Written by Bianca Zanotti
April 28, 2021
Harlem-based fashion designer Dapper Dan is described in the media as a “fashion outlaw” (Cooper 2017), a “fashion counterfeiter” (Janssen 2017), and the “coolest crook in Harlem” (Cutler 2019). Stitched behind the nicknames, though, is an issue much broader than the criminal activity of Dapper Dan — one that threads together luxury brands and cultural appropriation. His boutique in Harlem, open from 1982 to 1992, initially sold leather and fur coats to gangsters and hustlers of the neighbourhood, but everything changed when one of the biggest drug dealers in Harlem walked into the boutique with a girl carrying a Louis Vuitton monogrammed leather pouch. Dapper Dan knew the prestige that luxury brand logos held, with their allusion to a life of wealth and status, so the encounter with the Louis Vuitton pouch inspired him to create jackets filled with them. However, as Dapper Dan’s designs became more prominent in the media, worn by boxers and rappers alike, the very brands he appropriated began taking legal action and raiding his shop. Some argue that Dapper Dan’s fashion crime was creating a brand of counterfeit goods by using luxury heritage logos, while others contend that he was just making them better or, as he states, “Blackenizing” them (Day 2019, 189). Regardless, at the very core of the Dapper Dan debate is the discussion of contemporary intellectual property ownership and protection.
To explore the case of Dapper Dan from the perspective of crime, one must look at the issues of counterfeit goods and cultural appropriation, and the unequal power relations inherent in both. While many in the Western fashion industry might argue that Dapper Dan appropriated European fashion brands using their logos and, thus, was guilty of intellectual property infringement, this critique argues that luxury fashion brands have actually appropriated Black culture and streetwear, as popularized by Dapper Dan in the 1980s, for decades. From an analysis of identity construction through counterfeit goods, the appropriation of streetwear, and the similarity between luxury brands and Dapper Dan, this paper seeks to add to the conversation around cultural appropriation through a contemporary, luxury lens.
Counterfeit Goods and Identity Development
Counterfeit goods are produced through the practice of manufacturing and distributing products under someone else’s name — or brand name — without permission (Wall and Large 2011, 1098). Usually made from lower quality materials and sold at a fraction of the original price, these goods are an imitation of something with the intent to deceive (Geiger-Oneto, Gelb, Walker and Hess 2012, 359). Interestingly, though, while illegal, counterfeit luxury goods aid in shaping identities within social classes. Luxury, as has been discussed in various studies, is an extension of the self (Byrd 2017, 183), and people use these goods to explore and express their economic, social and cultural positions of power. With this in mind, status symbols like luxury brands and their counterfeit counterparts hold more prestige and attractiveness than non-luxury goods (Geiger-Oneto, Gelb, Walker and Hess 2012, 360). In the context of fashion brands and accessories such as handbags or shoes, these items become part of an aspirational lifestyle that people from all class standings seek to be part of, but at a fraction of the price (Amaral and Loken 2016, 484; Perez, Castaño and Quintanilla 2010). As a result, people will obtain the counterfeit luxury good because the authentic product holds value and is, therefore, worth imitating (Craciun 2019). Thorstein Veblen’s concept of conspicuous consumption explains the manner in which people look to display their wealth in very obvious ways (Veblen 2007), specifically through “Veblen goods”: for example designer handbags or apparel filled with logos. These Veblen goods are not necessarily better quality than a non-luxury good, but because of recognizable logos they can indicate the social standing of the wearer (Roberts & Armitage 2017, 30; Veblen 2007).
Counterfeit goods in luxury fashion thus play a complex role at the intersection of class hierarchy, social status, and identity construction. In a study conducted by Amaral and Loken (2016), it was concluded that when a person from any social class sees “a similar other using the counterfeit product, they may wish to connect more with the luxury brand as a symbol of group membership and the brand’s prestige” (485). This observation relates directly to Dapper Dan in the context of his brand’s essence as well as his clientele. During the peak of Dapper Dan’s boutique, the majority of his clients included gangsters, athletes and drug dealers who came from racialized and lower-income backgrounds. However, with an influx of money from gambling, drug dealing or sports, these clients wanted to embody luxury in their attire because, as discussed, luxury goods act as the ultimate and instantly visible status marker. What is important to note, and something Dapper Dan mentions in his own memoir, is the fact that his clients knew the garments they were getting were not authentic Gucci, Louis Vuitton, or Fendi pieces (Day 2019, 199), therefore they were not being deceived by counterfeit goods, as is often the case with these products. In fact, the very genius of Dapper Dan’s merging of conspicuous consumption and street culture was that it created an identity for a group otherwise left out of luxury, but able to afford it.
