DAPPER DAN: MADE IN HARLEM, by Daniel R. Day. Random House, 304 pp., $28.
You can always trust an autobiographer who discloses a childhood memory in which he and his siblings “had to smack a cereal box twice on its side . . . to make sure we got the roaches out before we started pouring it into our bowls.”
This may seem a strange point to begin assessing remembrances as enthralling as those of Daniel R. Day, better known as “Dapper Dan,” fabled Harlem fashion mogul and groundbreaking virtuoso of luxury logo-bearing streetwear. Still, minor anecdotes like the one about the cereal box attest to a fine-tuned sense of detail that one would expect from a legendary clothes designer and culture hero.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, decades rife with crime, crack plagues and economic instability, Dapper Dan built his 125th Street store, along with his brand and reputation, on a method of screen printing such name-brand logos (Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Fendi) for custom-made casual wear and suits. The Harlem gangsters comprising his first wave of high-profile customers were soon joined by such myriad black superstars as Big Daddy Kane, Mike Tyson, Eric B and Rakim, Jam Master Jay, P. DIddy and Jay-Z. How Daniel Day reached this prominence makes for a classic tale of black self-invention, an “Up From Slavery” for the hip-hop era.
Day grew up hungry in mid-20th century Harlem, “though we didn’t know we were poor because everybody we know was struggling like us.” Vividly, but without sentimentality, he evokes both the pleasures and hazards of living and dreaming in what was once considered the citadel of black America, where “hustling was a normal, often lucrative line of work." He once aspired to become a writer, and this book, however much its style slips into street colloquialisms, attests to his formidable storytelling chops.
By 15, Day had dropped out of high school, finding education and economic development through various forms of hustling, whether through petty theft, shining shoes or, most lucratively, what he calls “firing coffee,” or shooting dice. He was also getting into “the drug game” and was only able to get clean of heroin addiction during a three-month jail stretch on breaking-and-entering charges.
From that point on, the story assumes a more-or-less ascendant curve: Day forsakes a Columbia journalism scholarship for a summer tour of Africa, where he “fell in love” with both the clothing and the tailoring styles he encountered on the continent. African clothes, Day recalls, “fit me better than anything I’d ever bought or shoplifted from a story in New York.” A few years later, he returns to Africa as part of the pop-music festival accompanying the 1974 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman “rumble in the jungle” in Zaire. During a delay in the fight caused when Foreman is hurt in a sparring accident, Day roams other African countries looking for “things to wear” and solidifies his calling to make “people look fly.” And that, on some level, was only the beginning of what was still an arduous advancement to cult fame.
Day conveys both his streetwise philosophy and the details of his life with a sang froid that forgoes self-pity or simplistic bromides (for example, “If I can do it, so can you”). If Dapper Dan is telling his readers anything, it may be nothing more complicated than this: I was often tempted to count myself out, but I didn’t. Look what happened and draw your own conclusions.