In the year 1982, at the age of 38, Daniel Day started his own clothing boutique in Harlem, New York City. Often working 24/7, he initially struggled to find the textiles he needed, and companies willing to do business with him. His urban position and race were too high barriers to overcome and, somehow, teaching himself textile printing was left as the only option. After mastering screen printing on leather, a material to him more accessible, Day began to stamp logos from high-end luxury brands on most of his clothes, Gucci in particular.
Day, who grew up just around the corner from his shop, began to be known with his boutique name, Dapper Dan. Just a few years later, Dan’s popularity in Harlem was sky-high, and the image of late 80s NYC hip-hop royalty was one very much associated with his clothes. People like LL Cool J, The Fat Boys, Bobby Brown, Eric B. & Rakim displayed fake Gucci prints on the cover of their albums, and so did Mike Tyson and Dian Dixon when appearing in public.
Simultaneously, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Gucci brand was in great crisis, seen as archaic in comparison to the fresh work of Versace and Armani. The Rombi motif print, the house’s signature, became a symbol of outdated traditionalism, and the Gucci family feud of the early 80s (now showing the cinema) left the company derelict. Dapper Dan's practice was, in fact, built on an image of decadence of its high-end counterpart, but also eventually brought to court in 1993 by the companies he was knocking off. As a result, Dapper Dan’s Boutique was forced to shut down, and the designer almost disappeared for more than two decades.
Recently, in 2018, something extraordinary happened. Under the direction of Alessandro Di Michele, Gucci was accused of copying one of Dan’s original “copied” designs in its winter collection. Following allegations, the fashion house’s response was shocking, as Gucci pushed to start a collaboration with the now 73 years old designer, to create a capsule collection inspired by his archive.
Marketing aside, something was acknowledged in Dapper Dan’s inheritance, previously ignored: appropriation was recognised legitimate creative intent, and so was the cultural, surreal but canonical position of street-wear in the recent history of design. One year later, the fashion house opened an invitation-only atelier with Dan in a joint venture, supplying fabrics for his new creations. The atelier still stands today, in Lenox avenue, Harlem.
“IS IT TRUE?” a plump, indignant man yelled at Lagerfeld through a crowded and exclusive restaurant when he learned of the fatal connection.
“Of course it’s true,” Lagerfeld appears sitting on the other end of the cafe’ (a shocking appearance for those who weren’t aware of the plot).
“BUT IT’S CHEAP!”.
“What a depressing word. It’s all about taste”
(small pause) “If you are cheap, nothing helps.”
In the year 2004, the low-cost Swedish retailer H&M opened its 1000th store, profited 7 billion Euros, had 31,700 employees and a countless number of customers. In the same year, Caroline Lebar, communications director of the most iconic fashion designer on earth, received a call from Stockholm, asking for a collaboration.
“It would have been super easy for Karl to say no. The surprise was that he said yes!” she later declared. Karl Lagerfeld’s partnership with H&M was an atomic bomb ready to be detonated in the middle of fashion world. Lagerfeld collaborating with fast-fashion was just as dramatic as Gorbachev negotiating with Reagan, or T-Pain singing with Taylor Swift. It opened up the era of high-and low-end collaborations that we still experience today in its over-saturation.
The advantages for H&M were evident: being able to provide designed things for affordable prices (49$ for a blouse, 129$ for a jacket), escaping their own reputation as a cheap, low-quality brand. Reasons for Lagerfeld to participate were less obvious. The world of fast-fashion had systematically been copying from runaways, providing clothes in trend faster than Chanel. It was considered as another kind of planet, with its own rules, looked at from above by the masters of haute couture. “The future will only be high and low. Everything else in between will disappear” Lagerfeld was instead heard saying when accepting the deal. The promise of a common destiny was set up with those words, but, historically, was there really a gap?
The image of high fashion as an exclusive business is, in truth, a fairly recent one. What is now perceived as exclusive was once understood as instructive. We forget too easily how, just beyond half a century ago, copying patterns from fashion houses and magazines was an everyday practice for the majority of housewives, unable to afford a tailor or a couturier. In a time in which high-fashion’s participation in society became much less tangible, fast-fashion simply compensated for unavoidable societal transformation, including the emancipation of women from domestic work. The radical collaboration, dismantling luxury both as idea and commodity, brought this relationship to surface in witty fashion. “It’s all about taste. If you are cheap, nothing helps.”
In the year 2019, king of collabs Virgil Abloh launches MARKREAD, a “collection” of furniture as part of a joint venture between himself and IKEA. Head of Dada-inspired, street-wear brand Off White, the designer from Chicago, who died on Sunday 28th at the age of 41, considered the idea of collaboration not as merely strategic, but more inherent to the creative process. “Why do we need another chair?” he stated in a lecture at Harvard GSD, when speaking about his work with IKEA and his past partnership with Nike. In his view, the idea of an anonymous, unremarkable, cheap object elevated to artistic form (still, and differently from Off-White, remaining affordable) was worth more than the creation of new designs.
Ready-made irony, and the irony of the ready-made, is what more strongly represented Abloh’s art. In the context of their collaboration, this can be found in its quoted words, printed on top of existing rugs, cloaks or IKEA handbags (“Keep off”, or “Timeless” are two examples). Eventually, it becomes almost irrelevant whether one buys the irony or not, against the idea for which one might be able to buy art at an affordable price, even if a sort that is self-proclaimed and highly commercialised.
Funnily enough, despite the intensely “meta” qualities of Virgil’s intentions (at least in the way these were advertised), IKEA stayed truth to themselves, avoiding any intellectual complexity, and advertising the collection in the blandest of ways:
[Virgil’s work] adds a sense of irony into the products we’ve produced – perfect for people trying to build a home with a little high-fashion edge, or looking to freshen up the one they already have. (IKEA.com)
However, in the context of the collaboration, even IKEA’s superficial words somehow fit in quite well. “Don’t be precious” was in fact another of Virgil’s formulas, in an attempt to “speak to the tourist and the purist simultaneously”. Nonetheless, the capacity to always exist between these two realities, through the kind of precise normality typical of normcore fashion, is the most important legacy left by the American designer. Constantly revealing the contentions behind the idea of luxury and street-wear (particularly when combined), Virgil Abloh, more than any other, managed to bring the idea of cross-disciplinary collaboration to new places.
Due to this, his work was always appealing, because always controversial.