The Paradox of Hip-Hop/Streetwear Culture Past to Present: Cultural Appropriation
Inherent in Dapper Dan then — a proxy in the history of luxury fashion — is the fine line between creator and counterfeiter, owner and protector. Not surprisingly, European luxury brands descended on his Harlem storefront citing intellectual property infringement, and seemingly obfuscating the industry’s bigger issue — cultural appropriation. While the term is multidimensional, what characterizes cultural appropriation is the relationship between the appropriator and the appropriated, which enforces a relationship of unequal status and power (Pham 2016, 51). Therefore, the structural and systemic question is not whether Dapper Dan culturally appropriated European fashion brands through the use of their heritage logos, but whether luxury fashion brands have, more generally, and for decades, used their power to appropriate Black culture and streetwear — including that popularized by Dapper Dan.
To address this statement, it is important to consider the origins of streetwear and street culture and the theories that make sense of it in the fashion system. When academics discuss trends in fashion, Georg Simmel’s Trickle Down Theory is often referenced, in which trends emerge at the top of the fashion pyramid through socialites or editors and make their way to lower classes through high-street brands such as H&M or Zara. Once the lower classes adopt these trends, those at the top will abandon them and start the process again (Pouillard 2011, 320). However, in the context of Dapper Dan and streetwear, Pierre Bourdieu’s Trickle Up Theory seems more fitting in that trends formed by those at the bottom of the pyramid — often from youth or ethnic groups — make their way to the top of the fashion system, even if they started outside of the industry (Bourdieu 1998; Rocamora 2002, 353).
Bourdieu’s theory can be exemplified through the street and hip-hop culture Dapper Dan infused into his brand. By its very nature, fashion culture is a blend of racial backgrounds and class systems exemplified through style, labels and consumerism (Contreras-Hernandez 2014, 31). Dapper Dan used the street culture of Harlem and the influence of hip-hop music to create clothing and an identity that eventually became a sensation in the upper ranks of the fashion industry, still to this day. At its conception, the relationship between fashion and hip-hop started in the 1970s by B-Boys who added their own style to the very luxury brands they desired to consume (Lewis 2010). By using the practices of hip-hop music, such as editing and sampling, to create new styles, the B-Boys defined their lived experiences of otherness through an edited and remixed version of an upper class status symbol (Byrd 2017, 181). This is exemplified by the clients Dapper Dan catered to, because although the hip-hop artists and gangsters did not necessarily want a Louis Vuitton monogrammed luggage, they did want the logo on their own clothes. Therefore, there was an obvious remixing and shifting of the luxury brand’s cultural narrative from a symbol of privilege and status, often associated with whiteness, to the street culture identity of Harlem. Ironically, though, the Dapper Dan consumer — one that traditional luxury brands did not want to initially associate with (Bain 2020, 382) — eventually became the key demographic to consume luxury goods in excess (Byrd 2017, 182).
“In due time, the heritage brands started to wrap their arms around hip-hop, this Black street culture it once scorned, and they had no choice, because hip-hop had already wrapped its arms around the world.” (Day 2019, 270)
As a result, in recent years, brands such as Chanel, Fendi, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton have adopted — or sooner, appropriated — the very streetwear aesthetic that Dapper Dan popularized in the late twentieth century, turning to garments that conspicuously display their brand logos and take inspiration from the B-Boy style of the 1970s (see figures 1-3). In this way, streetwear has become a Veblen good, used to signal wealth and status (Bain 2020, 379) — a shift largely made to adapt to the changing consumers of luxury brands, which now includes Millennials and Generation Z (D’Arpizio, Levato, Kamel and de Montgolfier 2017).
Figure 1. Fendi brown nylon vest. Image from Fendi, https://www.fendi.com/ca/ready-to-wear-man/vest-faa581a79of13iz.
Figure 2. Gucci jersey jacket. Image from Gucci, https://www.gucci.com/ca/en/pr/men/ready-to-wear-for-men/sweatshirts-and-hoodies-for-men/sweatshirts-for-men/technical-jersey-oversize-jacket-p-598861XJBZ87548.
And although the origins of street style and hip-hop culture undoubtedly appropriated components of aspirational brands, the bigger issue is the power of luxury brands to at once criminalize and then appropriate designers like Dapper Dan. Take Alessandro Michele’s 2018 Cruise collection for Gucci, in which a model was sent down the runway in a leather monogrammed bomber jacket almost identical to one made by Dapper Dan in 1989 (see fig. 4). Michele failed to mention the jacket was an homage to Dapper Dan’s creation from decades earlier but, unlike Dapper Dan, Michele was not raided or criminalized by the fashion industry. On the contrary, he brought Dapper Dan on as a consultant for Gucci and created a collaboration collection, including a new Harlem atelier.
Figure 4. (Left) Dapper Dan Louis Vuitton design on Diane Dixon in 1989. (Right) Design from Gucci Cruise 2018 collection. Image from Dazed, www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/36144/1/gucci-responds-to-claims-it-copied-dapper-dan-look-jacket-cruise-2018-show.
