Daniel “Dapper Dan” Day is synonymous with Harlem. Born and raised in the close-knit New York City neighborhood, he has synthesized its culture and style into pieces worn by some of the biggest names in entertainment. In the process, Day helped introduce hip-hop fashion to America and then the world. Though his business has gained a global reach, Day has remained in Harlem his entire career. “Harlem has its own personality,” he shared at his uptown atelier. “There was a saying when I was growing up, ‘so goes Harlem, so goes the whole Black world. I used to wonder about that, but then I realized that it’s because of the diversity and [culture] we have here we’ve developed a different style.”
Harlem has been especially hard-hit by the COVID-19 crisis. Since the pandemic arrived stateside, people of color have been disproportionately impacted. According to the Department of Health Pacific Islander, Latino, Indigenous, and Black Americans all have a COVID-19 death rate of double or more than White and Asian Americans, who experience the lowest age-adjusted rates. Despite those statistics, Day has been struck by the apprehension many in his community feel regarding the coronavirus vaccine. “A lot of the young men and women were very reluctant because they feel our community has been attacked when it comes to things like this,” he explains. “[We’ve been] used as guinea pigs, and that’s something we have to contend with.”
Misinformation and fear have prevented many from taking the vaccine, but the concerns are rooted in a complex history. Medical racism is a legitimate concern, and in the past black bodies have been exploited in ways that have permanently undermined trust. Two of the best-known examples illustrate where some of the wariness towards the medical community comes from. From 1932 to 1972, the United States Public Health Service unethically studied the long-term impact of syphilis by using African American sharecroppers in Tuskegee, Alabama, as test subjects, offering them placebos instead of treatment and denying them access to penicillin. And in 1951 Henrietta Lacks unwittingly contributed cells from a tumor biopsied during treatment of her cervical cancer. Unbeknownst to Lacks and her family, those cells would go on to be used in scientific study without their consent.
Keenly aware of this history and the importance of vaccination when it comes to saving lives, Day wants to do his part to help change perceptions so that more people would be inclined to protect themselves from the coronavirus. “What I do is look at all the scientific materials and information so that I’ll be able to explain it to people,” he says. “It’s important that we pay close attention to the professionals—having so many people of color within the medical field now has had the biggest impact.” After receiving the first of his two shots, he sat down for a Zoom with a Dr. Mary Bassett, the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and the Director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. Together they discussed the ins and outs of the vaccine process and addressed common concerns regarding safety, side effects, and the reasons why COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted BIPOC individuals.
More than discussing the problem, Day wanted to show exactly what it’s like to be vaccinated, so he let Vogue follow him as he received the second of his two vaccination shots. As he walked from his home to the Family Institute of Harlem, Day greeted his fellow Harlemites and chatted with strangers eager to get a selfie. Forever connected to the neighborhood he loves so much, he wants to protect himself and those around him. “Before fashion, I was a professional gambler, and everything in gambling is based on probability,” says Day. “If people look at the probability for this, they’ll see that it just makes so much more sense to take the vaccine than to risk [and] not take it.”