Dapper Dan, the Harlem tailor whose bootleg designs once brought a lawsuit from Fendi but are now being underwritten by his new partners at Gucci, was “misunderstood” by a fashion industry that failed to understand the power dynamic of cultural appropriation, he has said.
“The strong determine the course that history will take. The black community which I come from in Harlem, we don’t have the resources to determine that course.”
The tailor found himself at the centre of the cultural appropriation debate this year when a near-copy of a Dapper Dan design appeared on the Gucci catwalk. Gucci shortcircuited the ensuing criticism by announcing a new collaboration with the tailor, whose atelier will reopen next year, this time stocked with official Gucci fabrics instead of bootlegged ones. “In my community, we have a different language to discuss cultural appropriation. We have bootlegs and we have knockoffs. It is about creating something new,” said Dapper Dan. “My take on the partnership with Gucci is that I am happy to have a global audience. I feel that if I can be accepted by a brand on this level, that sends a message to people of colour all over the planet that we can finally do this. Because when you look back at brands that have been created by people of colour, none of them have survived. They all crashed.”
The tailor, whose iconic client list of rappers included LL Cool J, Eric B and Rakim and Salt-N-Pepa, was speaking at the Voices summit curated by Business of Fashion. The designer Dries van Noten, who recently faced a backlash over the use in his knitwear of a traditional Peruvian llama motif, also addressed the issue of appropriation, questioning the framework in which cultural references have become problematic. “There was a huge reaction against that sweater. I was told I was a thief. It does not make sense to me as a citizen of the world that the only culture I am allowed to think about is Belgian folklore. Of course, we must be careful and sensitive. But why is it so different from a Belgian chef using olive oil?”
Halima Aden, the hijab-wearing catwalk model who made headlines when she appeared at the Maxmara show this year, spoke of her own positive experiences of cultural exchange in the fashion industry. “I have learned so much from being around other models from different backgrounds. One of the best examples is Gigi Hadid. I have loved spending time with her and seeing that there is no one way to be a Muslim woman, that we can coexist in that space and support each other. Women should have the freedom to wear revealing clothes if that’s what makes them feel beautiful, but women who want to dress modestly should feel like they have a place in fashion, too.”
Aden faced “a lot of pushback” from her Somalian-American family when she became the first hijab-wearing entrant to the Miss Minnesota contest in 2016. “My mom was like, ‘Stay in your lane’. But I wanted to participate because I never saw myself as different from my fellow Minnesotans, and the only time I saw a woman dressed like me was on CNN – and they were never doing anything I approved of.” In 2017, the year following Aden’s appearance in the contest, seven hijab-wearing women entered. Carine Roitfeld, the iconic French stylist who Aden describes as her mentor, acknowledged that her native France has a particularly difficult relationship with the hijab. “People are very fearful. But I don’t care, because I think I am doing the right thing.”