When you think of streetwear, you likely think of oversized hoodies and baggy jeans, clothing you see worn today. Contemporary streetwear trends have come full circle and replicated in high fashion among familiar labels. For these trends to become what they are and were, someone had to infiltrate and break the norms of the fashion industry.
Today, the MAGIC and PROJECT bi-annual trade show helps streetwear fashion brands find their place. The display of styles is free from the rigid designs of past trends. The show features upcoming styles from brands like Doctrine Denim, Awet, Primitive, Pro Standard, and Honor The Gift have all had impacts on streetwear culture stemming from the urban aesthetic of inner-city street kids.
This year at MAGIC Las Vegas, which took place at the Las Vegas Convention Center, the Project Now Forum stage held the 50th Anniversary of Hip Hop at MAGIC Happy Hour panel, hosted by long-time Editor-in-chief Datwon Thomas now at VIBE magazine. Panel guests James Ferrel, Chief Operation Officer, Head of Marketing of Sprayground, Jason Geter, CEO of Grand Hustle, and Tony Shellman, founder of the Mecca and Enyce labels and Brand Marketing Executive Consultant, gathered alongside and in celebration of the fashion label and businessman, Karl Kani, [born Carl Williams].
“With MAGIC celebrating 90 years next year and Karl Kani launching his business with us in 1991, we want to recognize the legacy and importance of the opportunity that we provide for businesses to launch and scale. PROJECT and MAGIC have been and will always be an imperative player in launching, scaling and establishing lasting fashion brands,” says Edwina Kulego, Vice President, International and Men’s, Informa Markets Fashion.
The arguable founding father of the streetwear aesthetic of fashion Karl Kani was honored with a lifetime achievement award. This honor comes after over three decades of constantly pursuing his passion for creating a sartorial language that at first broke the norms of fashion manufacturing with raw denim looks in multiple colors. Heavy knit, embroidered crew neck sweaters and the infamous leather and metallic tag that bore the “Kan-I” signature that was subversive in its messaging. The name was introduced to the world at one of the first MAGIC Las Vegas show.
“I remember coming to these MAGIC shows back in 1991, and there was none of us here – at all,” the designer recalls. “It was just my company and Cross Colours, and that was it. You didn’t see anybody of our skin color or tone here. You may see one or two kids who may have worked for a store in the inner city, with the owner – coming through just as an assistant for the store owner. There wasn’t ‘us’ here.”
Karl Kani defied its initial bounds, “we had to break through all those grounds and open up the doors for people to show that you can be black, have your own clothing brand of good quality, and compete against the ‘big dogs’ out there.” Karl Kani was on a mission to “change the mentality of kids buying Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and Calvin Klein, which was a groundbreaking thing we had to do as a company.”
In the years of navigating the evolving fashion industry, Karl Kani still managed to be ahead of his time. “We’ve had a couple of big moments – one of our biggest moments is when we were the first streetwear featured in the NBA. We had 15 NBA players wearing our sneakers on the basketball court. Names like John Wallace from the New York Knicks, Derek Fisher from the Lakers, Carl Malone, and Dominique Wilkins from Atlanta Hawks were wearing our sneakers. We had a game plan, and we executed it.”
Persistent enough, the label was privy to the opportunity that seemed prime for the label. “We didn’t take no for an answer. We had a vision, and we saw we needed footwear to go along with our clothing. And we said, ‘athletics were big – why not get some athletes in our clothing?’” A moment in time, but the collaboration proved to have a positive impact on Karl Kani’s legacy. Something we have seen in the campaigns that ran on billboards and urban music publications like VIBE magazine.
“The first campaign that we did back in 1992 was with Diddy. It went from ‘Puff’ to Pete Roc, to Tupac; NAS, Dr. Dre, Snoop [Dogg] – ‘Biggie.’ The list goes on and on from artists wearing the clothing and mentioning my name in the songs.” Montell Jordan, Eminem, and Nas are among the artist who referenced the popular style aesthetic and brand name of Karl Kani.
“We got tons of support from the artists. What’s cool about that is that they could have mentioned any name, any brand, anything. But, they decided to mention Karl Kani, which meant everything to us because that really made us more of a household name.” Karl Kani paved a lane that was only made for itself and has carried the name into global markets.
