Kani, Karl 1968(?)—
Karl Kani 1968(?)—
“I have a street mentality,” Karl Kani told Vibe magazine, “and I bring that to my business.” Since his bold, hip-hop-inspired clothes began to reach consumers in the early 1990s, he has become one of the most influential figures in men’s fashion. He achieved tremendous success during his affiliation with the Threads 4 Life company, but when that concern faced a growth crisis, he decided to take off on his own. The result was Karl Kani Infinity, which has seen unprecedented profits with its ever-expanding line of merchandise. As he remarked to Newsweek, new developments come from “the person who’s hungriest. And I’m hungrier now than ever before.”
Kani’s hunger began on the streets of the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, where he grew up as Carl Williams. He and his friends were preoccupied with style, as he related to Vibe’s Scott Poulson-Bryant: “We’d make a little bit of money, then run out and buy clothes. You know, going to Delancey Street and buying the new leather this or suede that, new Ballys, Adidas [shoes], whatever. At the end of the week, nobody had any money,” since it all went out of the community to the “other nationalities” who dominated the clothing industry.
Young Williams—who went by the nickname Naquan in his Brooklyn neighborhood—never studied tailoring or design, but he had a flair for coming up with unusual, stylish concepts. He would buy material and tell a tailor exactly what he wanted his garments to look like; for a relatively small sum, as he put it, “I had a fresh outfit that ain’t nobody had.”
So “fresh” were Carl’s customized clothes, in fact, that they were soon in demand. After seeing him on the scene in local clubs, young men began asking for Carl Williams outfits of their own; he was soon taking orders in his car. Although, as he admitted to Newsweek, he had once dreamed of a music career, he knew he “could provide the clothes.” He began to see his future taking shape, but the violence of the city began to impinge on his life. “Things started to happen around me,” he noted to Poulson-Bryant. “Killed [were] people close to me, who meant a lot to me.” The death of a close friend inspired some deep contemplation, he added: “It made me think about life differently. I thought I should really do something positive.”
Kani decided to head for California, where he joined a friend in opening Seasons Sportswear on Crenshaw
Born Carl Williams, c. 1968, in Brooklyn, NY. Designed and sold own clothes, c. 1980s; co-founded Seasons Sportswear, Los Angeles, 1989; designed and sold Karl Kani Jeans and other items through Threads 4 Life Corp., 1992–94; founded own company, Karl Kani Infinity, 1994.
Boulevard, the main drag of South-Central Los Angeles. The year was 1989, and a few years of struggle stood between Carl Williams and large-scale success; the question that had obsessed him for years, “Can I do it?” remained, for the moment, unanswered. But it did provide the basis for his new name, Kani, a variation on “Can I?” With a stylish “K” replacing the “C” in his first name, he ventured his own optimistic reply.
Kani met Carl Jones, co-founder of Threads 4 Life Corp., at a fashion show displaying the latest wares from Cross Colours, a stupendously popular Afrocentric clothing line. Threads was already profiting hugely from the Cross Colours line, which it oversaw, and Kani saw his chance. He told Vibe that he approached Jones and bluntly asserted, “’Yo, I wanna get my stuff into department stores. How do I do that?’ He looked at me, like, ’How you stepping to me like that?’ But he said we should sit down and talk. We talked, and they offered to help me out. I would design the clothes, and they would help finance the production of my stuff. So what did I have to lose?”
Kani had been working around the clock to fill orders for his increasingly popular line of jeans, and saw the advantage of a partnership, which was finalized in early 1992. Cross Colours took off like a rocket; after earning $15 million in 1991, it showed profits of $89 million in 1992. The Kani line added another $30 million to $40 million—depending on the source—to the ballooning Threads 4 Life profit margin.
Kani’s stylistic innovations helped hip-hop fashion reach a wider consumer base. In addition to working with a more mainstream selection of colors in his designs, he modified the loose, baggy look that had become the basis of street fashion. Black people, he insisted to Newsweek, “never liked our jeans fitting this tight. If you wear a size 34, we’d buy a pair of 40 jeans, but the waist would be too big. So I just figured, why not increase the size of the pants?” Kani’s instincts, Sportswear International’s Deidre Dube told Black Enterprise, took him to “a little different range of the market. He goes beyond the street wear and has a classic style.”
Kani has asserted that his clothes made up 65 percent of Cross Colours’ $97 million in sales in 1993. Yet within the confines of Threads 4 Life, he was dissatisfied. He explained to Black Enterprise that he “didn’t have any control over my line, and I couldn’t live like that.” He claimed that the corporation tried at times to compromise his designs to save money on the manufacturing end. Most of all, though, Cross Colours ran into trouble because it grew too quickly and could not keep up with the snowballing demand. Because its manufacturing resources were tapped out, retailers were kept waiting for merchandise.
Ultimately, Jones and his partner T. J. Walker were forced to part with their manufacturing end and to license the Cross Colours name to other companies. In addition to being caught unprepared for rapid growth, Kani insisted to Vibe, the company “didn’t have the right people in the right places to manage the company right. Two big companies under one roof—it was new to everybody. They weren’t managing accounts payable and accounts receivable. Anything bad for them was bad for me.” Kani was unwilling to suffer for what he considered the poor planning of his associates. “I ain’t going down for nobody,” he determined, and decided to start his own venture.
