You can’t have a conversation about fashion without mentioning Karl Kani. Universally-deemed as the Godfather of Urban Fashion, his style and influence extends far beyond the States, but rather reaches the masses on an international scale. Cementing his own name on his clothing with his iconic, retro signature as his logo, the fashion designer and mogul refuses to settle for mediocrity—forever putting in the work to reach new heights in all facets of his life and career.
In Biggie’s timeless smash “One More Chance,” he raps, “I got the funk flow to make your drawers drop slow, so recognize the dick size in these Karl Kani jeans. I wear thirteens, know what I mean?”
Karl’s clothing has been worn by all the elites of hip-hop, including the late great Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Nas, Jay-Z, Nipsey Hussle, De La Soul, DMX, A Tribe Called Quest, and so many more. Real name Carl Williams fell in love with hip-hop after hearing The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” and he’s been bridging the gap between fashion and music ever since.
Flaunt caught up with Karl at celebrity stylist Winnie Stackz’ birthday party in a beautiful mansion in the Los Angeles hills, who was dressed in a sleek all-black suit—forever using clothes as a statement for his presence. Read below as we discuss his start in fashion, his iconic logo, Quavo reintroducing his brand to the new generation, the importance in health and working out, and more!
How did you get into designing?
Basically, Karl Kani started in streets of Brooklyn, New York in 1989. I was born in Costa Rica, my dad’s Panamanian. Growing up, my father used to get his clothes made by a tailor. Watching him make his own clothing inspired me to understand how easy it is to make clothing. Growing up in Brooklyn, there’s a lot of competition in terms of what fashion you’re wearing, so I decided I wanted to make my own outfits with my dad’s tailor. When I wore it, everybody said, “Oh that’s cool, where’d you get it from?” Instead of telling them that, I told them, “I’ll make you one.”
I started making my own clothes for my friends, that’s how it started. The most important day: one day I was sitting in a park. I was bragging to these girls about this clothing I was making, this guy didn’t believe me. The girl told the guy to come over, “Let me see your jacket.” He said, “Who made it for you?” She said, “Karl made it,” he said “How come his name ain’t on it then?” That’s when it hit me. I started putting my name on the clothing. Hence that’s how streetwear originally started, because I started putting my name on the clothing and started a street revolution that way.
How did you get that logo? It’s transcended generations.
“Can I?” was a question I used to ask myself all the time. Can I do this? Can I be successful? I always used to write the word “Kani” on a piece of paper. One day, it turned into a signature. I decided to put Karl and Kani together. I knew if I called myself Kani, everyday I’d have to answer that question: yes I can. It’s a question to myself: everyday you work hard and make everything happen, manifest it into existence.
You started your brand in 1989, how old were you?
I was 17. We grew up very quick back then, because our parents would work all the time. We grew up in the streets. For my homeboys, we’d hustle off each other. We knew at a young age we had to make things happen, because we didn’t like the idea of living in poverty. To be honest, I didn’t know where it was going, but I knew everyday I had to work hard. I figured if you work hard everyday, things will manifest itself and happen on its own. I knew going back to where we came from wasn’t the solution, so we had no other choice but to work hard and create a rhythm for yourself.
What was the reality of turning your brand into a multi-billion dollar global empire?
We set the tone for a lot of people. We opened the doors. We want the Karl Kani brand to be an inspiration to a lot of people. Show that you can come from the streets, you can have goals, you can have dreams and inspire a lot of people to do certain things in life. That’s what we really stand for. Hip hop has been really good to us. Hip hop needed a clothing brand, Karl Kani needed an industry, so we can combine together and was able to create success for everyone.
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Take us back to the iconic photoshoot with Tupac. What did it mean to have him wear your clothes for free?
Oh man, certain relationships are really hard to explain. It’s almost God-sent. He’s an angel. When I met him, he used to wear my clothes all the time. I asked him how much does he want to do an ad, he looked at me like I’m crazy. “No, I’m not charging you for nothing. You’re my peoples, you’re Black. I got you.” He’s one of the main reasons why my brand is the #1 streetwear brand in Europe right now, they respect Tupac and honor him like a God out there. Every time they see him in clothes, he’s wearing Karl Kani. This happened organically, you can’t get more realer than that. There’s no other brand who could say they started streetwear before me, because it’s not reality. We weren’t really sure what we’re doing, but we knew we’re on a destination to achieve certain things at the time.
Fondest memories with Tupac, if you could remember?
