In celebration of Black History Month, Macy's teamed up with Harlem Fashion Row and its founder, Brandice Daniel, for a powerful conversation about the achievements of African Americans in the fashion industry with Dapper Dan, a legendary designer and businessman. When I say powerful, that's an understatement.
Dapper Dan didn’t hold anything back, speaking candidly on the appropriation of black culture and how black leaders are continuously left out of the conversation. Not just in fashion, but also in music and across multiple art platforms. The gentrification of black neighborhoods was also addressed, and Dan emotionally opened up about trying to encourage his community to maintain ownership.
Remember those logo-emblazoned, baggy pants Tom Ford created for Gucci? Or how about the outrage some of the collections designed by Marc Jacobs have caused in the past? Well, Dapper Dan expressed how he really feels about his influence in high-fashion’s adoption of motifs often used in his designs.
And Dan’s unguarded message also explained that he wants Gucci, who was recently called out for creating a turtleneck that resembled blackface, to continue to make mistakes. The idea might sound very controversial. But Dan argues that such missteps — and needing iconic figures like him to step in and perform damage control — gives black people a position of power.
Dan took us to school, literally, whipping out a folder and thoroughly explaining the definition and origins of activism. He broke down the strategies of W.E.B Dubois and Booker T. Washington, and spoke of figures like Jackie Robinson and Nathaniel Clifton who opened so many doors for black people.
The conversation is too hard to sum up in a few sentences. But read on for Dapper Dan’s highlights, below.
"This fight I’m fighting now, it didn’t start here with Gucci."
"This didn’t start with Gucci. This is a 50-year-old fight. And I got another one to come. So let me tell you something. The same way we gave away Harlem — they didn’t take Harlem from us. We gave it away. You listen to the wrong people. They said burn, baby, burn. That’s what the Panthers were saying back then. They walked away from [their community] instead of fixing it up. But I wasn’t going anywhere. I fixed my own brownstone up and stayed in Harlem. I’ve been there all my life.
"We had to get along."
"The community I grew up with is so unique. I grew up with poor Irish, poor Greeks, poor Italians, and poor Puerto Ricans. So it was this cultural pot that I was born and raised in, and that diversity allowed me to develop the way I did. I grew up in an Afro-Latina community. They were conscious. The first West Indian parade was in Harlem. The first Puerto Rican Day parade was in Harlem. The first large Italian community was in Harlem. We had this cultural pot going on where we had to get along. But the thing is that many of the Puerto Ricans made it out. The Italians made it out. The Irish made it out. The Greeks made it out.
"But we never made it out because we couldn’t melt in the big pot."
"I’m not going to lie. You know I’m a crook from the street? I’m not going to tell that lie. I mean, I can’t even collect social security. And that’s not even a stage joke. Well, the answer to that because I grew up a crook, my first hero is Joe Jackson. Joe Jackson and Malcolm X when I had to make choices, right? Joe Jackson was the best hustler Harlem ever had. And Malcolm X, to me, was the most powerful spiritual leader Harlem has ever had during my lifetime. What I noticed about both of them is that they were both the same. And when I came to that realization it changed my whole life. Because Joe Jackson, the master hustler of the street, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink, he didn’t get high, he didn’t chase chicks. But he was the epitome of the devil. And Malcolm was like an angel. So I had to choose if I wanted to be like the devil or an angel, so I chose Malcolm. That changed my life.
"It’s not what somebody else does to us. It’s what we are doing to ourselves."
From my studies, The Renaissance was a rebirth of learning. It was a period of cultural self identity through aesthetics and aesthetic channels. All of them young people need to study their history. Go all the way back. I’ll talk to any of you all about black history, about African history, about revolution because you don’t know what it’s like. You weren’t in the Panther party when we were talking about killing dope dealers.
"You all are running around worried about some goddamn clothes and people are dropping dead on the street. "
I just want to make a difference, man. A little difference. Just look at what I did. Every generation needs someone to come along and question things. My grandkids are here. I tell them to challenge me every day. I tell them not to take anything that I say for granted. Everything that you see on the internet isn’t true. You have to get your own information. I tell my grandkids that every day. Get your own information. If I didn’t go out and get my own information, I’d be dumb as hell right now. I’d be running out following somebody and every different thing that comes up on the internet, cutting my brother off. And I’m not with that.
You see all of those people I just showed you. All of them opened up doors for more of us to walk through. Let me tell you how significant that is. Everybody talk about my relationship to Gucci. I told Gucci — you probably saw it in my Instagram comment. I told Gucci and my son I didn’t grow up in an age when we believed in other folks. And I’m going to say other folks this time. He said, "But dad, it’s a different world now." I said, "I’m not going for it." I said, "If it’s real, tell them to come to Harlem." They came to Harlem.
"I said, ’I don’t want a collaboration. I want a partnership...’"
They gave me a partnership. I said, "Well, how are we splitting it? How are we going to do this thing?" They said, "Well Dapper Dan, we are going to do a collection based on everything you made in the ’80s. And you’re going to get a percentage of that globally. And everything you do in that store is yours." Now you all really need see that. Now this is my trajectory for me being in this game. Why can’t I be treated like anybody else? This is how it’s going to have to be. I go for a national brand, a global brand, I’ll rise to the top, and do the same thing Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs did. They copied off me anyway. Why can’t I have that trajectory? Show them that I can do this. And the whole world will buy from Dapper Dan. And then I go out with full Dapper Dan. But before I get that plan in motion here come the loud mouths. Do you all know what you’re stopping? Do you realize what you’re stopping? I’m taking you somewhere else. I’m at the end of the game. I’m not at the beginning of the game. I’m here to show young people how this game goes. Don’t keep following ignorant-ass people and end up with nothing.
"Now let’s talk about the mistake. Are you all surprised they made a mistake?"
You gotta be crazy because the day they stop making mistakes, you’re in trouble. Because the day they stop making mistakes that means they have mastered our game. Every time they make a mistake, you have to say, "Come give me something. Come open another door." Every mistake we have to take advantage of. You all haven’t had a chance to see various generations yet. I grew up with rock and roll. Now, rock and roll is theirs. Do you understand what I’m saying? So as soon as they master something, they take the name. They take over it. What we have to do is keep checking them. And when you catch them you say, "Uh-huh what you gon’ do?" How are you going to walk away from the prize? You put the prize out there, and you’re going to walk away from the prize? How much sense does that make? You’re going to get mad at them? That’s boy, girl, little teenager stuff. I’m not going to get mad at them. No, what are you going to give me? You have embarrassed me. What are you going to give me? I don’t care. Never mind all of that. I don’t expect them to understand our culture. The day they master our culture and when we can’t complain, it’s over.