An Ode to Bootleggers: How They Narrow(ed) The Gap Between The Streets And The Runway

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The fashion industry’s contentious history with counterfeiters is a lengthy one, but one moment stands most prominent among the rest: M.I.A’s 2013 Versace line. The line premiered with baggage as hefty as its price tag: By deliberately designing pieces that mimicked Versace knockoffs, M.I.A. both acknowledged and embraced the brand’s extensive history with the counterfeiters that supplied them. Versace’s silent cosign spoke volumes: What could be cooler, after all, than knocking off the knockoff?

Though small, the moment was a strange win for counterfeiters and their customers. Over less than a century, counterfeit fashion slowly escaped the ire of high fashion, eventually signaling success rather than a threat. Fashion houses have since become tolerant of  —  if not completely numb to  — the existence of counterfeiters and the multi-billion dollar industry they sired. Their cheap outputs were considered an unfortunate byproduct of ultimate brand success  —  both insult and acclamation. That Versace could exalt its legacy as counterfeiters’ biggest target spoke to its strengths, something the brand was all too ready to do. What changed?

For one thing, hip-hop. The Versace-M.I.A. line stood inadvertently at the intersection as fashion, music, and streetwear — — not for its aesthetics, but for the history that preceded it. Hip-hop’s generous embrace of Versace and other fashion houses in the ’80s and ’90s led to a counterfeit boom never seen before. Urban black youth coming of age in Reagan’s America naturally sought their own mode of personal expression  — something that could disassociate them from their realities or portrayals. Through the influence of hip-hop legends, dope boys, and hustlers, they immediately found their escape in high fashion. Counterfeiting soon became yet another means to a luxurious end.

It started first with Adidas  —  and Nike, and FILA, Puma too. The sportswear usually reserved for awe-inspiring athletes soon became the uniform of “battling” b-boys in New York’s boroughs . After all, it was cheaper to adopt than high fashion labels, and functional too. As hip-hop music began to buzz, so did the personal fashion choices of b-boys’ other heroes, the boisterous rappers and DJs that maintained the link between their home cities and the world. As inner city black kids followed the ascents of hip-hop stars, it became clear to them that success, wealth, and clothing were inextricably linked. One could even note a rapper’s origin borough by what he wore.

Ostensible jewelry matched with velour suits and sneakers struck a chord with young Black kids. They could now imagine themselves in the midst of such success: They, of course, already possessed the velour suit, the sneakers. The chain, and what it symbolized, didn’t seem too far off. As Adidas, Reebok, and similar sportswear brands began to utilize hip-hop culture in their branding, urban Black youth began to see their efforts cemented in brands that previously felt out of their reach.

The growth of sportswear brands spawned a fascination with hip-hop in the early ’90s, and its biggest evangelists easily cashed in. With more money, rappers could afford to widen their tastes outside of leisure wear. Their rapid upward mobility flipped their style almost instantly — out went the outerwear. Its replacement was “prep:” The Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica, and Polo Ralph Lauren pieces that signified, among other things, a rapper’s newfound wealth.

Functionally, adopting prep wear had multiple uses: It could serve as an escape, a testimony, or statement. If you could afford the exorbitant price points prep wear carried, it was an unmistakable sign that you had made it. If you had made it, you were undoubtedly in a better position than that of most of your peers. Because high fashion labels didn’t bother to cater or market to poor Black and Latino youth, acquiring their clothing spoke to an exclusivity a simple tracksuit could never convey.

Unlike rappers, fans had far less avenues to the fashion they coveted. Shoplifting immediately became their first course of action. Many “shoplifting crews” were formed in the widespread effort to acquire threads from department stores. (Often, seeing someone decked out in head-to-toe Ralph Lauren was a sign of their success in doing jut that.) There was something openly defiant about wearing as much Polo as you could in broad daylight with the implicit suspicion that you could not afford it. Additionally, shoplifting was a clear rejection of the exclusionary elite that sought to bar them from not just the clothes themselves, but also what they represented. It was a tool meant for leveling the fashion field between fans, the rappers they adored, and the fashion brands that denied them all.

That shoplifting crews had a penchant for flaunting their spoils only made it even harder for high fashion to ignore the “urban” market any longer. In parties and in photos, young Black men matched their expensive outfits and stoic, hardened expressions with a enviable hint of cool. Even as work-wear and outdoor brands began to enjoy massive spike in sales from the “hip-hop generation,” they too echoed high fashion’s sentiments in abstaining from marketing or even acknowledging the growing market. When Jason Russell  — then director of marketing for the work-wear brand Carhartt  — went on record saying that the brand would never “go after that market aggressively,” he confirmed an attitude long hidden within high fashion’s inner circles even today.

For all of its thrill and success, shoplifting was hardly sustainable. As a method, it offered many risks and little profit, and rendered its users unwitting targets. Black urban youth needed an alternative. Luckily, they had a Dapper Dan.


