|As featured in August 1999|
By Marsha Jones
Bo Jackson may know sports, but Karl Kani knows clothes. His love of design and fabric, and his business acumen, have made him a household name. Many consumers see him as an overnight sensation, but he is the first to say that couldn't be farther from the truth.
"I still feel that we have a lot to learn," said the 31-year-old chief executive officer, president and founder of Karl Kani Infinity, Inc. "If this business didn't have to struggle in the beginning, I don't think I'd appreciate the company's success as much."
These days, a good year is $65 million dollars in sales; a bad year, $20-$30 million. Kani said those might sound like good numbers, but it tells him that the company has either missed the ball or something else is wrong.
"Don't get me wrong, we are still in the struggle and we have a long way to go. By no means have we reached the level of success we are striving for. Becoming an overnight sensation doesn't happen in this business."
Now celebrating its tenth year, Karl Kani Infinity, Inc. employs 250 people with showrooms in Atlanta, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, its home base. His designer genius has secured him a place in the 1996 edition of the 100 Wealthiest African Americans.
Not too shabby for the Brooklyn, New York, native who designed his first women's blend outfit-a shirt and shorts-at the age of 16.
He always had dreams of being a fashion designer. Unlike many designers who search for or try to lead the industry trends, Kani found the extraordinary in ordinary things. He listened to his peers and created clothing they could embrace and use in their everyday lives.
People have responded and identified with the growing Karl Kani line. With men's sportswear, outerwear, footgear and accessories, Karl Kani Infinity, Inc. will net $60 million dollars in sales this year.
In 1996, Kani placed his sneakers on NBA players. John Wallace (Toronto Raptors), Dominique Wilkins (San Antonio Spurs) and Derek Fisher (Los Angeles Lakers) each sport Kani footwear.
Last year his company came out with two new lines, Karl Kani Black Label and KK2 Karl Kani Women. Home furnishings and fragrances are being planned.
Teens spend nearly $200 billion dollars annually on clothes: women spend the same amount, men less. Hip-hop fashion generates $750 million to $1 billion annually. As the hip-hop culture mushrooms, for the first time the clothing lines of young African-American and Hispanic designers grace the racks of upscale stores.
It is Kani's dream to see more African Americans enter the ranks of the fashion industry as designers and tap into the $550 billion dollar market.
TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS
Born Carl Williams, the youngest of two children in Brooklyn, New York, he began designing and sketching clothes at age 16. His dad was a tailor and often took his son to work with him. At the shop, Kani learned about buying fabrics and the garment industry. When he announced to his parents that he wanted to be a fashion designer, they weren't surprised and encouraged him.
"My mother liked the idea and was very supportive. Actually, she laughed and told me that it was a good career choice for me because I spent so much money on clothes," he chuckles. "She also added that maybe I could spend money on my own clothes rather someone else's. She has always been in my corner. She knew I was serious when I turned down the opportunity to buy into a motel chain to open up a company in California."
In 1989, at the age of 19, Kani secured a loan from his parents, saved his money and moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Los Angeles, California, where the denim industry was least expensive.
His first company was located in South Central; later he opened up a store in the Watts area. "The first four years I designed clothes and sold them to people in the neighborhood. My father also threw a lot of business my way," he recalls. "But that's what started us off. Young people and my peers really liked my clothes, and would ask me where I got them. When they learned I made the clothes, then they wanted me to make outfits for them. As the word traveled around that there was a brother who was a clothes designer living in the neighborhood, more and more people asked me to make them stuff."
One of the reasons Kani (aka Williams) says he pursued a design career in the first place, was that he didn't see many African-American designers in the fashion industry.
"The money we spend on clothes as consumers is astronomical," he explains. "We spend all this money and people still don't respect us; we don't get our props. I wanted to prove to myself and to the world that an African American could design clothes and be very successful. I wanted to change the fashion world so other designers and society would look at us differently."
He was also moved to another level of creativity in response to runway models who didn't emulate the look of today's woman, and African-American women in particular.
"If you look at runway shows, they still use skinny runway models who don't fit the caliber of today's woman. Yet, these models are used to push women's fashions, but there really is no major designer out here today who is designing for African-American women," he says frankly.
"When my company designs clothes for women, we keep the African-American woman in mind. Some sistas are bigger in the thigh, buttock and hip areas. I am going right to my roots and making clothes that my peers and people can relate to."