What is interesting — though not surprising — in this reversal of appropriation is the inherent power imbalance present: turning Dapper Dan into a fashion criminal all the while profiting off his aesthetic without acknowledging logomania’s streetwear origins (Bain 2020, 381). Even though streetwear is repeatedly and obviously appropriated in the luxury fashion industry, the brands rarely acknowledge their source of inspiration because “streetwear brands aren’t aspirational, at least as far as class status goes” (Bain 2020, 381).
Made in Harlem or Italy: Dapper Dan and Luxury Brands
At a deeper level though, is the rarely discussed and debated concept of “the author” in luxury brand fashion, which is rooted in privileges of whiteness and disregards authors of non-Western ideas (Pham 2016, 60). Beyond the debatable details of counterfeit criminal activity, for all intents and purposes, Dapper Dan was a luxury designer making a luxury brand. In fact, in his memoir, Dapper Dan acknowledges the illegality of counterfeit goods and references the New York counterfeit industry of the 1980s, even mentioning that his own designs were copied and sold in the counterfeit market (Day 2019, 227). But despite the fashion industry, and specifically luxury brands, criminalizing Dapper Dan’s garments and practices for intellectual property infringement, he stood behind what he did, claiming his designs were not knockoffs or bootlegs, but rather “interpretive homages” (Day 2019, 239) and cultural commentaries (Cutler 2019). When brands like Fendi, Louis Vuitton, and MCM were conducting raids in his store, he kept working because “Fendi didn’t make snorkels or sweatsuits; they didn’t even have a menswear line yet” (Day 2019, 239).
And according to former Louis Vuitton CEO Vincent Bastien’s clear definition of luxury brands, Dapper Dan’s garments were, indeed, luxury products embodying time, heritage and craftsmanship (Bain 2020, 380). In fact, if one were to analyze these offerings and values in more depth, Dapper Dan’s brand functioned on the very appeal of traditional luxury: taking the time to know his clients, their challenges, lives and preferences; using said factors to influence the garments he made; infusing the heritage of Harlem and Black culture into his brand to popularize logomania and streetwear; and exploring different mediums and technologies to craft one-of-a-kind garments.
Additionally, an analysis of his current standing in the fashion industry further proves that his practices mirror the traditions of luxury brands. On Instagram, Dapper Dan can be found personally at @DapperDanHarlem or professionally at @MadeAtDaps where, in the biography, the shop is called an atelier (see fig. 5). Created in partnership with Gucci, Dapper Dan’s new business partner, the central Harlem atelier works on an appointment-only basis to make custom pieces branded with both the Gucci monogram and the Dapper Dan name (see fig. 6) (Safronova 2018). And despite the recent venture with Gucci, Dapper Dan continues to infuse Harlem’s street style and hip-hop aesthetic into pop culture, as seen recently in music videos for the Black Eyed Peas and Doja Cat. From the very beginning, Dapper Dan was and continues to be a couturier, an ‘othered’ author creating luxury garments for a demographic that felt excluded and villainized by the traditional fashion industry.
Figure 5. Screenshot of @MadeAtDaps Instagram account.
Figure 6. Screenshot of @MadeAtDaps Instagram post with a custom Dapper Dan/Gucci design.
Ultimately, Dapper Dan’s history and an analysis of his influence on contemporary streetwear proves that his work was so much more than producing counterfeit or bootlegged goods. In fact, his garments opened the door to a culturally relevant discourse that brought Black culture to the forefront of the fashion system. Since its emergence into the industry, streetwear has gained a popularity that has continued on for decades — and will continue to do so based on the changing demographic of luxury consumers. An example of this is Virgil Abloh, founder of luxury streetwear brand Off-White and now menswear designer for Louis Vuitton. Interestingly, while now the hottest streetwear brand in the luxury market, Abloh started Off-White from a very similar model as Dapper Dan — a boutique called Pyrex Vision that sold “simple and cheap Champion basics and Ralph Lauren dead stock” that were screen printed with Abloh’s own designs (Tiffany 2018). However, brands like Dapper Dan and Off-White are an anomaly in the luxury fashion sphere’s recent acceptance of streetwear. And, because of the cultural appropriation the fashion industry is notorious for, the power imbalance present between European luxury brands and brands run by racialized owners continues.
Dapper Dan is often cited as an example of fashion’s blurry counterfeit laws. But more than this, he is a proxy for the systemic power imbalance present in the fashion industry, where the once criminalized counterfeiter from Harlem is now hailed as a cultural and fashion icon, consultant and fashion confidante, blurring the lines between seemingly exclusive European runaways and inclusive streets. By exploring identity construction through counterfeit goods and how that impacted the golden era of hip-hop and fashion, it becomes clear that Dapper Dan did not create his garments with malicious intent to infringe trademarks, but rather with the motive to bring a marginalized group of people, so often alienated and villainized in the fashion system, into the conversation of luxury and fashion.
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