Born Daniel Day to a homemaker and a civil servant, Dapper Dan grew up in 1950s Harlem as the youngest of four brothers. Poverty quickly shaped his intuitive interest in fashion; as a child, his innovation was limited to covering holes and preserving what fell apart. Like the crews succeeding him, Day was an proficient shoplifter known best for his affinity for department stores like Hearns and Alexander’s. Much like his peers, Day understood the importance of “looking the part,” and held fastidiously to his appearance as he sought credibility. Unlike his peers, he soon opted for creating his own designs instead of stealing others. In record time, he became known as “hip-hop’s fashion godfather” as he worked endlessly to bridge the gap between high fashion and the streets where his Harlem boutique could be found.

Though Day’s clientele included celebrities like Mike Tyson and LL Cool J, it was hustlers and “street people” that kept him in his work. It was lucky, then, that the rise of his boutique coincided nicely with the rise of crack cocaine. His boutique became a young dope boy’s first stop in his efforts to burn the large amounts of cash he would amass through his sales.

Day’s designs were expertly weaved from the cuts, materials, and logos of elite fashion houses so that urban black youth could still feel wealthy wearing them. Because Day charged relatively similar prices as the fashion labels themselves, anyone could still boast in a “Dapper Dan” original – and surely, they did. At all hours of the night, customers could be found soliciting Day for a custom jacket or lounging about on the boutique floor among his wealthy pool of fans.

Day understood the struggles of his market explicitly. Much like the youth that bought his clothes, he found it difficult to integrate into the high fashion scene, and was regularly denied access to the fur and silk he needed to mimic high fashion wear. With New York’s seasons in mind, he turned to leather as his primary material, while utilizing the official Gucci, Fendi, and Louis Vuitton material he ripped out of purchased wallets and handbags.

For Day and his clientele, symbolism was key. Customer loved how Day could mix new school style with old-money symbols, and often requested customized pieces or copies of creations he’d designed for others. With such a high demand, it became impossible to continue his regular purchase of high fashion products to tear apart; it was clear he needed an alternative in order to keep offering the look his customers craved.

He eventually invented the concept of “logo sampling:” by using a screen printer, he learned how to print etched logo screens directly onto leather. The result proved profitable: Because he could print any logo onto seemingly any material, there were no longer any obstacles to the clothes he could conceptualize or create. Patterned jackets, hats, and suits soon became his primary supply, with all-over printed bomber jackets soon accounting for the majority of his boutique’s output. He soon expanded to printing onto automobile upholstery; then, actual cars. By displaying high fashion logos so prominently, he could both control access to and portrayal of the brands that had since denied him.

It also meant a near-immediate influx in his output, and soon Black youth of all backgrounds and professions could rock patterned leather, silk, and mink. Day’s creations were both delightfully garish, subverting both copyright law and the rules of fashion. Jackets ballooned comically at the shoulders; a pair of silk pants appeared several sizes too big; bomber jackets were mere canvases for swathes of neon color.

As the popularity of Day’s work only grew, it was inevitable that his counterfeited creations would draw attention and ire from the brands he copied. After a fateful fight at his still-unknown boutique, Day found himself on the receiving end of several lawsuits from Gucci, Fendi, and Louis Vuitton. The dapper days of Dan were over.


Counterfeiting is a curious crime — for one thing, it’s difficult to quantify its damages. The OCED estimates that counterfeiting costs companies at least of $250 billion dollars per year. Consider the history of fashion brands like Gucci, Chanel, and Polo Ralph Lauren, and it’s easy to imagine that number spread across a century. One can only guess at the sheer amount of business their benefactors have lost to their cheaper counterparts.

Of course, that’s not to mention the social fallout from counterfeiting as well: Brand loyalty and awareness can seriously drop. It can be hard to present as an exclusive luxury brand with nonexclusive creations. To that end, it’s not unreasonable for a high fashion brand to thoroughly engage new markets with the intention to build a relationship with them.

In the years following Dapper Dan’s Harlem reign, hip-hop and high fashion began to find common ground  —  slowly, at first. It wasn’t until names like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger began to openly acknowledge, collaborate, and style rappers that hip-hop was able to begin its ascent into the high fashion graces it enjoys now. Though Tommy Hilfiger had seen its fair share of counterfeiting, its eventual embrace of rappers like Snoop Dogg and Jay Z spoke more to hip-hop’s growing star power than it did any economic pressure.

Through the efforts of shoplifters and counterfeiters, hip-hop bridge the gap between its world and fashions in just two short decades. We now live in an age where the two are practically indistinguishable, where celebrity-designed high fashion lines are common, and where hip-hop reigns king in the same industry that sought to shut it out.

Counterfeiting will remain a constant in high fashion, but fashion labels hardly fear it now. With hip-hop, there will always be new inspiration for every season.