With a raspy drawl and a thick Brooklyn accent in the early morning sunrise of Los Angeles, Karl Kani answers the phone in a self-assured manner, boasting the voice of a man who has worked hard. His prolific repertoire saw a host of revered clients sporting Karl Kani, from the prodigal Tupac, to Aaliyah and Biggie; his role was totemic to the sartorial movement of 80s hip-hop, bridging two genres – music and fashion – that have inspired the narrative of a multi billion-dollar industry that we now call “streetwear”.
In the aphorist tale from rags to riches, this week Semaine invites you to meet the self-proclaimed Godfather of streetwear, Karl Kani. Born Carl Williams, the urban designer rebranded his identity, after asking himself “can I?” transform the trajectory of streetwear. With a nod of confidence, and legal name change, Karl Kani was conceived. Now, at the tale-end of the bubble, the fashion industry is immersed in the language of hypeology; from what started as a cultish movement, beginning with the dawn of baggy trousers, has since transpired into a new frontier of luxury.
At the epicentre of it all sits Karl Kani, the unequivocal arbiter streetwear. The label burgeoned out of the vivacious streets of an apartment in Brooklyn, New York in the 80s. The designer’s relationship with fashion grew from the paternal influence in his life–his Panamanian father was often at the tailors. This impression combined with an acute feeling of isolation were the roots of the brand: no designers were selling clothes for kids on the streets. Spotting the opportunity, Kani utilised the direct access to tailoring with unbridled energy to compete amongst his friends, creating the "freshest clothes on the market" from his early teens. The era saw a symbiosis between fashion and hip-hop, and the kids on the street couldn’t move and dance in the trousers that were on the market, hence the birth of one of Karl’s first items, the baggy trouser.
The brand became the first of many; the first urban fashion brand to hire an all-black team and the first designer to present a fashion show at the White House in 1999 to celebrate the talents of immigrants within America, under the presidency of Bill Clinton. His vision was sociological, garnering attention for a culture of apparel that had not previously existed. This paved the way for his sartorial acclaim with a lyrical feature in Biggie’s song One More Chance to Aaliyah in a branded Karl Kani hoodie for the cover of her debut studio album Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number in 1994. If “hustle” ever needed a face to a name, it would go by the name of Karl Kani.
Semaine celebrates the influence of the namesake and founder, as the brand marks its 30th anniversary this year. Kani heralded a new decade for his brand with a handful of collaborations, including a Karl Kani x Êtudes collection, Êtudes, a French streetwear clothing company. “It’s almost like we chose each other” Kani notes. He recognised their mutual appreciation for streetwear, in line with Kani’s unwavering manifesto: “We don’t perpetuate what we’re not.”
Thirty years on, streetwear has since become something bigger than itself; it was born with a humble purpose, and since urban apparel has been transfused into an aura of expensive cool with exorbitant price tags, challenging the egalitarian roots of its initiation. Today, it connotes an entirely new identity promoted by limited edition and exclusivity, forgetful of its once inclusive intentions. Where at its origins, it was simply about sharing a socio-political message that promoted liberality from both the rhythmic freedom of music, to the then revolutionary looser fit of clothing on the body, today it has been persistently fetishized by the fashion industry. How does Karl feel of the Abloh’s and Preston’s of the industry? “I’m proud of where the movement is going” he says admirably. All that he asks is that the luxury conglomerates pay tribute to the legacy they’re referencing.
He finishes the phone call with comfort in his voice, reminiscent of his formidable clientele who together formed a movement for the creative pool of hip-hop enthusiasts, longing to clothe themselves in garments that fell in sync with the music in their ears. “Kani” he says, an etymological witticism steeped in confidence. “Kan-i” be one of the most influential designers in the world? Perhaps.
By Scarlett Baker for Semaine.