The beloved 80s hip-hop streetwear brand drops their dreamy Fall/Winter campaign, and we catch up with the “godfather” Carl Williams.
Aaliyah. Biggie Smalls. Tupac. You’d be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop legend in the 80s that wasn’t pictured at one point or another in the iconic garms of urban fashion brand Karl Kani.
The brainchild of self-made designer Carl Williams, the brand quickly rose to prominence in the 80s, famed for its distinctive signature relaxed styles, and has even been lauded for “inventing” the baggy jean with its innovative Karl Kani Jeans offshoot.
And it wasn’t just the ‘fits. Founder and design powerhouse, Williams, became an industry pioneer – he was the first designer to host a fashion show at the White House during President Bill Clinton’s term in 1999. And was committed and dedicated to galvanising the black community, with Karl Kani Jeans as the first to employ an all-black sales force in retail.
Against all odds, the brand is still widely recognised and loved to this day, maintaining its die-hard fanbase and adding new ones with the rise of nostalgia fashion (+ festival season, of course). All the while, it’s stayed very much true to its classic roots, while incorporating seasonal colour palettes and subtle stylistic flairs. We stan so hard.
All eyes on the Fall/Winter campaign, which has us wishing for the end of summer, just so we can layer up (head-to-toe Karl Kani, obviously). Unisex colour block hoodies, quilted puffer jackets, perspex bags, bralets and bucket hats are all currently being added to our wishlist right now.
We caught up with the godfather of it all, Carl Williams, on being the “pioneer of streetwear,” the impact of the rise of social media on fashion, and how he wants to see RiRi in his garms…
Watch the Fall/Winter campaign video below, which sees Williams talk about the beginning of the brand…
You’re considered to be one of the original pioneers of streetwear – how do you think your brand has chopped and changed in terms of style and aesthetic since its birth?
The Karl Kani brand has always stayed true to its roots. The collection from season to season over the last 30 years has made adjustments to go with the flow of sneaker trends. We noticed how our customers were dressing and buying outfits from the bottom up. So throughout the years, we have made sure our colours compliment the hottest sneakers in the market. We have also adjusted the collection to fit different age demographics since we have been able to accommodate different generations. From fathers, to their teenagers and so forth.
How do you want people to feel when they wear your clothes?
We want people to feel confident, fly, and feel like they are representing a brand that’s pushing the culture forward. We want our customers to feel great knowing that they are staying true to the heritage.
What’s been the biggest challenge along the way?
The biggest challenge in my career was convincing buyers that we could compete against strong competitors such as Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan, and Calvin Klein. I was a young kid from the streets. I was in the ring by myself batting against these top names but proud that a young kid from the streets could compete against the big dogs.
It’s been said that you “created” the baggy jean – how do you feel that this look has returned with the rise of nostalgia style, and that it’s flooding the mainstream? Also who wore it best?
It’s is a great feeling to see the 90s come back as its going into high-end fashion today. When we created this look, we knew that the market needed a fresh vibe and look. We are happy to see that designers are replicating the baggy jean look today. We feel proud about it and we understand that what we set forward is timeless.
You’ve had hip-hop legends Tupac, Aaliyah, and Biggie Smalls wear your pieces – who now would you love to be seen in your clothes?
Rihanna, Travis Scott, A$AP Rocky, Keith Powers. They embody a confidence and swag that would pair well with the Karl Kani brand.
What do you think about social media (especially Instagram) and its impact on fashion – do you think it’s a good thing?
Initially at first I wasn’t a fan of social media, yet I have learned to adjust and accept change. I prefer the old ways when you can put together a collection and go to a top magazine such as Vibe and Source. Fashion had more substance then. After being in the business for 30 years, the game is all about adjusting. Especially adjusting to social media. We have now been able to find a rhythm that works with the consistency of our brand.
Karl Kani Jeans was the first to employ an all-black sales force in retail – this move was probably seen as revolutionary at the time – why was this so important to you?
It was mandatory that this happened because the reps I had out needed to understand my brand, our culture, and our style of fits. I wouldn’t have been pushing the culture forward starting with the norm. We had to push the envelope and hire a team that was a part of the movement. The same reps that were employed have now went to run other streetwear companies that came after Karl Kani.
And your 1999 collection was the first fashion show ever shown at the White House – this must have been a highlight? Would you ever want to show in the White House now?
Yes I would absolutely like to show at the White House. I would love to bring my whole Brooklyn crew and immigrant friends as models and show the world once again what street culture is all about. It would be great to show the current president how fortunate we were to have President Obama in the White House because he was an inspiration to all.
You’re a black fashion powerhouse and trailblazer – what has been your biggest ever achievement?
An achievement that I am most proud of is inspiring a nation through fashion since the brand singlehandedly changed the trajectory of hip-hop streetwear. This achievement jumpstarted hopes and beliefs of generations. We’ve opened up the doors and gave hope to others that if Karl Kani could do it, they can too. With this, we were able to create our own place in the fashion industry.
What do you think has set Karl Kani apart from all brands and ensured its survival since then?
Before Karl Kani, there was none. There is not one brand in this world that started streetwear in this world before that. Being the originator is what ensured its survival since the beginning.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming brands and designers looking to make it?
You gotta love this business more than anything else. You gotta have extreme passion and will to win. Failure is never an option. Always create, design and keep your collection going. Always push the culture forward.