Karl Kani is the godfather of urban streetwear, and he knows it. In early 1980’s Flatbush, Brooklyn, when the grumblings of Hip-Hop`were just beginning to sprout, Kani, née Carl Williams, helped shape the look and feel of these new, street-centric ideals. As a designer and entrepreneur, he was one of the initial adopters and, arguably, the creator, of the revolutionary “baggy jean” style: after seeing that so many black customers would buy baggy, larger jeans just for the oversized, comfortable feel, he designed his own denim that kept the waistline properly sized, but made the pant bigger. Upon moving to L.A in the ’90s, he dressed the likes of Tupac, Dr. Dre and Snoop, shaping the now-iconic rapper look that still prevails today. Karl Kani Jeans was the first to employ an all-black sales force in retail, and his 1999 collection was the first fashion show ever shown at the White House.
We caught up with the legendary Kani to discuss the current 1990’s resurgence, what it’s like to be known as a powerful black trailblazer, and, of course, how he befriended the immortal Tupac.
Back in the ’90s, you became famous for dressing Tupac. How were you able to get him, and others, to wear your pieces?
Hip-Hop needed a brand that represented the culture and I needed Hip-Hop; we both needed each other for success. Karl Kani was the brand to wear; everyone knew if you were down and were from the streets you were going to wear Karl Kani. Dealing with Tupac and other artists was actually pretty easy because they were part of the culture and they knew I was real, that I was from the streets and was just like them. We were able to relate to each other and a lot of those relationships were actually based off of friendships. Even today, I can call anyone I want; we have great relationships with the top artists like Rich Homie Quan, Migos, etc. People just have respect for the brand and for the culture.
When I met Tupac, he told me, “I’m not going to charge you to wear your clothing, you’re black. I don’t charge my people for anything.” He did all the photo shoots and everything for free. He just wanted to expand my brand, the black culture, and the black experience. We had Biggie Smalls wearing my clothing and mentioning my name in a song. Then I had Dr. Dre, Snoop, and Tupac wearing my clothing. We were the unifier of the culture in terms of clothing.
What do you think drew people to your brand initially and what do you think made customers want to stay?
Back then, there was nothing like it on the market, and today it’s the nostalgia factor. You have to think how back then the only brands people were rocking were Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Jordache, DKNY and a few more. That was our competition, and I had to convince people that they didn’t have to rock them. I’d say, “here’s what’s real. I’m going to give you the right fit, I’m going to give you the colors that we want, I’m going to give you the whole ensemble, the tops and the bottoms are going to match.”
We knew what the kids wanted because that’s what we wanted; so we made people like what we liked. So why did people gravitate to my brand? There was nothing to compare it to; there was nothing out there except us. It wasn’t until later on that all the competition started to come and mimic our looks.
There’s a massive ’90s resurgence right now. FILA, Champion, Guess and other brands are seeing spikes in sales, and the cuts and colors from that era are making a comeback as well. Why do you think that is and what are your thoughts on the “nostalgia” trend?
Well, obviously we love this trend, we love the cycle, because this is the cycle we created. It’s very interesting to see a lot of designers reaching back to the ’90s for inspiration as this was a pivotal era for fashion, really setting the tone for kids for who were part of the Hip-Hop community. The ’90s were the birth of Hip-Hop fashion and Hip-Hop is still big. A lot of kids who were born in the ’90s didn’t really experience the culture. The colors, the fit, the vibe…prior to that generation, there wasn’t really an era when the [male] youth set the tone, and it totally changed the game for young men’s fashion. I think each brand [from that era, including Karl Kani], has the perfect opportunity to come in now and make a rebirth happen, it’s just up to them and how much they want it.
As a black streetwear designer, what has been your greatest achievement?
Man keeping it real with you, my greatest achievement happened in 1990. It was at the MAGIC tradeshow in Vegas. My company, Karl Kani, and one other one, Cross Colors, were the only two black-owned companies at the show. We were set up right next to Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein and we revolutionized what the MAGIC Show was all about. People were lined up around the corner trying to get into our booth. We created such energy that in the years following, they created an urban section just because of us. Before then, there was no streetwear, no African-Americans, no black people at these tradeshows, except for us. Fast forward seven, eight years later, the whole thing changed. It started from somewhere, and that somewhere was us. We were the ones who opened the doors for so many other black designers, and for that, I’m very proud.
One thing I know for sure is that no other streetwear designer can ever say “we were here before Karl Kani,” or “we started before Karl Kani.” I know 100 percent that we were the first ones to bring streetwear from the street up to fashion, the first ones to use people from the street as representatives of our brand; we used African-Americans in my clothing ads and in fashion shows. When I look back at it, I still have to pinch myself to know if it’s real or not.
Your clothing was featured in the Tupac biopic All Eyez on Me, and more recently at the Vh1 Hip-Hop Honors awards. Have these moments had any impact on your recent sales?
Absolutely! All Eyez on Me reignited interest in our stuff with the younger generation. A lot of them knew Tupac, they heard of him, but they didn’t really know his story; so when the movie came out everything sort of aligned. It showed them that this is real and not a paid endorsement, it was legit.
The Hip-Hop Honors was such a pleasure to be a part of too! The stylist who put that together, his name is Eric Archibald, and he used to intern for me back in 1995 and 1996. He wanted to thank me for giving him his first break in the fashion game, so he thanked me by featuring me in the show.
You’re mostly sold online right now. Is that something you’re hoping to change in the near future?
We’re online and in about 30 to 40 independent stores, and that was all done intentionally. We wanted to make sure we stayed very connected to our consumer base by having an online shop first. We are looking to expand next year, but we also still want to keep the brand exclusive to a certain extent and grow at our own pace, though we have a store in Japan and we have a store in the works for 2018 that will be opening in Los Angeles. It’s all about finding the right location and planning it all out properly.
What is one thing you know today that you wish you knew back when Karl Kani was at its peak?
We had Karl Kani Jeans division rolling big time back in the ’90s. We were the number one jean company in terms of streetwear, and what I realize in this business now is that you have to establish your basics and never leave them alone. That’s what gives you longevity in this business, establishing your basics. Calvin Klein has established the underwear as his basic. Levis has done a great job at establishing a jean as their basic item. Levis will never go anywhere because once you establish a basic product, it’s something that people will continue to buy over and over again. I think that had I known that, I would’ve done a better job at staying true to Karl Kani Jeans. We’re rebuilding it now, but we were so focused on so many other things that we didn’t put enough energy into it the way we should have.