AN EYE FOR FASHION
As word traveled about Kani's fashions, he was introduced to retail and chain store owners. Some stores advanced him the money to obtain their orders. His big breaks wouldn't come until the early 1990s.
In 1991, he met with staff members and owners from Cross Colours who provided financial backing and gave him his first big break. Kani recalls: "They were able to introduce me to different vendors and I got bigger orders."
Kani still wasn't convinced that he had arrived in the retail game. His company carries men's clothing sizes 28-60 and women's clothing, sizes 2 to 16. To make sure he was hitting his niche, he asked salespeople to listen to comments from customers and encourage them to fill out comment cards. Even when the cards revealed that his clothing was on, Kani still wasn't convinced.
"I constantly asked myself: 'Carl, can I achieve my dreams?' 'Carl, can I meet my goals?' Then I kept answering that I could do this. So I changed my name to reflect that 'can do' approach," he says, explaining the origins of the company name.
His next break-a $3-million-dollar order from the Merry-Go-Round-finally convinced Kani, he had arrived. "I didn't have a written business plan, but I knew what I was doing," he states, stressing that business people should work with a written business plan.
"I was achieving something but I wasn't sure about the business side. My goal was to keep selling to more stores. As I did this, my line and style progressed. I knew I was getting where I wanted to go," he says.
Realizing he didn't have the formal business experience, Kani surrounded himself with people who could educate him and take his business to the next level. In reaching for goals, he had to make tough decisions. "It's hard for me to work with people who are my friends because in business, the bottom line is about dollars and cents. If someone couldn't help me attain the level where I wanted the company to be, I had to push them aside. It may sound cold, but if someone hampers your vision, you have to get them out of your zone."
His vision has helped his company grow and expand these past 10 years. Things keep getting better and better for Karl Kani. His clothes have struck a chord with American society. His items can be found in small and big chain stores across the country. Consumers like the style, fit, comfort and affordability his clothing brings.
"Our clothes stand for something," says Kani. "We dress the nation for all its moods, situations and celebrations. Our clothing is always fashion-forward and we don't emulate other people. We have our own vision and style. People can see that in our advertising campaigns," he emphasizes. "When you look at Karl Kani clothes, you see more than just clothing. We stand for African-American pride and energy."
DESIGNS OF A DECADE
"Most of the clothes I design are clothes I would also wear," says Kani. "Some things aren't my style, but they are the items that customers want, so I have to think about everyone."
When Kani embarks on a new clothing line, his first step is to come up with a theme. This past fall, his line carried Afrocentric hats and corduroy clothing and utilized the colors gray, red and maroon. Response to the line was wonderful and crossed many consumer markets.
"Everyone embraced the Afrocentric hats," he says. 'Many whites were totally into that. That's why it is so important to have more African Americans in this industry, because black people set the fashion trends. If we decide not to buy a certain product, they are going to feel the power of us not buying it. We should be demanding that more African Americans be represented on magazine covers."
Over the years, black trends have been stolen and emulated by white designers. Kani notes that while the hip-hop clothing trend has crossed cultures, some designers still shy away from creating for the black clientele.
"It's just like in the 1970s with black hair and black music," he echoes. "Some designers shied away from saying they had black consumers because they didn't want to scare away their white consumers. Now that black hip-hop clothing is the 'in' thing, too many designers are jumping on the bandwagon and they don't give back to black communities that made them wealthy. Some companies have made $500 million in business from us (African Americans)."
Karl Kani gives back to his communities in a big way. His gift of time partnered him with retired General Colin Powell during the induction of the Thurgood Marshall Achievers Society in the Capital City. A long-time supporter of the National Urban League, he also serves on the board of directors for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He works with agencies that are dedicated to improving the lives of young people.
"Giving back is just a part of me; it's in my heart," he says. "That's just the way I was brought up. My parents instilled it in me. People gave me chances. Now I am in a position to give someone else a chance and help them find their way. I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I came from the inner city and I worked really hard. There were things I wanted to do and I had to figure out how to do it. So if I say anything to inspire someone to strive toward his/her dream, that's the best gift I could ever receive."
What does the future hold for Karl Kani? Well, in two years expect a line of men's business suits, women's evening wear and clothing for larger size women.
"I've grown up from when I started this business and my clothing line will reflect that maturity," he says. Kani also is focused and intent on becoming a household name. "We know what's it's like to start at rock bottom. I believe you have to work harder to stay on top. Right now, I have a clear vision. I'm working hard and with that vision, I can't lose."
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