This article originally appeared in HD’s November 2022 issue.