Few luxury brands are generating the kind of consumer frenzy that swirls around Gucci these days. The legendary Italian label, which will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding in 2021, generated a brand value worth roughly $25.2 billion in 2019, largely due to its ability to seamlessly blend the iconic elements of its DNA with forward-thinking design.
Alessandro Michele had that mix in mind from the moment he signed on as Gucci’s creative director in 2015, but that laser focus was amplified, thanks to his decision to enlist Dapper Dan, the Harlem-based designer celebrated for his unique combination of streetwear style, a love of tailoring, and an early, unabashed preference for co-opting designer logos in his designs. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, the latter brought the full force of copyright-infringement lawsuits upon the man who was born Daniel Day, whose logo-influenced, eponymous streetwear was worn by everyone from Jay-Z to Salt-N-Pepa.
But in perhaps the fashion industry’s most high-profile example of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” in 2017 Michele and Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri welcomed Dapper Dan into the fold, and the collaboration that followed was by all accounts wildly successful.
“It was like an Alice in Wonderland moment; in no way did I ever think something like that would come about,” says the couturier known as “Dap” from his Harlem brownstone, which was transformed into a Gucci-branded atelier that same year, joining a collection of New York boutiques that includes the label’s Fifth Avenue flagship and a location at Brookfield Place New York in downtown Manhattan. “I had to talk personally with Alessandro and Marco to get a feel for the idea and what their thoughts were, and it turned out to be this amazing conversation, and something I felt I could believe in.”
That brownstone, located in a historic section of Harlem’s Lenox Avenue, has become a bit of a pilgrimage for fashion fans and aspiring designers alike, and Dap loves nothing better than standing outside “each and every day, and seeing how happy people in the neighborhood are to have a brand in Harlem that’s consistent with the idea of what a luxury brand is today,” he says.
His bespoke appointments, meanwhile, are no longer exclusive to celebrities, athletes, and hip-hop stars: “I have Wall Street clients, these guys are 100-percent Brooks Brothers, and they come in saying, ‘I want a jacket with your name on the back.’ It isn’t only about the jacket; it’s about the name and the story it represents.”
Music remains an integral influence in Dap’s work, though it extends beyond the expected genres. When asked about his inspirations, he spoke eagerly of the Beatles in the late 1960s and the jazz improvisation of Miles Davis. “I was paying attention to everything, and I was really taken in by the messaging,” he says of that decade. “The Beatles took our R&B music and later had such a profound message through their discovery of India and spirituality, because they were rebelling against the standard of what was expected of them. And here, we were dealing with our own racial issues [through music]. So I was looking at how music and culture played such a big part in everything. By the time I opened my own store, my mind was already prepared with how music, fashion, and culture interact with each other.”
The 2018 Dapper Dan x Gucci partnership played a significant role in the brand’s popularity with millennials—“Gucci Gets Its Cool Back,” announced Fast Company in 2018. Dap, meanwhile, isn’t only injecting his unique aesthetic into the label; he also put a spotlight on Harlem’s enduring impact on style. Ad campaigns were photographed featuring Harlem residents, while Dap is acutely aware that he’s made the transition from fashion outlaw to role model, and he relishes his current role. “Brands collaborate with different designers, but I started out by collaborating with the people of my community.”
“When I work with someone, the first question I ask is, ‘What kind of statement do you want to make?’ That’s why my design fits in with everybody I come in contact with – and Alessandro understood that, because he taps into all different cultures. That’s why there’s something in the Gucci collection for everybody.” And in a world that increasingly relies on digital experiences, Dap is likewise cognizant of how brick-and-mortar retail remains a vital part of the fashion conversation.
“My feeling about that is that you can stay at home and pray and make contact with your supreme being, but there’s something magical about being in a house of worship,” he says. “Sure, you can order something online, but nothing can replace that personal contact, and the personal relationship you can develop with someone in a brick-and-mortar place.
I see that when people come into [the atelier]. It’s a personal feeling, a vision of themselves. Nothing will ever replace that, but it’s up to us to make sure it’s everything they’re expecting it to be.”