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Legendary Harlem designer Dapper Dan talks being busted, and complimented, by Sonia Sotomayor

Perhaps no single designer has done more for the conflation of urban fashion and designer brands than Daniel Day, aka Dapper Dan.

Since the infamous ‘cocaine ’80s,’ Dapper Dan has dressed everyone from Erik B. & Rakim, Mike Tyson, Big Daddy Kane, and the hustlers of uptown, operating from his appointment-only shop in Harlem on 125th street.

Dan’s reworking of designer brands with his own twist became known as “knockups” (as opposed to knockoffs) because the quality and look of the clothes had a precision and elegance that was as good, if not superior, to name brand labels.

When Day first emerged onto the scene, designer brands continuously tried to hit him with lawsuits and close down his shop, eventually successfully. Now, he’s getting the recognition he’s always deserved.

Dapper Dan came back into headlines last summer when Gucci creative director Alesandro Michele released a jacket that mirrored a 1989 design Day had made for Olympic runner Diane Dixon. Michele said the jacket was an “homage” to Dapper Dan as a way of recognizing the Harlem fashion trailblazer.

Gucci went further, giving Dan his own shop on Lenox avenue in Harlem, the first designer brick and mortar store in Harlem. Gucci will supply the fabrics and take care of the logistics for Dap to work up his designs. But not just anyone can walk in and get dressed by the man known as Dap, it’s appointment only.

Dap sat down with GQ Style recently to talk about Harlem fashion, finally getting the recognition he deserves, and ‘Africanizing’ European labels.

One of the best tidbits from a truly amazing interview is a story of Dap being busted by now Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and how she actually inspired Dap to keep pushing.

Throughout the ’80s, high fashion brands and their lawyers repeatedly tried halting Dapper Dan’s Harlem work. His knockups had become hot commodities for athletes, and celebrities, and designers were not thrilled.

It wasn’t until an infamous altercation between Mike Tyson and Mitch “Blood” Green in 1988 officially landed Dap in hot water and forced him to eventually shutter in 1992. But one particular visit from then lawyer Sonia Sotomayor caught Dap’s attention.

He told GQ Style:

“[Sotamayor] was the one I respected the most. Because an odd thing happened. MCM came in at the same time, but they didn’t have a court order for seizure. They wanted to seize things, and she told them, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ And I wasn’t aware of that.”

But beyond giving him some helpful legal advice, Sotomayor told Dap that his clothes belonged in high fashion boutiques:

“She was very cordial, and one of the things that she said that made me remember her so well—I had Big Daddy Kane’s coat there; it was a full-length black-on-black plongé leather MCM with a shawl, black Glamour Mink collar—a really classy piece. And she looked at that and said, ‘Wow, this guy really belongs downtown.’ So my first big raid was my first big compliment.”

And the similarities between Dap and Sotomayor are not lost on the man known for his knockups. Sotomayor hails from The Bronx, Dap is from Harlem, and they’ve both maneuvered out of their circumstances to rise to the top of their fields:

“The parallels [between Dap and Sotamayor] are amazing because she came out of the projects, you know, from very humble beginnings. From the Soundview section of the Bronx. And that’s a real rough neighborhood, you know? She came from out of there, I came from humble beginnings, and our paths crossed and then she went on and did really good for herself. Took me a little longer, though. [laughs] I took a longer road.”

Just a couple of Uptown legends.