28 Days of Black Fashion History: Karl Kani
Considered the godfather of urban streetwear, Karl Kani (born Carl Williams) is arguably the creator of the “baggy jean” style.
Born in Costa Rica, at two years old, he and his family immigrated to the United States, settling in Brooklyn. He would bear witness and grow up as hip hop began to emerge, and he knew he wanted to be part of it. He tried rapping, but he couldn’t dance. He also tried DJing, but that didn’t work out either. He decided if he couldn’t BE the rapper, he would be the person to DRESS the rapper.
He was introduced to the idea of making clothes by his father who had his clothes made by a tailor. He began getting his own outfits made, and his friends thought his outfits were so cool, he began telling them that he would make the designs for them. Word started to spread, and at 19, Williams was making custom outfits for some of the local kids in the neighborhood.
After an encounter with a girl who didn’t believe he’d made an outfit because his name wasn’t on the label, he found himself trying come up with a brand name for his clothing. He felt just calling it Carl Williams was too generic. He settled on Karl Kani because “can I” was a question he often asked himself: can I be successful? Can I build a clothing brand? "I didn’t know the answers to that, but I knew that if I called myself Karl Kani, every day I'll have to answer that question. And, yes, I can.”—Redbull, February 5, 2020
In 1989, Williams moved to California with $1000 to launch his brand. He didn’t have the money to get a big name for his first campaign, so he tapped a then unknown student from New York, Sean Combs (AKA Puffy/Diddy/P. Diddy) to be the face of his 1991 campaign. That same year, he partnered with Cross Colours which was a game changer for his brand and enabled Karl Kani to be carried in stores across the country.
A young and unknown Sean Combs in Kani's first campaign for the Karl Kani line.
Many hip hop artists would be seen wearing Karl Kani. If you were a 90s hip hop artist being photographed for the cover of The Source, you would probably be wearing Karl Kani denim. Artists from Tupac to Biggie to Nas to Aaliyah repped his signature-like logo, and the brand has even been immortalized in some of hip hop’s lyrics including Biggie’s ‘One More Chance’ and in Eminem’s verse on ‘Forgot about Dre’.
Tupac wearing Karl Kani during a performance.
Karl Kani with Aaliyah
Besides being the first to really embrace the hip hop culture and style through fashion, Karl Kani Jean was also 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.
Today, Karl Kani’s brand continues to be a force in streetwear and worn by younger hiphop and pop artists such as Migos, Ariana Grande, Rihanna and Joey Bada$$. The brand also has collaborated with French label Etudes, high street label Pretty Little Things, and even ventured into furniture design. But even as his multimillion dollar company grows, Carl Williams continues to stay the humble guy from Brooklyn striving to make his mark.
Migos in Karl Kani
“Money can't buy legacy, and it can't buy history. I never fed into any of the success that I had, and at the same time, I didn’t dwell on any of the failures that I had."--Karl Kani
In 2020, Karl Kani launched the “Can I” campaign sending a message of “We Can Do This” to the world. There are multiple brand ambassadors who have their own short films celebrating their stories of self-belief. Below is Kani’s short film telling his story of being an immigrant living in Brooklyn who eventually became the godfather of streetwear.