Before hip-hop became a global industry and drastically shifted the zeitgeist, fashion houses didn't really want to be associated with minorities or contemporary culture, the origins of which lay in the everyday struggle of America's working class and within both the African-American and Hispanic communities. In its rudimentary phase, streetwear's values reflected those of the people who started it, making it truly authentic — something that every brand strives to become. The blueprint was laid by the originator of streetwear: Karl Kani.
It was Karl Kani (born Carl WIlliams) who introduced the concept of “For Us By Us,” before FUBU and other brands followed suit, and it is Karl Kani whose road is cemented by the love that the hip-hop world shows him.
Recently, the designer dropped by Highsnobiety’s HQ in Berlin to talk about starting the label, his early guerilla marketing tactics, and the power of celebrity endorsements
The hieroglyph tattoo on your hand immediately caught my eye while we were having coffee earlier — what does it stand for?
It means first-class excellence. I put that on me when I was feeling a little bit down on myself, in life and business. I wanted [to remind myself] to stay strong. When I shake somebody's hand, I feel empowered. Sometimes you’ve got to play games with your mind to make you think differently about things. Life's about controlling your mindset.
You're the son of a Panamanian immigrant, and you grew up in the New York of the '70s and '80s – how did all of this influence you?
I was born in Costa Rica, and we came to the States when I was two years old. My dad used to get his clothes made by a tailor. I would watch the process, and saw how he made his own clothes even though he didn't know how to sew — he surrounded himself with people who knew how to do those things.
[When we moved to the projects in Brooklyn] — I was like in fourth or fifth grade — I was really excited to go meet all the kids. I remember the first day we moved in, I put my clothes on to go outside and meet them. These kids are looking at me, worried about what I was wearing. They said, “You need to get out of here with those wack clothes, we're fresh around here.” I was kind of stunned, because [that was] the first time I realized how important fashion was to kids. I didn't think wearing new clothes was important, but to these kids in the inner city, it meant everything. I couldn't afford to buy clothes at the time, so my mother told me, “You better walk and find yourself a job. You're going to get one pair of sneakers in a year and that's it.” So I went out, I found me a newspaper route, and I started delivering [them] at 5:30 in the morning, so I could buy some clothes.
When I got my first check, I went out and bought a pair of white Pumas and a white campus shirt set with matching shorts. [After that], I was accepted, and I realized how fashion matters in the hood. It doesn't matter if you’re broke. I loved the compliments. So, it felt like this could be my calling.
Back then, we wanted to wear our clothes baggier, but they didn't have baggy clothes in the stores. So we were just buying bigger sizes in the pants, but the waistband was really big. I asked the tailor to make my pants a little bit more wide-legged and to cinch the waist. When I wore them, I was constantly being asked, “Where did you get that from?” [I didn’t want] to tell them my secret about the tailor. So I said, “If you want one, I'll make you one.” That's how it all started.
What was the next step?
Around 1987, I was sitting in a park and this guy walked by, wearing one of my outfits. I was bragging to these girls, telling them that I made the outfit, but they didn't believe me. [And even though he told the girls I made it], they said, “Well if Karl made it, how come his name ain't on it then?” And that's when it hit me. I need to put my name on these clothes, I need to create a brand.
What was your competition like, at the time?
Before Karl Kani, there was no one out there that represented streetwear. [There were no designers] that came from the streets, that could relate to the streets, that embraced street culture, that put street culture people in their clothes and advertisements. That's why we’re legendary.
So you discovered a market gap, because you represented the market. Were you selling a lot of units?
No, we were struggling at the beginning. We were just hustling. We ended up moving to California where a friend of mine had found some manufacturers. We went to California with just $1,000 and a pocket full of dreams. We had two choices: either to make this thing work or go back to New York, and I wasn't going to go back to New York as a failure.
We opened a store on Crenshaw Boulevard; we wanted to be close to the people. The first year, we made no money. The clothing line did not take off. As a matter of fact, [in ’89] some gangbangers robbed us at gunpoint and took our sewing machines and samples. But we stayed in California, and we made this thing happen.
How did you market the brand back then?
Let's keep in mind [that] there were no cell phones, no Twitter, no Instagram, no social media, none of that. So you had to find a way to get your product in front of people. So we saved enough money and we placed an ad in Right On! magazine. Right On! was one of the two original hip-hop publications, before there was Vibe, Source, and XXL.
