fashion as an expression of power -- 4/17/20

Today's selection -- from Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem by Daniel R. Day. Daniel R. Day, who became known as Dapper Dan, parlayed a career in small-time fraud and gambling into a highly successful clothing business in Harlem in the 1980s. He sold first to the rising numbers of crack dealers and rap artists of that era—Russell Simmons was a customer—and capitalized on the fact that fashion was an expression of power:

"I never go back to an old hustle. It's like how in the natural world, each seed you plant is going to grow, eventually die, then cast off new seeds. If you don't constantly repeat that cycle, life itself stagnates and dies. The same is true of hustling. After covering my children's expenses and private school tuition for the year, I took the money I'd saved up from the paper game, over one hundred Gs, and bought me a brand-new burgundy Mercedes-Benz and just rode around Harlem, trying to figure out the next seed I was gonna plant.

"For a year, I didn't do no hustling. I cruised the neighborhood in my Benz, hung out, danced at the Latin clubs, just relaxed and had fun. After reading an article in the newspaper about urban renewal coming to Harlem, and with Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman elected to the New York State Senate, telling us to own our own houses, June and I pooled our savings and bought a brownstone, which was one of the smartest decisions we ever made. We moved in with our daughter, Danique, and been living in that brownstone ever since. I had a new car, a new house, some savings, but I still didn't have a plan for the future. As my year off was coming to an end, I said to myself, Okay, now it's time for me to figure things out.

"What about clothes? Fashion for me wasn't about expression.

Day during an interview in December 2019

"Fashion was about power. I would navigate the streets with a certain look until I could own the look. Being fly was a vehicle to getting around my situation in life. But guys liked the way I dressed, and I did know a lot about fashion. From my connection with the boosters, I'd sampled the market and built up a small customer base by selling pieces out of my trunk to the drug dealers I knew, getting a feel for what people on the streets wanted. Along with my dice skills, I was known for my clothes. And every now and then, in between my spiritual readings, I'd pick up an issue of Vogue or GQ from the newsstand and look at the new high-end fashions, trying to imagine my own variations on trendy designs. I didn't know what kind of clothes I'd sell or where I'd get the clothes from. All I knew was that there was a demand among the drug dealers in the community, and it made business sense to open a store of some kind to supply the demand. I was gonna open up a shop.

"Before I do anything, I try to understand it from as many angles as possible. Is it dangerous? Is it risky? What are the consequences? Can I do it alone? Do I have to trust somebody? And if I have to trust somebody, whom can I trust to do this with me that's capable? From dice to credit cards, it was true of every successful venture I'd ever done: I needed a good team.

"As usual, my first thought was Russell. He would be the perfect business partner for this clothing idea. He had the same kind of entrepreneurial spirit and intellectual curiosity as me. The drug game had flooded the streets with cash. We could provide the hustlers with a legit place to spend it. Just like we did with the gambling, together we could take the clothes game to unseen new levels. I also hoped opening a shop could be a way to keep my friends and family off the streets, which were getting more violent by the day.

"Long after I threw away my credit card machine and told my friends to stop running that scam because the authorities were catching on, Russell was still in the paper game, using the proceeds for drugs and maintaining the lifestyle of his drug-dealer friends. One day, I drove over to where he hung out to try to sell some clothes out my trunk, but I also had another motive: to convince Russell to venture into the clothes business with me. I wanted him with me. We were best friends still, but we were pulling away from each other. We'd lost so many of our people, and I could see that he was in pain. The rule between us was always that we had to tell each other the truth. No matter how ugly or hurtful. That's how it's always been with my closest hustler friends. We hustle others, but we never hustle each other. Lies are what eat a friendship.

"I'll never forget that day. We were standing in front of Lenox Terrace, which is where Russell was living at the time, near a bar called Doll's, where a lot of the big ballers from Russell's neighborhood used to hang out. We had made a certain kind of steady, happy money with the paper game. But it wasn't anything compared to what these dealer guys was getting. The amount I'd been saving up to start my clothing shop was a good amount for me. But these dealers were sometimes getting shopping bags of cash every day. Russell was seduced by that. He wanted it for himself.

"'Let me get fifty dollars,' said Russell, as we stood there, leaning against my car. We did everything together, but he had something more powerful pulling him in the other direction, towards the drugs. 'Russell,' I said, 'don't be with them, man. Come with me. We gotta get away from this life. You don't have to be in it. We'll sell clothes.'"



Daniel R. Day


Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem


Random House


Copyright 2019


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