Carl Williams turns 30 next month, and already his Karl Kani clothing company grosses $69 million in annual sales.
Williams, who goes by the name Karl Kani, now has his line of men's sportswear in Fred Segal stores, and will be in Macy's next month. He hopes eventually to have his own boutique in his native New York.
Kani moved to Los Angeles in 1988 at the age of 19. He worked in a small storefront that served as his home, studio and sales office until he entered a partnership in the early 1990s with Cross Colors, which launched the Karl Kani line nationally.
He ventured off on his own five years ago, and the company has been growing ever since. Located in a warehouse district east of downtown L.A., the company now has 45 employees.
Kani attributes his success to his ability to set trends and to meld different vibes from the street. His marketing and product placement haven't hurt either. Kani is the first fashion designer to have his sneakers worn by NBA players. Rap stars like Dr. Dre also sport Kani fashions.
Question: You were born Carl Williams. Why do you call yourself Karl Kani?
Answer: "Can I?" was always a question I used to ask myself. Can I do it? Can I really succeed by being a fashion designer in this world? Can I really establish a market people said doesn't exist? When I came out with my jeans, "Carl Williams jeans" didn't really have a ring to it.
Q: How did you first become interested in fashion design?
A: Back in the early '80s when my friends and I were growing up, we spent all our money buying clothes. So I saw it could be a lucrative business. I also found that a lot of styles we wanted to wear were not available. Instead of complaining about it, I wanted to make a change and start making my own clothes.
Q: What kinds of things did you want to wear?
A: Everyone was wearing Calvin Klein's and Lee's and the jeans were very tight, and we wanted more loose-cut jeans. I decided to make a pair of jeans that could fit the new urban market that was coming up.
Q: How did you get started in business?
A: When I was in high school, I was in a program training me to get into the business world. I met a couple of friends in the music business and I started designing clothes for them and they were wearing the clothes in videos. So at that point, we started getting a lot of inquiries. That's what really got me into it. I realized this could be a real business and then I moved to California to pursue my dreams.
Q: How did you get financing?
A: I got the capital from friends of my parents. I moved to California with about $1,000 in my pocket. My first break really didn't come until 1991 when I hooked up with a company called Cross Colors, which was a well-financed clothing company. They saw Karl Kani as being competition for them because I was up and coming. So they figured instead of having him work against us, let's bring him within, tackle the market together. The first year together in '91, we did $89 million combined in sales. We represented 45 percent of that.
Q: When you first started out, were any big designers targeting the urban male market?
A: None of them. No one even wanted to say there was an urban market. Everyone tried to shy away from that customer. And I saw I was that customer.
Q: Was it scary? Did you feel like it was a big risk?
A: I felt like it was a big risk, but then I also felt like, what else am I going to do that I'm going to have fun doing? Making clothes was really my dream and I love doing that. I love putting things together. And I just love to be able to provide clothing for my people, that's all.
Q: How do you get your ideas?
A: I look through different sporting magazines. It depends what season it is. I try to get inspiration from a lot of different sporting events because (they're) a universal thing and everybody gets into it. I also get a lot of inspiration when I go back to New York, and I look at all the different ethnic races that are there and just the way people are dressing. I get a vibe for what's happening and I just put it all together, put it down on paper and sketch it out. Each season we do a new collection.
Q: Do you find yourself going around to inner-city areas and studying what people are wearing?
A: Yeah, we go to inner-city areas. We also go out to the suburbs too. We hang out at malls a lot. Trends usually start in one particular area and it feeds off of that. So we try to be trend-setters.
Q: Where are some of the places you go around here for inspiration?
A: Melrose is a good place to get inspiration. Venice Beach is good, as well as going to Crenshaw. Hanging out in Beverly Hills. There's a whole mixture of different people. You take a little of this and that and put it all together, then you get Karl Kani.
Q: Who do you see as your customers?
A: My audience is the young, new urban kid, and it's not a color thing. Everybody wears my clothes. One of my biggest markets is Japan and Switzerland, also South Africa. We have two different lines, the Karl Kani Jeans line, which is very affordable. The average retail price is under $55. We also have the Karl Kani Endurance line, which is our more technical, athletic sportswear division, which is a little more expensive. Those prices average around $150 retail.
Our suits and business suits will be out in spring of 1999. We'll have suits for the guys that work on Wall Street who need to wear the typical black and pinstriped suit, then we'll also have some suits coming out of Italy with all the newest fabrics, very high-fashion collar-less suits, collar-less shirts, bright colors.
Q: Where are your clothes made?
A: A lot of our jeans are made here domestically in the United States. A lot of our outerwear and plaid shirts and wovens are made overseas, like Portugal, China, Malaysia, Singapore, places like that. It's to keep the price competitive with other brands on the market.
Q: Why did you move to L.A.?
A: I found a lot of my competition was manufacturing products right here in L.A. So I figured if I wanted to be with these guys, I needed to do manufacturing in the same places they do to get the right quality level. We have manufacturing plants throughout L.A.
Q: A lot of companies have gotten bad press for child labor issues in Asia. Are you sensitive to it?
A: We're very aware of it and that's the reason we get good agents over there who are registered with the government to make sure these agents are in compliance with the laws of the country and paying people the proper wages. We'd love to make most of our product here, but sometimes it prices you out of the market.
Q: What about your marketing strategies?
A: We just want the Karl Kani name to be seen all over. We try to get our stuff on every sitcom there is. We have somebody especially hired to (see) all the athletes, to make sure we get their sizes and custom-made things for them. You have to cater to these guys because it's important that they continue to wear our clothing, because it means a lot to our company.
Q: Where do you think fashion is going to go in the next couple of years?
A: I think that just wearing jeans and a T-shirt is not happening anymore. I think things are going to start to become more cutting-edge. I think fabrication is going to play more of a key role in what people wear. People are going to start getting into more microfibers, water-repellent fabrics and oil-resistant fabrics.
Carl Williams (Karl Kani)
Title: Chairman and CEO
Organization: Karl Kani Infinity Inc.
Born: Brooklyn, N.Y., 1968
Education: Graduated from Canarsie High School in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Most admired person: His mother
Hobbies: training his five dogs and working out at the gym.
Turning point in career: In 1994, when he got his first order from Macy's and was able to be in a store with the other big players in the fashion world.
Personal: Single, one son
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