Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem

7 min read

Nothing makes you question the purpose and meaning of life like hunger. Hunger is physical, it’s real.

Opening bets

This, my friends, is not a book. This is a lively narrated guided tour of Harlem, as it evolved through the second half of the 20th century. And it is an incredible life story of someone who has successfully fought the odds in life and has survived.

If you don’t know who Dapper Dan is, do not worry. You’re not alone. I myself did not know about him before I read this book. Based in Harlem, Dapper Dan is one of the most innovative and ground-breaking fashion designers who set up his own now-famous boutique in Harlem after having dabbled half his life as a hustler.

Hustle all the time

We were hustling before we even knew what the word meant.

Hustling as a verb has taken on a new meaning today. Urban Dictionary for example defines hustle as “Working hard, usually towards the common goal of creating an income.” But the hustle that Dapper Dan did all his life was based on the more traditional sense of the word, “to sell something to or obtain something from (someone) by energetic and especially underhanded activity.” For Dapper Dan, hustling was a way of life. Although he managed to stay away from other more debilitating addictions like alcohol and drugs, I guess hustling was his addiction.

As he would have said, a playa always be hustling whether on the streets or out of it. In one of the chapters he mentions about a time in his life when he had a respectable and responsible job of an assistant manager at a store. But the devious part of his hustling mind kept thinking of making extra money on the side. He explains how he tried to embezzle his employer’s money and got caught doing so. This resulted him in losing the job and almost got a friend fired as well.

Many of the hustles that Dapper Dan has dabbled in the past weren’t exactly legal. Gambling, selling drugs, credit card fraud, appropriating trademarks – his life was but an adventure on the wild side. At some point in time it did make me wonder for how long is a person responsible for all that he has done in the past, especially things that are not legal. But I realised that there are statute of limitations in law that define this boundary, beyond which an individual cannot be held to account (for minor crimes at least). I guess Dapper Dan was aware of these when he chose to disclose them.

Pretty fly

But it is evident that his experiences in his early life influenced and possibly even decided what he was going to do in his later life. As a playa, he was always fly. His unfailingly need to look dapper even got him his nick name and eventually led him to become a fashion designer.

It was about style and how you carried yourself in the street. It was about your shoes, the way you wore your hat. It was about the car your drove and how fly your girl dressed.

I understood how deep it was to be fly. It wasn’t the outside that was important. It was that thing that happened inside you that gave you strength. I felt powerful.

The book has a natural tone to it and is easy to. The story is so fascinating that I often ploughed through multiple chapters in a single sitting. It is most likely that the author narrated his story as he talked and walked in real life, and the book editor chose to keep the grammar and other lingo intact to capture the uniqueness of his style. It bring a richness and authenticity to the narration.

It is amazing how much Dapper Dan was fond of books and every time he started a new hustle he made it a point to read as much as he could find about that subject in order to give him an edge in the game. And boy was he ahead of the game. At one point in his life, he started “remaking credit cards” by scrounging for credit card receipts in the trash. He even swiped a credit card machine from a hospital and then proceeded on a multi-country jewellery buying binge. This was his paper game. This technique was so new that even when he got caught, the police and the judge had no clue about how the game actually worked and how serious their offence really was. As a result Dapper Dan and his partners got off lightly most of the time.

And just when you think that the game can’t be pushed any further, Dapper Dan went ahead and pushed it further anyway. By the late 1980s, Dapper Dan’s boutique was already quite popular with hustlers and rappers. When Harlem was facing a spike in the crime rate during this time, he started designing bullet-proof jackets for his hustler and rapper friends. Imagine a flashy Gucci-branded bulletproof jacket. Talk about having an untapped niche.

It is almost heart-breaking to read about how his store was pushed to the brink of closure and he himself had to face a dark period in his life when the big fashion brands descended on him for appropriating their trademarks. Of course what he did was questionable in the court of law, however he felt that his designs and creativity was still unique and original.

Intellectual property is still a gray area when it comes to fashion appropriation. Designers are constantly borrowing and sampling and getting inspiration from different cultures and from each other. It’s even more blurry in the art world.

What is not mentioned clearly or sufficiently in the book that lately Dapper Dan has in fact collaborated with these very same fashion brands that initially chose to choke off his creativity. For example he now has a partnership with Gucci and Louis Vuitton to co-create, using their brands and his own designs to create clothes in an inimitable style. But Dapper Dan hasn’t talked extensively about this partnership in the book. Neither has he talked a lot about his wife and children in the book. But that is completely natural if he wanted to keep his personal life and relationships out of the public eye.

Where to go from here?

There are a couple of potentially good book recommendations that I found in his memoir and I have already added them to my Goodreads shelf. Some of these books are probably out of print and it could be difficult to source them.

Even his description of the Nation of Islam, Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm X, among others, had me branching out to other material while reading this book. I (re)watched the 2001 Muhammad Ali biopic starring Will Smith one evening. And now I have this whole list of movies set in Harlem on my to-do list to find out more about the time and place that he so memorably reminisces about.

Final bets please

Made in Harlem is definitely one of the best memoirs that I’ve read this year. This is a must must read if you’re an entrepreneur or are running or are planning to run your own business. It describes the kind of hustling that you need to do in order to grow your business, and sometimes survive and bounce back from failures.

What makes the story of Dapper Dan so amazing is that it is so improbable. For ever Dapper Dan that comes out of under-privileged environments, there are hundreds others who fail to make it. Even in his own family and friends, he lost many acquaintance who succumbed to one vice or the other. This makes this book all the most important as an inspiring tale of surviving the odds in life. Odds – that is what Dapper Dan beat, both literally and metaphorically. And oh yeah, talking about odds, I now know how to play Cee-Lo.

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