Legends Of Streetwear: You Can Do It, Karl Kani

In this new series called Legends Of Streetwear, we are going to delve deep into the lives and stories of the original hip-hop streetwear designers from the 80s and onwards. We are going to see what inspired them, how they made it happen and what their impact was on the industry.

Carl "Kani" Williams' father used to have his suits tailor-made, eventually inspiring a teenage Carl to make his own designer clothes

Childhood Foundation

In our first profile, we are going to look at one of the most unique, successful and long-lasting streetwear designers of all-time. The humble, intelligent and driven Brooklynite named Carl "Kani" Williams. Born in 1968, Carl became successful as a young buck in the late 80s and early 90s making him still relatively young even today. His fast start in life came down to a few important factors and events. Starting with his father, a Panamanian, who was a sharp dresser and would take young Carl on his trips to Manhattan to purchase materials which he would hand over to his tailor. His father was also an entrepreneur, despite living in the projects (a wise financial decision), who had immediately started his own business once arriving in the US from Costa Rica where he met his wife and fathered Carl. Another huge contributing factor to Carl's later success was his work ethic which he was able to hone at a young age when he worked the 5:30 AM paper route at age 12. All of these early experiences gave Carl the foundation of entrepreneurship as well as insight into how the production of clothing worked in the real world. Eventually, in his mid-teens, Carl started creating his own clothing designs in his bedroom in the projects of Flatbush Brooklyn. He then followed in his father's footsteps and started buying his own materials which he would take to a tailor. Once getting his specially made clothing, young Carl started getting his own unique look and began getting questions from his friends about where he got his fresh-looking threads. Since fashion and style was a big thing in the projects, and also highly competitive, Carl was hesitant to give away his secrets right away. But eventually he gave in and people from around the 'hood started asking him to design clothes for them too. Carl obliged and one day when he was hanging with some friends he pointed to a customer wearing one of his creations. When he said that he had designed it, none of his friends believed him saying, "why isn't your name on it?". This, of course, prompted Carl to emblazon his name on his next creations, nice and big so everyone could see. This lead to a massive explosion in requests for more clothing in his neighborhood. 

Following His Dreams

Cross Colours was a unique brand, thanks in large part to the designs of Carl "Kani" Williams (photo courtesy of crosscolours.com)

Despite all the positive feedback and initial success, young Carl was not thinking that fashion design would be his future and was planning to go the traditional college route. But as things turned out, fate would have it otherwise, Carl only lasted 10 days in college before a friend of his invited him out to the west coast. His friend told him that it was more financially beneficial to produce clothing in L.A. rather than New York and this convinced Carl to make the move. Shortly after arriving on the west coast, Carl and his friend (Carl Jones of Cross Colours) set up shop in South Central L.A. but things didn't really take off as hoped. And when the shop was robbed, losing all their clothing, they decided to take a more "secure" route and start selling through mail order. That didn't take off either and they ended up making more money on the lookbooks than the actual clothing. But all this did not dissuade the pair and they eventually managed to create one of the most legendary brands in hip-hop fashion, namely Cross Colours. 

Striking Out On His Own

During the success of Cross Colours, Carl played a major part with his Karl Kani designs. The CC brand quickly grew in popularity and by 1993, at their peak, they ranked at no. 10 on the Black Enterprise Industrial/Service companies list. But sadly due to bad planning and economic overreach, Cross Colours went financially bankrupt in 1994. But Carl was not going to give up and he was able to obtain full ownership of his trademarked Karl Kani name. He quickly resumed work on his designs as well as building the company which he named Karl Kani Infinity. The newly found company found quick success due to his previous work with Cross Colours and his already long-established street cred. By 1996, Karl Kani Infinity recorded an impressive $59 million in sales, with 45% of sales coming from jeans (baggy of course), 30% from footwear (he partnered with Skechers), 15% from KK's children's line, and outerwears (jackets, sweaters, etc.) accounting for the remaining 10 percent. 

The Cold World Of Business

Puff Daddy was once a model for Karl Kani before he started his own streetwear brand called Sean John 

But, as it always is during the advent of a new industry, other companies begin eyeing a piece of the cake for themselves. People, with perhaps more readily available cash than Karl Kani, like Puff Daddy and Russell Simmons started their own streetwear brands, Sean John and Phat Farm respectively. And it's a sad fact in the world of business and marketing that it's not always the best product that wins the race. It often comes down to financial ability and marketing savvy at the end of the day. What Sean John and Phat Farm lacked in creativity and originality they made up for in cash and simple celebrity status. The competition Karl Kani faced as well as his struggle to keep his existing customers made the road forward increasingly more difficult. By expanding into as many niches as possible (underwear, women's fashion and even suits), Karl Kani made a valiant and highly worthy attempt at becoming a top dog in the fashion industry. But due to the aforementioned factors, such as lack of available capital and new competition, their goal of rivaling the likes of Tommy Hilfiger and Polo was not achievable. 

The Cream Rises To The Top

In retrospect, the Karl Kani brand has shown an amazing resiliency and made it further than any of the other streetwear brands who challenged them during the late 90s and early 2000s. In a testament to true talent and passion, the work of Carl "Kani" Williams has stood the test of time and the brand has made a massive comeback during the retro (90's vintage) wave of the last 5 years. They (Karl Kani) were one of the few brands from that era that had a distinct and timeless look, which proves to be as popular today as it was back then. The creative mind and "the eye" of Carl "Kani" Williams could be an entire article series (or book) of its own. So it's an understatement to say that it's very nice to see the return of Karl Kani to the world of streetwear. In an industry that's bigger than ever, it's Karl Kani that is proving to be, once again, one of the very best designers in the world of fashion. 

View the amazing clothes they have to offer at the Karl Kani Clothing website


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