Harlem’s Dapper Dan Speaks At #BoFVOICES 2017

Twenty-five years ago, Harlem’s Daniel “Dapper Dan” Day’s coveted designs featuring the logos of major European brands landed him in hot water with the fashion houses for appropriating their work. Today, powerful luxury brands often grapple with the public and vocal criticism that comes from borrowing from other cultures. So what is the line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange?

The topic was a theme at VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, on Thursday. In the morning, designer Dries van Noten said acknowledging other cultures in his work has become nearly impossible. In the afternoon, the legendary Dapper Dan shared his own views on the complex subject, which have in many ways defined his influential career.

“In my community, we have a different lexicon that we use to describe what I do, like bricolage or collage,” he said in a conversation with Leila Fataar, founder of cultural branding firm Platform 13, moderated by BoF editor-at-large Tim Blanks. “When I looked at Gucci and Louis Vuitton and the major brands, I saw what this could be, how to interpret it through my culture, to jazz it up, to improvise in another way that’s never been done before. I played with the symbolism… A new animal emerged.”

A new type of creation emerged, and, in the late 1980s and 1990s, Dapper Dan had the “whole hip-hop community” at his door. “This subculture was being born at the same time as hip-hop music: the two were the opposite sides of the coin and they went global.”

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This creative output was partially the result of not having resources to do otherwise. “We have to create as best we can and this leads to what people might call appropriation,” said Dapper Dan.

Fataar explained that cultural appropriation occurs when brands have the “ability to drop in and out” of a different culture when they want to. “There’s something about appropriation that suggests a power relationship,” said Blanks. “The powerful appropriate the powerless.” Fostering a dialogue evens the playing field. “If there is an exchange or a way of having a conversation with the culture that you’re trying to be a part of… it feels like a different thing,” says Fataar.

An example of such a two-way exchange is Gucci’s new partnership with Dapper Dan. It was borne out of backlash the luxury brand faced for appearing to copy of one of Dapper Dan’s original designs in its cruise 2018 collection. Now Gucci is not only sponsoring the opening of a new Dapper Dan studio and atelier and supplying the designer with raw materials, but it will also collaborate with him on a capsule collection. “This is a historical thing and Gucci should be commended for it,” said Dapper Dan, adding that he has turned down many opportunities to collaborate with other brands because they weren’t any of the major European labels. He knew that their acceptance would send an important global message.

“[The Gucci partnership] sends a message to people of colour that we can finally do this,” he said, lamenting the fact that no powerful brand created by a person of colour remains in operation. “It takes another revolution within [and] among people of colour to expand on that again.”

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Photo credit: Dapper Dan and Leila Fataar joined BoF editor-at-large Tim Blanks on the VOICES 2017 stage to discuss the power dynamics of appropriation and the legendary designer’s historic partnership with Gucci. 

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