Dapper Dan knows what you’re thinking. After a recent debacle with a black face balaclava you feel like he should definitely not attend the Met Gala with Gucci. You probably feel like it’s better to cancel them, quit the brand all together, maybe? Well the 74 year-old designer doesn’t see it that way. “Each morning I get up and I have my thinking sessions,” Dap tells me at his Harlem atelier ahead of the Gala. “Today I thought about how this is a miraculous thing that’s taken place between Gucci and myself. People misconstrue it because of one mistake, and that threatens something beautiful from happening.”
When I arrive at Dap’s atelier I’m treated to a mini lesson on his role in history. My guide walks me around pointing out photos and asking if I know who’s in them. Salt & Peppa, L.L. Cool J, Jay Z, Dap at his old shop in Harlem—all images that say in so few words, this ain’t my first time at the rodeo. Ask Dap and it’s clear that he views his impact as so much bigger than clothing. “I have a higher mission and this is my platform. I have my book coming out. Dire issues that concern my community. I cannot leave this like this. I have to fix this like this,” he says referring to the current state of black lives. “People in the community are like, ‘Man, leave them! Leave Gucci and all this stuff.’ They don’t understand. Until I make them understand the beauty of this, the significance of this, the importance of this, I can’t go anywhere.” Ahead, Dap shares more on what this monumental occasion means for the black community.
How do you respond to people who will see you walk down the red carpet as a part of the Gucci brand and say, “Oh, he’s selling out.”
You only see me walking, but you know who’s walking behind me? Nelson Mendela’s walking behind me, Jackie Robinson’s walking behind me, Martin Luther King, all of those people are behind me. All those people who’ve suffered the slings and arrows of oppression in those difficult moments. But you know what they all have in common and what people don’t understand? I am here for a purpose. Nelson Mendela, you name them all, they all had to get that same thing which is an education, information, you know? Being a partner of Gucci opens up a whole world. A whole world of education. Me being here, navigating like this here, lets them know, “This is important to us, this cannot do.” I don’t know this generation, these grass-rooters. They’re easy to lead because they do not read.
The African American brands that have come about all collapsed for a lack of knowledge. Gucci has afforded me an opportunity to function on this level for the first time. I know how to sell to blacks, I know how to be black, I know how to be in the black community. Gucci afforded me the opportunity to go global black. This is a global blackness. You have to connect this to something that’s larger than what’s going on now. This is our opportunity to be reflected internationally, to have a presence. Not just here, in America, but an international presence. This thing with Gucci is so big. Gucci has offered us a platform to say, “Come on in!”
And it’s not just clothing.
You know, it’s very, very important. This challenge is very, very important. And I’m not backing out from this challenge.
What do you think it means to the kids on the corner to see you walking down this red carpet with Gucci?
You know what? The kids are the most beautiful part of this struggle. They remind me of how significant this is, because the children’s minds are open. I stand on the corner, I go to these schools and speak, they’re excited. The children are reaching out. It’s the adults that’s the problem. A certain segment of adults and the certain segment of adults that’s a problem end up creating a problem for those who do read. The ones who do read are threatened by the ones who don’t read. They know that this is the right thing, and they come to me and I’m over here and they sit there and say, “Please fix this, man, so I can wear my Gucci. We know what this is.” They know what this is, but their careers is structured on the backs of the non-readers.
What does this experience mean to you? Not only as a designer, but as a black man in Harlem?
It’s probably something I’ve been preparing for all my life. This is probably the easy part. For me, this is the easy part because rejection. Rejection. When you read my memoir, you’ll see that the biggest part of my battle is dealing with people who look like me.
Interesting. Why do you think that’s been the biggest part?
That’s the biggest part, because what I’ve learned that is people are locked into what they already believe. It’s like I said earlier, people want to be angry as opposed to looking at the roots of their anger, you know?
When you were a kid, did you ever think that you would be at the Met Gala?
Never. Met Gala? I’d be like, do they play baseball there? I didn’t have that kind of exposure. “Gala?” Yeah. “Oh, I know! You’re talking about the Mets baseball team!” Like, “They have a gala?” No, no, no that was far removed from myself. Far removed from my understanding.
Tell me a little bit about the table: Bevy Smith, Bethanne Hardison, Omari Hardwick. How did it came together?
The birth of the idea comes from Gucci. But Anna Wintour, she’s the queen and the queen has to approve. They thought this should happen. And caught me completely by surprise, and I’m excited. I’m excited. I think it’s an amazing thing. I can’t wait to tell people.