Just him being who he is, a man of his word. He said to me, “I’m not gonna charge you nothing,” then he said to me, “No, I want one thing.” So I started thinking, “Oh boy, here we go. What do you want, $2 million? $3 million?” No, he didn’t say that. He asked me, “Can you put ‘Thug Life’ in some of the ads for me?” He asked to take some pictures of his crew, he’s looking out for his people all the time. You can’t get more realer than that, this is real deal.
What did it mean to have it recreated by NLE Choppa?
It’s awesome. Paying homage to the old-school hip hop artists is real, he’s very talented. I love the fact that they pay homage to the old-school guys who paved the way for them. That’s what makes it real because without them, they wouldn’t be here where they are now. It works hand-in-hand together.
How do you choose who to collaborate with? I seen you recently with Coi Leray.
Energy. Everything with me is energy. We don’t force any relationship. If it happens organically, then we’ll do it. If this doesn’t, we’re good. No one else can show you the list of icons we got so if you‘re not coming to us real, we’re good with that.
Are you spiritual? How spiritual are you?
Absolutely, 100%. Spiritual to the point where I reject any negative energy. My life’s about energy and positive people. With that, you become successful. Certain things, there’s no negotiating. You could bring the best deal to the table. If the energy doesn’t come along with that, I don’t want to do it. Because all money is not good money.
This performance by Old Dirty Bastard & Notorious B.I.G – Birthday party at LIVE at the ARENA?
Aw man, do you understand how iconic certain moments are? That’s why I’ve learned you’ve got to live in the moment when anything happens in your life. When certain things happen, you don’t realize how big that’s gonna be. You have Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Biggie Smalls on a stage together, wearing a Karl Kani hoodie. So organic, so real, so uncut, so raw. We’re blessed. We appreciate every moment in hip hop. Hip hop is the God of the universe, that’s why people respect it. That’s why so many other brands now want hip hop artists in their brand because they never thought hip hop would be as big and long-lasting as it is today.
How do you view the rap game now versus back then?
I love it. It’s about change and evolution. Things change, people change. People’s experiences change. These kids are now sons and daughters of hip hop artists who grew up earlier than them, so their experience is a little bit different from us. They talk about different things but the skill level is there, the talent is there. You got to represent hip hop to the fullest because if you don’t, it means that it’s time for you to retire. It’s not going to change if you don’t like it. You gotta go with the flow and take what you like from it, move to the next level.
Have you ever thought about retiring?
No. We just started! We have so much to accomplish. Let me tell you why: Nike is what, a $5, $6 billion company? We’re not there yet. The 6 billions? Nah, not $6 billion. We’ve got a little work to do. It’s inspiration though, because if you’re not motivated to get bigger, then what’re you doing? You’ve got a chance in the time. Not only that, we can’t be one of those brands that were hot back in the day. “Oh, they fell off.” No, we’re not about that. We’re about to dominate forever.
How do you view fashion today?
I love fashion today. It’s very creative, it’s changing. You gotta respect what things are, and elevate yourself to dip into where fashion’s going right now. We’ve got skinny jeans, we’ve got baggy jeans, we have so much to move fast right with your business. Find your spot and make that goal, make that work for you.
Who are your fashion icons?
I love the way Quavo dresses, Travis Scott, the Migos obviously, The Weeknd. Certain guys have a swag to them, those are the types of guys that I respect their fashions. Mix and match streetwear with high fashion today I feel is really cool.
How does it feel to be The Godfather of Streetwear?
It’s very motivational, I never get caught up too much in it. Every day, we want to keep building and growing, growing, growing. Right now, we’re a household name in Europe. We have a lot more work to do here, so we’ll continue to grow and get bigger. You always have to keep a window open to grow, otherwise you’ll get stuck to a ceiling.
Talk about your presence overseas in Japan as well.
We have 10 flagship stores in Japan. They’ve been very successful in the last 15 to 20 year, it’s been a great market for us. The culture stays so true to hip hop, it’s amazing. It’s crazy, they love hip hop. The hip hop connection is there.
Who do they listen to?
A lot of underground, but Biggie and Tupac are obviously Top 2 right there.
Talk about your new apparel collection. What’re you most excited about?
Oh, high-end. We’re going really high-end right now: leathers and suede, very paying attention to detail. Taking denim and turning it into more luxury items. We always elevate things. As things start to go slow, we’re going to go high. We elevate fashion.
What are your favorite pieces in the collection?
