Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem: A Memoir

Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem: A Memoir

by Daniel R. Day
Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem: A Memoir

Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem: A Memoir

by Daniel R. Day


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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “Dapper Dan is a legend, an icon, a beacon of inspiration to many in the Black community. His story isn’t just about fashion. It’s about tenacity, curiosity, artistry, hustle, love, and a singular determination to live our dreams out loud.”—Ava DuVernay, director of Selma13th, and A Wrinkle in Time


With his now-legendary store on 125th Street in Harlem, Dapper Dan pioneered high-end streetwear in the 1980s, remixing classic luxury-brand logos into his own innovative, glamorous designs. But before he reinvented haute couture, he was a hungry boy with holes in his shoes, a teen who daringly gambled drug dealers out of their money, and a young man in a prison cell who found nourishment in books. In this remarkable memoir, he tells his full story for the first time.

Decade after decade, Dapper Dan discovered creative ways to flourish in a country designed to privilege certain Americans over others. He witnessed, profited from, and despised the rise of two drug epidemics. He invented stunningly bold credit card frauds that took him around the world. He paid neighborhood kids to jog with him in an effort to keep them out of the drug game. And when he turned his attention to fashion, he did so with the energy and curiosity with which he approaches all things: learning how to treat fur himself when no one would sell finished fur coats to a Black man; finding the best dressed hustler in the neighborhood and converting him into  a customer; staying open twenty-four hours a day for nine years straight to meet demand; and, finally, emerging as a world-famous designer whose looks went on to define an era, dressing cultural icons including Eric B. and Rakim, Salt-N-Pepa, Big Daddy Kane, Mike Tyson, Alpo Martinez, LL Cool J, Jam Master Jay, Diddy, Naomi Campbell, and Jay-Z.

By turns playful, poignant, thrilling, and inspiring, Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem is a high-stakes coming-of-age story spanning more than seventy years and set against the backdrop of an America where, as in the life of its narrator, the only constant is change.

Praise for Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem

“Dapper Dan is a true one of a kind, self-made, self-liberated, and the sharpest man you will ever see. He is couture himself.”—Marcus Samuelsson, New York Times bestselling author of Yes, Chef

“What James Baldwin is to American literature, Dapper Dan is to American fashion. He is the ultimate success saga, an iconic fashion hero to multiple generations, fusing street with high sartorial elegance. He is pure American style.”—André Leon Talley, Vogue contributing editor and author

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525510536
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/07/2020
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 189,451
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Daniel “Dapper Dan” Day’s work has been displayed at the Smithsonian Institution, The Museum at FIT, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of the City of New York, and London’s Design Museum. His eponymous boutique was open from 1982 to 1992, and reopened in 2017 in a major partnership with Gucci. In 2020, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Read an Excerpt


Nobody’s Poor

I’m old enough to remember another Harlem. Before the heroin game overtook the numbers game, before crack overtook heroin, before a US president moved his offices uptown, and before white people started pushing strollers across 110th Street, I knew a Harlem where you didn’t have to lock your front door.

I’m talking about a Harlem that was still in the midst of its Renaissance, a Harlem swinging to jazz and bebop, a Harlem beating with the warmth and life of gospel music by day and teeming—teeming!—with people and excitement and glamour by night. I’m talking about a Harlem where older women from the South with uncanny multitasking abilities sat outside on stoops or in windows high above the street sewing clothes, peeling vegetables, and spreading gossip, all while keeping watch over the neighborhood children, missing nothing. “Danny, go get your sister Dolores outta that street,” Miss Marguerite, a neighborhood woman who knew us all by name, would snap from her window lookout.

A Harlem crowded with lounges, restaurants, music venues, ballrooms, and movie theaters. A Harlem where my friends and I would hold taxi doors for women in mink stoles and crouch at the feet of men in suits and bowlers, shining their patent-­leather shoes to a sparkle. Lexington Avenue had cobblestones, and every now and then you’d see a horse and wagon clopping up the street. A Harlem of life, lights, and all kinds of humanity. Black restaurants, Irish bars, Italian social clubs, Latin dance halls. That Harlem, the Harlem of the 1950s, was the first Harlem I knew, the Harlem I inherited, the Harlem I was born into. My mother, Lily Mae Day, didn’t trust doctors or hospitals, so she gave birth to me at home with my grandmother Ella getting off her sickbed to play midwife. I never met Grandma Ella cause she died only two days after I was born, so all I can do is imagine her holding me and wrapping me in a blanket: “It’s a boy, Lily Mae.”

“Another one?” I can hear my mother’s exhausted reply. “Lawd.”

It was the summer of 1944, and I was my mother’s fourth boy in a row. It couldn’t have been easy. When I came out the womb, everyone marveled at the size of my head: “Wow, his head as big as Moon’s.” Moon was my older brother James, two years old at the time, nicknamed on account of the planetary size of his head. Mine was just as big, so they nicknamed me Little Moon and started calling James Big Moon.

The official name they gave me was Daniel, but when my parents went downtown to file my birth certificate, some clerk screwed it up and put me down as “Danial.” It wasn’t just me, either. My mother gave birth to three more children, all girls, and we each had inaccurate information on our birth certificates. Wrong gender. Wrong surname. Misspelled mother’s maiden name. They were minor human errors in the grand scheme, but they symbolized a larger feeling of neglect. It was understood, literally from birth, that the system didn’t really care about keeping our information correctly, that it didn’t really care about us.