In 1994, Kani used $500,000 in profits and some licensing arrangements to inaugurate Karl Kani Infinity. “I’m not the type of person to work for anybody,” he claimed. “I’m all about taking risks.” The latter claim was no mere bravado; since the advent of Cross Colours, “street” style had become a highly competitive market. In addition to his old partners, Kani now faced a marketing onslaught from hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons and a number of mainstream clothiers who now smelled profits in an area they had previously ignored. Kani also had reason to worry that his involvement in Cross Colours—which “made more enemies than friends,” as fashion editor Alan Millstein told Black Enterprise —might taint his fledgling operation in the minds of retailers. “I expected some resistance,” Kani himself averred. “A major turning point for me was when retailers accepted us back into the market.”
With a staff of 15, Kani’s new house of style began to encompass a larger share of the market. Though rap fashion had long been a staple of his vision, with stars like Tupac Shakur and Snoop Doggy Dogg sporting this threads in the public eye, Kani did not want to limit himself. As his vice-president Jeffrey Tweedy told Black Enterprise, “We want an older, more mature audience.” Kani himself expressed a desire “to clothe the guys on Wall Street.” At the same time, he has made it his priority to stay abreast of trends in the “’hood,” claiming he returns to Flatbush “every six weeks and just hang out on the streets.”
Although Kani expressed his resolve not “to overextend myself” but rather “to produce what I can on time,” he has ventured boldly into new areas of couture. He made a splash with mountain boots, and approached Neal Orman, of the Philadelphia company Saxony Sportswear, to manufacture the first Karl Kani leather jacket. “I’ve been offered about 20 serious licensing deals for leather over the last 15 years and I passed on every single one,” Orman told Black Enterprise. “Karl’s the only one that was interesting to me. He’s an All-Star and up-and-coming.” When the first jackets came in, he added, “Karl and I just looked at each other. We knew we hit a home run.”
Responding to frequent requests fielded by a sales representative, he also launched a kids’ line, Karl Kani Boys, aiming at the 6-to-15-year-old market with jeans, shirts, leather jackets, vests, and other accessories. The Boys line was expected to send sales of Karl Kani clothes over the $45 million mark in 1995. With his creations selling in some 300 stores in the United States, its own exclusive retail outlet planned in Brooklyn and within New York City’s famed Macy’s department store and Chicago’s venerable Marshall Fields, Kani showed signs of continued successful expansion.
Staying ahead of fashion counter-feiters who aped his signature and sold cheaper versions of his clothes, he began fastening a metal-and-leather plate to his product. “The people who made the metal actually thought I was buggin’ out,” he confided to Poulson-Bryant of Vibe. “’You know what this’ll do to people’s washing machines and car seats?’ I told them not to worry about it, just hook it up. And they turned out to be our bestselling jean ever. Then of course they started counterfeiting that.”
The patch features a message, reprinted in its entirety in the Boston Globe: “Inspired by the vitality of the streets of Brooklyn New York. Karl Kani, the young African-American designer of Karl Kani Jeans, encourages you to follow your dreams and accomplish your goals. Wear the clothing that represents the knowledge of African-American creativity and determination. Recognize the signature that sybolizes African-American unity and pride … peace, Karl Kani.”
Kani claims to own 100 percent of his company, using licensing arrangements to avoid being sunk by manufacturing snafus. Living in the hills overlooking Los Angeles, he could be described as a workaholic, at least in terms of his mental focus. “People think I’m bugging out sometimes. I could be driving or talking to someone and still thinking about a particular design or a change that I want to make,” he admitted to Poulson-Bryant.
Asked by Nelson George of Essence to talk about love and relationships, he mused, “Usually you get tired of people after a while, but when it’s love you still want them around. You really know you’re in love when you put your girl before something that has to do with money.” Such feelings of loyalty are not separate for Kani’s sense of professional purpose, however. “For me to succeed,” he claimed to Vibe, “it stands for other people to succeed; when other people say thanks to me, that I opened the door for them, that’s good. So now, some of these white companies might hire black designers, ’cause they think they might have another Karl Kani.” Failure is out of the question, he added, since that would make “a lot of people lose hope.”
Acknowledging to the Detroit Free Press that hip-hop “is not just about fashion” but also “part of just about everything within society,” and indeed “a wayof life,” he seemed prepared to be just as ubiquitous. And he appeared to understand as Black Enterprise editor Alfred Edmonds predicted to Newsweek, that “his best bet is to let America cross over to him.”
Black Enterprise, July 1994, p. 16; June 1995, pp. 145–47.
Boston Globe, November 30, 1993, section 3, p. 61.
Detroit Free Press, August 20,1993, p. IF; August 1, 1994, p. 4C.
Newsweek, October 31, 1994, p. 53.
Philadelphia Inquirer, August 16,1992, p. Ml; October 9, 1994, p. Al.
Vibe, October 1994, pp. 59–62.
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