We have this jean with a metal plate on the back pocket, and my signature sweatshirt. Certain simple, classic moments, even the sweatshirt ODB had on in that video, which is so relevant till this day. 25 years later, that same sweatshirt is still relevant. Artists like that are who made it relevant. They’re wearing it: it’s cool, it’s street. It’s different iconic things that transcend moments. Sometimes the simplest things to do are the hardest things to do. Legacy-transforming items are the hardest things to do. It may seem simple, but it’s not simple if it can’t transcend a moment.
Do you only wear your own clothes?
No, I’ll wear other people if it’s cool. If I’ve got taste for it, I’ll wear it. Sometimes you could wear somebody else’s stuff and get some inspiration from the materials. I respect all brands that are out there and see who can elevate my mind to the next level.
Going back to Quavo, were you there when Bobby Shmurda got out?
No, I wasn’t there. I posted it because they had such an iconic video of them together prior to Shmurda getting locked up. Quavo was a big part of reintroducing Karl Kani to the new young generation. Quavo came to me and said, “I want to rock Karl Kani, I want to bring this shit back.” Everything he said happened, I respect that.
What was your reaction when Biggie shouted you out in “One More Chance”?
That was crazy. That was very unexpected. Keep in mind back then, there’s no social media. It was none of that, he did it on his own. When I saw Biggie, it was so quick. I said “Big, wassup?” He said “Sup man, wassup? Where my shit at? Where my free shit at?” I went “Biggie, I love you!” He’s like, “Yo man, you know I mentioned your name in my song.” I said “Get the fuck out of here g.” When I went to the car I heard it. So much love for him, he did it because it’s fucking real. That’s what he really wore, he said it because it was fucking real. I’m even honored that rappers who can say any other brand they want are repping mine. That’s real, legit shit right there.
Talk about the Size 13 jeans that you got him.
Oh yeah, that’s Biggie. We made the stuff for the big man. Back then, big men had money, but no one was honoring them in fashion. We made sure we made full, 50 pictures. Glad it all worked out.
What are you most excited for, now that the world’s opening back up?
My international business. We’re a household name in Europe right now. We were on a European tour prior to COVID, we just came back from Europe. We went up to Italy, Germany, Amsterdam, Russia, London, Paris, these are all the retail stores out there. That’s because they love hip hop fashion, love Biggie, love Tupac. They want real streetwear sh-t, so that’s what we’re bringing them all the time.
Who are you listening to right now?
Fivio Foreign, that’s my favorite right now. “Big Drip,” “Demons & Goblins,” he’s on my radar. He’s underrated. He’s Brooklyn, the sound and everything. I used his song for one of my videos for an eye collection on my Instagram right now. And Pop Smoke, we grew up in the same neighborhood in Canarsie, Brooklyn. He’s wearing my stuff in a new movie called Boogie. He’s wearing Karl Kani in the movie. When he’s at the train station, he’s on the bus arguing with the Asian guy. He has on the Karl Kani sweatsuit, the green and white one. I never met him.
What was your reaction when you saw that?
I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know he grew up in the same neighborhood where I went to high school, where I grew up at. Unfortunately what happened to him, but much love for what he does and what he’s done for the culture. That’s the way it works out.
Anything else you’d like to let us know?
Karl Kani wants to be an inspiration for a lot of people, to make them feel “if Karl could do it, I could do it too.” Hard work, dedication, because that’s the way. Nothing’s given to you, success is not given to you. So everyday: same grind, same hustle.
Work ethic is everything to me!
There’s no option. What else to go with that? Your mental and your physical goes together, meaning that you can work hard and find a way to release that with working out. This is a marathon not a sprint, you’re in it for the long haul. To outlast everybody, mentally and physically go together. Trust me. Eating, everything, it’s a cycle. It goes together. It all depends where you want to be. You want to be in the long haul to dominate? You’ve got to outlast everyone else in your age group, and you’re going to be good.
How often do you work out?
I don’t miss two days. If I miss two days, I feel so guilty. Rhythm, life’s a rhythm.
Do you eat healthy too?
All the time. I only eat fish and vegetables. It’s part of the game. You cannot be like everybody else. No, you cannot. You’ve got to outlast them. It all depends where you want to be. Some people say “nah, I’m good.” If you’re good, then what I’m saying shouldn’t mean anything to you. If you’re like, “Nah I want to dominate over time,” what they’re doing you don’t do. Focus on you, him (Slim), and your health. That’s it, keep it simple. Simplify your life.