Made in Harlem
By Daniel R. Day with Mikael Awake
At about 4 a.m. on Aug. 23, 1988, Mike Tyson, then the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world, got into a fight on Harlem’s 125th Street in front of an all-night boutique with a former opponent, Mitch “Blood” Green. The two had battled at Madison Square Garden two years prior: Despite Iron Mike’s 20-0 record, Green had stood his ground, even stunned the champ a few times. Tyson won in a unanimous decision, but in Green’s mind, Tyson hadn’t truly beaten him. That night Tyson rolled up to Harlem in a Rolls-Royce to pick up an $850 jacket with the title of Public Enemy’s song “Don’t Believe the Hype” stitched across the back, custom-tailored by Daniel Day, a.k.a. Dapper Dan. Tipped off by local kids that Tyson was uptown, Green confronted him. Angry words turned to punches, and Tyson fractured his right hand on Green’s face.
The fracas shined a global media light on what until then had been a relatively underground enterprise frequented by athletes, hip-hop stars and big-time drug dealers. At the height of the crack era, when a fresh urban culture was flourishing in New York, there was no more important location than “Dapper Dan’s” atelier. His custom-made clothing defined so-called ghetto glamour as it married designer logos with patterns, colors and cuts reflecting the taste of young, street-savvy African-Americans. If Andy Warhol became famous for appropriating a Campbell’s soup can, “Dap” was celebrated for taking labels like Gucci and Fendi and remixing them in a style that was bolder than anything coming out of Paris or Milan. And his style became ubiquitous; classic hip-hop albums (by the likes of Eric B. & Rakim and LL Cool J) featured Dapper Dan outfits on their covers. Just as hip-hop in ’88 was starting to emerge as a major influence on mainstream American culture, the Dapper Dan take on fashion was already being imitated, emulated and ripped off. It’s easy now to take for granted the trail he blazed.
Fashion fans might come to this memoir expecting a primer on the journey from street style to couture, and there is certainly a bit of that in the book. But Day’s legendary boutique doesn’t open until more than halfway through; the bulk of the narrative, and much of its most captivating writing, is about his journey through Harlem from the 1940s into the ’80s, a lost world when the community was both the proud capital of black culture and a brutally policed, redlined and underserved bantustan. “I’m old enough to remember another Harlem,” he writes. “Before the heroin game overtook the numbers game, before crack overtook heroin, before a U.S. 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.”
Detailed descriptions of his family’s tragic journey through poverty, the changing nature of his beloved and cursed neighborhood, and his adventures as a hustler are riveting. His recollections of his early career as a master gambler and the characters he met along the way, as well as his examination of the psychology of the profession, are perhaps even more compelling than the later sections about rap stars and their tastes in fabric.
Now in his mid-70s, Day is enjoying a well-deserved moment in the spotlight. In 2017, in partnership with Gucci, his boutique reopened in Harlem and, like the Apollo Theater, remains a thriving reminder of the old Harlem amid new chain stores and gourmet supermarkets. His philosophy, as both hustler and designer, has always been pretty consistent: “I want to give people what they want before they know they want it. It’s not about the runway, it’s about your way.”