Photograph: The New York Times
Somehow, reading Dapper Dan, Made in Harlem, listening to it actually, I didn’t expect Dapper Dan to be so handsome. I’m happy he is. But what’s so exciting to relate is that his book about his life is extraordinary and reminds me why I’ve always had a soft spot for gangsters; my grandfather Henry Clay Walker, whom I adored in his old age, having been quite the thug in his youth. Worse than Dapper Dan, by far.
This is one of those books… I bought it because “Dapper Dan” on the cover is wearing what looks like Scottish kilt plaid made into a suit, and wearing red socks! Wow. I thought. What can this story possibly be? And what did I discover? A soul mate. Though you’d never think so, looking superficially at our lives. But if I had been stuck in Harlem during the drug wars instead of the wilds of a fantastically beautiful Georgia countryside I can see how using my wits to get beauty in my life, by any means necessary, would have appealed to me.
A second grandfather sold whiskey, the primary drug of his era, which damaged or destroyed many a home and neighborhood. So. Thug life. Something very interesting to me, as is outlaw genius. Which Dapper Dan exhibits throughout this memoir.
When I shared my enthusiasm with my grandson we were both charmed by the idea that the path from hustling almost anything imaginable to make a living turned into a passion for making clothes.
See also: ‘Dapper Dan’ Gets Back to Harlem’s Roots by Nelson George, from which comes the excerpt below.
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.”