Cause we were poor as hell. Poorest of Harlem’s poor. Dirt poor. We lived in East Harlem in a five-­story tenement building on Lexington Avenue and 129th Street. My parents had come to the city as part of the Great Migration, and they struggled and fought to survive in an overwhelming new urban reality. My father, Robert Day, worked three jobs, while my mother managed us seven kids, a thankless full-­time job. My parents and their generation were new to city life. They had come from tight-­knit rural communities in the South where everyone knew each other, and in the early days of black Harlem, they did their best to re-­create those communities.

All the doors to the apartments in our building stayed open all day long. Aunt Mary, my mother’s first cousin, lived above us and could holler out her apartment to ask my mother to borrow sugar, and my mother could holler back a reply. We never needed house keys. The front door of our building was always kept propped open by a heavy rock, and our mutt and two cats just came and went as they pleased, in and out, just like us. Each block was its own microcosm of small-­town Southern life. Each neighborhood was associated with a particular region, so that you had the people who came from South Carolina living in one area, the ones from Virginia in another. I didn’t meet a black person whose family was from North Carolina until I visited Brooklyn, where a lot of them had settled. That’s how specific these neighborhoods were.

And not only that, if you were from a particular town in the South, say Spartanburg, South Carolina, you often came to the city specifically to live on the Spartanburg block. Every bar and church and restaurant on that block would be full of folks from your little hometown. Folks knew each other from back home. And that generated respect and a sense of safety. People bonded over their shared histories, slang, and culture. But in the years to come, as these small neighborhood communities in Harlem were bulldozed and replaced by high-­rise project buildings, the city started grabbing people with no concern for where they’d come from, disconnecting folks from each other and their way of life. Neighbors didn’t know each other, didn’t share anything, didn’t feel a sense of respect or safety among each other. Doors started getting padlocked. You ask me, I think a lot of the bigger problems in Harlem today can be traced back to the destruction of those houses and that more connected way of life.

Our building was in a neighborhood almost exclusively made up of folks who had come from South Carolina and Virginia, with maybe a sprinkling of folks from Georgia. We knew everyone in our building. It was a private tenement, real intimate, and my father worked as the superintendent. Nine of us Days lived crammed together in a small three-­bedroom apartment, sharing a single bathroom. There was a restaurant run by a Greek guy named Jimmy on the ground floor where my father also worked maintenance and where we’d often get free leftover soup for dinner.

Every single morning, we’d wake up to gospel music coming from the radio, which was my mother’s doing. She was deeply religious and started the day with the sounds of Joe Bostic’s Gospel Train, the oldest and most famous gospel radio show in the country. Bostic, a pioneer in his own right, mainstreamed gospel music and introduced gospel legend Mahalia Jackson to the world in 1951. Of course, us kids didn’t think too highly of him. I can appreciate gospel music now, but back then we couldn’t stand it, especially the show’s repeated tagline, “The train is a-­coming!”

In the kitchen, we’d pull a box of Corn Flakes out the cupboard and a bottle of milk out the icebox. Everybody had iceboxes back then, no fridges yet. You’d have to actually buy ice to fill the thing and keep the food cold. We bought our ice from Del Monte, an Italian who used to ride around the neighborhood in a blue truck, calling out from the street: “Ice for the icebox! Twenty-­five cents apiece!” For a quarter, he’d put a big block of ice in his bucket, lift it onto his shoulder, and carry it upstairs for you. We’d pull out the cold milk, then we’d smack the cereal box on its side two times—whack, whack—to make sure we got the roaches out before we started pouring it into our bowls. Then we’d eat our cereal.

For our first years of school, my mother sent me and my older brothers, Carl, Cary, and James, to a Catholic school two blocks from our house, All Saints, on Madison Avenue between 129th and 130th Streets, which is still there. They had a little sunken play yard where they’d let us out during the day. The mothers used to come and throw pennies and nickels down, and the kids would take the change and line up to buy candy. Every morning, I’d always ask my mother, “Mom, could you please come and throw me a nickel during recess?”

But she never came.

When I got older, I was grateful to my mother for sending us to a good private school in the first place; I realized that she was far too busy at home with my younger sisters, Dolores, Deborah, and Doris, to come back to school to throw me a nickel. She woulda had to load up three kids in the middle of the day just so I could get a piece of candy. But at the time, it just made me so sad. Looking back, an experience like that probably made me a good hustler. On a subconscious level, I understood that if I wanted anything, I’d have to get it myself, cause ain’t nobody coming.

Table of Contents

Prologue xi

Part I Danny Boy

Chapter 1 Nobody's Poor 3

Chapter 2 Like a Raisin in the Sun 12

Chapter 3 Harlem Dreams 25

Chapter 4 Sportsmen 33

Chapter 5 Firing Coffee 48

Part II Middle Passages

Chapter 6 The Cursed Game 61

Chapter 7 Too Easy 70

Chapter 8 Tree of Life 81

Chapter 9 Home 91

Chapter 10 Mind Games 107

Chapter 11 The Rumble 117

Chapter 12 Hubba Hubba 128

Chapter 13 Aruba 136

Chapter 14 Remakes 147

Part III The Shop that Never Closed

Chapter 15 A New Hustle 159

Chapter 16 Boy Wonder 174

Chapter 17 Closure 183

Chapter 18 Crack 192

Chapter 19 Paid in Full 201

Chapter 20 Beef 214

Chapter 21 The Vise 226

Chapter 22 Game Over 238

Part IV Underground Runway

Chapter 23 Flatfoot Hustling 245

Chapter 24 Highways, Not Runways 253

Chapter 25 Harlem River Blues 262

Thank You! 275

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