We placed an ad there and we had a phone number, 1-800-221-KANI. So kids were calling all over requesting these sweat suits and jeans suits that we were making. We didn't have any retailers to sell our clothing at the time. We were trying to get our stuff in stores, but no one would buy it; they didn't know about my brand. So every time a kid would call we'd ask them where they shop in their neighborhood and they would tell us. We would write down the name of the store and get the phone number, and anytime that kid called from that area, we'd tell them to call the store and request Karl Kani.
The stores would get bombarded with all these phone calls. And eventually we would call the store and say, "Hey, we are calling from Karl Kani, we get a lot of requests and a lot of kids are calling us. Our phones are ringing off the hook. What are you guys selling over there? Send me a couple of those pieces." That's how we just used the hustle mentality and got our stuff placed in the stores. I remember, back then I wanted to be like a businessman, right? So I started watching the news in the morning like a true businessman. I didn't know why. I felt that's what businessmen do.
I did notice something, though, on NBC’s The Today Show, which millions of people used to watch. The news guy would always go out into the crowd and talk to the people. People would hold up signs, saying, "Hey Mom, this is Kathy from Tennessee." I'm thinking to myself, what if I got somebody to go up there and hold up a sign with my name on it?
We didn't have any money, and I couldn't afford a commercial on NBC during primetime, so I paid one of my friends $25 a day to go up to NBC and hold a big Karl Kani sign. It was a huge sign, more like a billboard. Then we did it so much that the people from NBC came up to us one day and said, “Look, we know what you're doing. This is private property, you can't be up every single day holding up this sign.”
That sign helped me to get my first footwear deal with Skechers. They thought it was very unique what I was doing and they signed me up to make Karl Kani shoes because of that.
When did you produce your first Karl Kani shoe?
That was 1994. We had a $43 million year business. We had 15 NBA players who wore Karl Kani basketball shoes on the court. We signed John Wallace — number three pick for the Knicks, Derek Fisher, Karl Malone, and 12 of the players who our shoes on the court. We had traction when it came to successful global footwear, which was complementing the clothing that we were doing at the time.
By 1994, you had already become a well established name. Snoop Dogg wore a Karl Kani hoodie in the music video of "What's My Name" in '93. And then Aaliyah's "Age Ain't Nothing but a Number" was around that time too, right?
Exactly. Everything was happening at the same time. And everything was happening organically too, there were no paid endorsements back then. All the artists were wearing Karl Kani because it was real, it's legit, it's from the culture. I feel like they can relate to certain designers that are real and that can embrace the culture. We always embraced hip-hop and artists from day one, because we knew that's who we knew, that's whose music we listen to. Those were the artists that we felt could represent our brand when we wanted to be represented.
What was your very first big celebrity endorsement?
The first big celebrity endorsement was by P. Diddy. Puffy did the first ad for us back in 1993. That was before he started Bad Boy, just before he had signed Biggie and Craig Mack, he was still at Uptown Records at the time, and was about to blow up.
I just went along with it. Puff picked out the outfit that he wanted to wear and he killed it all, it was an all-white saggy outfit paired with red Karl Kani boxers. It was such an iconic photo shoot. We placed the ad in The Source magazine; that was one of the first ads that would kick off the brand the way we wanted to. Big ups to Puff for believing in the brand back then and representing it the way he did.
You also had people like Big Daddy Kane shouting you out as well, right?
Heavy D, Big Daddy Kane, Eminem, Biggie, Nas, Redman, Montell Jordan, JAY-Z. The list goes on and on. It's been a part of the culture, part of building the legacy for Karl Kani and just being true to what it is. I look back at it now, at how important each one of those moments were. I didn't know how important those things would be 20 years down the line. When I look back at it now, that's an iconic legacy. That's one thing that money can't buy. It doesn't matter how much money you got, you could never buy people's minds and act like you were here in the '90s and act like you did certain things.
Like most of the brands that followed you, the majority couldn't really build what you have built. Unlike a lot of your competitors, you didn't water down your legacy.
I feel like this is a very tough business to begin with, and most of the brands fell off because they weren't in it for the long run. They were in it because they felt they could be very successful and very lucrative. But when the business got tough, what happened to everybody? They sold or they stopped. We never stopped. For 30 years, we've been figuring this thing out. Sometimes we are on top of the game. The key is you got to be in the game. A lot of other people now want to get back in the game. They see Karl Kani is back, they see me doing that thing in a big way. So anybody wants to jump on the ship like, “Oh, we're back too.” And I don't respect that. It doesn't mean that you're back, it means you're just copying and following again. So we've got to make sure we continue to be better and better and better, and stay ahead of the game at all times. We always stay true to the culture.