The fashion house stealing from Dapper Dan shows that cultural appropriation and cultural exchange are two different things.
Photo: Conor Lamb
Black cultural productions are often misinterpreted. This is to be expected because the intentions of why things are created move depending on the identity creating it; some folks create to relieve, to express, to entertain, to sell, to fit in with dominant culture, and some create, to dominate. I think of the creation of jazz and how black people often create to prove that we are human. We create to prove to ourselves mostly that our brilliance is real even if the current society we live in refuses to measure it. We create as a kind of reconciliation for what has been stolen from us. We create to express. In the short film The Cry of Jazz (1959), a character says, "The negro was the only one with the necessary musical and human history to have created jazz." This struck me because it introduced the idea that jazz wasn't a creation that black people lucked into creating, but it was in our political and artistic DNA, and black folks exclusively could only arrive at the genre.
Harlem, where jazz once flourished, has ghosts. Walking through Harlem with any type of consciousness of the people that lived there, it's hard to ignore the black soul flowing through its streets. Each artist demanded to be seen and be reimagined as pivotal creative force in a system that denies black humanity, let alone black art. Langston Hughes wrote there. Gil-Scott Heron yelled there. Cam'ron painted the town pink there. And Dapper Dan designed an era there.
Dapper Dan was the designer of hip-hop's golden era. He was the courtier of a culture seen as still illegitimate and low-brow, and he imagined it as couture. He used the logos of the very places that deny black people access and participation until this very day like Fendi, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci and turned these symbols on their heads. His designs were bodacious leather and sweater pieces that superimposed the symbols of aforementioned brands, with exaggerated sleeves and embezzlement. He repurposed these brands and fabrics to create beautiful things, but to also to say that blackness dresses itself for reasons beyond survival. Dapper Dan owned a boutique on 125th street in Harlem where his designs were displayed and hung, and the space also acted as a cultural epicenter. Dapper Dan and his boutique were symbols of luxury and excellence. Pusha T rhymes on "M.F.T.R.", "I'm drug money like Dapper Dan." Iconic group Brand Nubian's Lord Jamar in "All For One" rapped, "Not a Dapper Dan fan. I stay casual." His designs were worn by such hip-hop legends like Salt-N-Peppa, Mary J. Blige, and LL Cool J. Dapper Dan, real name Daniel Day, made designs not for all, but the bold and those in hip-hop interested in making a statement. This is why his designs landed on such classic hip-hop covers like Eric B. and Rakim's Paid in Full.
His designs affirmed that blackness loves shapes, innovation, and luxury; the designs, with colorful colorways and avant-garde shapes, said that blackness is beyond what we have and can survive. We too do things just because we're curious or moved by the creative impulse that enraptures most artists. The first rap record was The Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight", not the rapper's need or the rapper's survival. This is important. Dapper Dan carries on this tradition of the delightful, even when you are in the interesting sociopolitical reality that is black identity.
Business of Fashion published a piece entitled "Why Fashion Needs Cultural Appropriation" by Osman Ahmed that argues one of the most irresponsible equivalences I have ever had the displeasure of consuming. It argues that somehow a multi-million dollar company appropriating a single black man is the same as a single black man reimagining designs by a multi-million dollar company. Ahmed writes, "But here's the thing: without Gucci, there would be no Dapper Dan as we know it today. The brand is as much a part of Dapper Dan's story as Dapper Dan is to theirs, and Michele's nod to both seemed to be sincere and clear for all to see."
This is a lie. What black creativity produces does not follow the same rules as what white supremacist capitalism produces. Black people view the world around them and the legacy that belongs to us, and we create things. Dapper Dan did not need Gucci in the same way Leonardo da Vinci did not need Lisa del Giocondo to create The Mona Lisa; Giocondo was there for Leonardo da Vinci to prove his mastery, but it could have been any white woman who he gazed upon. Dapper Dan chose Gucci to use to display his mastery, but it could have been any brand built on systematically disenfranchising black people, but occasionally exploiting the black culture. On the other hand, white supremacist capitalism exploits those they have marginalized, appropriates it for a mainstream audience, and shares none of the economic or cultural profits that these marginalized groups, often black, create. And there would be no possibility for an artistic production without a black community.
There is no exchange to be had when only one person is getting the profits and recognition which makes the idea of a "cultural exchange" laughable. Fashion, and other creative industries, are not a potluck where everyone shares their family's dishes. It is a business. And the act of taking from people, and sharing no profit or credit (until forced by the public), is an economic violence. The word exchange insinuates a sense of equality. What Gucci did was not an even, equal thing. White supremacist capitalism depends on appropriation because it creates nothing, but steals and exploits everything, from cuisine to fashion. Even when we observe pop stars like Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry, we see the ability of whiteness to try on and use black culture for sales and re-branding leaving no profit for the people responsible for making a culture to exploit. Miley Cyrus has since moved on to a more tame, all-American brand since her edgy/hip-hop phase where she used black people as props. Katy Perry is currently using black culture, music, and bodies to appear more relevant and expansive as an artist. Meanwhile, black people and other cultures create independently based off of our own identities and legacies like we have with jazz and hip-hop. We merge and exchange cultures without exploitation happening on any level, including cultural and economic. We share credit. We share profit.
We know this not to be true of businesses founded inside of white capitalism, even in the case of Dapper Dan for even when he found a way to sew his exclusion and frustration into immaculate garments and a booming business, fashion heavyweights like Louis Vuitton, Fendi, and yes, even Gucci, sued him. The repeated legal takedowns resulted in the eventual closing of his business after eight years. Here we see even when black people attempt to reclaim and find celebration from the industry that excludes and exploits them, there's still no having for the black creative. This adds more insult to the hit that Gucci would dare take a design of Dan's without permission or reparation.
Whiteness has a severe problem with exchange, mostly because the intention is solely to dominate culturally and profit economically. There is no room for soul and humanity, which is where the sharing takes place. The idea is to show there's no place whiteness can't arrive, steal, and profit. Even in Dapper Dan's case, where you have a man that created based off of his exclusion from an industry. This same industry takes the inventiveness, skill, and irony in his work, steals it, profits, and erases his existence until pressed by the public to acknowledge that this was a Dapper Dan original.
The cry of appropriation from black people isn't simply wanting to see our bodies in a fashion ad campaign. It is wanting to support our families based off of our creativity and build a kind of generational wealth we rarely have access to. This is what Gucci stole from Dapper Dan when repeatedly suing him and driving him out of business. The black creative community deserves acknowledgment that this country's cutting-edge is black, and it needs nothing but itself to perpetuate the brilliance. We know this by listening to how Kendrick Lamar simply has to draw from funk and jazz to capture the public's ear. We know this by viewing how Beyonce needed nothing but black woman creation (Warsan Shire, Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust) and black inventions (country, rock 'n roll, trap) to captivate a world. The cry of cultural appropriation is about the acknowledgement that black people did these things first, but like jazz, we are the only people who could have ever created it. We are not lucky pilgrims that happened upon creative genius; black people are intentional alchemists. We are not just looking for thank you's or our bodies being exploited in the pages of glossy magazines, we are looking for a type of reparation from these businesses and people that have made billions from the magic, but disenfranchise and erase the magicians.
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