“For the last 15 years, the Karl Kani brand has been the number one streetwear brand in the European market. We’re distributing to 25 foreign countries,” he is keen to mention.
“We have 10 flagship stores in Japan. And now we are making a move to decide when to come back and attack the United States [fashion] market. Cause business is warfare at the end of the day,” he notes, being from some of the toughest streets in NYC.
“And now that my partners have opened up 350 stores here [in the USA]. In terms of distribution for our product, the problem we had back in the 2000s was that distribution of our clothing at some retail stores wasn’t done the way we wanted it.”
A candid conversation and the 50th Hip-Hop Anniversary panel discussion revealed that the MAGIC and PROJECT shows are catalysts to brand legacy. Karl Kani, the brand, and the savvy businessman behind the name, saw the same opportunities in his environment that birthed notable European brands. The Karl Kani label was founded in 1989 by an immigrant kid from Costa Rica, making his way through Brooklyn at a young age, learning what was socially acceptable in urban communities among the youth.
“If it ‘ain’t’ broke, don’t fix it,” the founder quotes. He has kept a guiding light on his career with humbler moments he remembers. “I use the same formula that I’ve used since I was 12 years old. Getting up at 5:30 in the morning to deliver newspapers – because I didn’t have any money to buy sneakers.”
He recalls, “I’d deliver newspapers, get money – and come back looking fresh. That gave me a feeling of fulfillment. Hard work and dedication get you to where you need to be.”
The dedication motivated many families to the United States from the Caribbean region during the 1970s and 80s. The designer laments being “born in Costa Rica [in 1968] and came to the United States when I was two years old. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and went from living in Bed-Stuy first then moving to Flatbush. We ended up moving to East New York. The move to East New York changed my life because we ended up moving to the projects.”
He would land in East New York, where he had to adjust to the social standards of trendy sneakers or boots and uniquely worn garments that were ready-to-wear but styled as oversized, draping textiles with baggy denim. Clothes floated on the silhouettes of young men as they bopped and traversed the inner-city streets, where Karl Kani learned how to fit in through fashion.
Anyone from New York City knows how tough it can be to navigate the social structures of the city and its fashion. Karl Kani’s coming of age starts on “one of [my] first days in the projects. I go outside and meet the kids out there. I’m thinking we’re about to play. But dudes were out there lining me up.”
Karl Kani, from its inception, would be defined by this moment and a slew of questions; “‘Yo! What kind of sneakers have you got on?’ I’m like, ‘What?’ I had on Skips [‘Skippies’],” not knowing which styles to wear. “They were like, ‘man, don’t be wearing random shit around here. That’s just wack!”
“I went home to my mom and told her I need some money to buy some sneakers. She said, ‘boy, you better find yourself a job.’ That’s when I got the newspaper job.” He highlights that “when my mom from the islands says no, she means no – not a double take.”
The founder laughs at the memory, “it made me go out and hustle. Learning and feeling that pain of not having anything, and then working hard to get it, is a real sense of fulfillment.”
The sentiment resonates throughout communities across the United States. “We didn’t grow up any different than anybody else out there. We just knew how to stay focused from a young age, and we had knowledge of self from a young age. We understood the power of a black man and the power of our minds, and the power of who we could be. We took that effort to the streets and that same mentality to business.”
Karl Kani grew into a global presence at a time when there were not many other brands like it. The name brand has redefined the fashion fit, from boxy to baggy, dull to vibrant with color, and even spawning collaborations. After doing a campaign with Nas in 1996, Karl Kani partnered with the rapper Nas and his affiliate brand at the time, Escobar [also known as Willie Esco], creating a capsule between a notable hip-hop artist and a fashion brand. Karl Kani has also recently collaborated with the European streetwear fashion label Etudes.
Throughout its existence, the brand spans all kinds of music artists. The list includes Kelly Clarkson while she was on her tour in the early 2000s, G Herbo, Jack Harlow, NLE Choppa, Ruby Rose, Coi Lerai, Quavo, Kendrick Lamar, Smino, and even the late greats Nipsey Hussle and Takeoff, ushering the name into each generation.
“I feel like anytime you get to the point where you feel like you made it, or I’m successful, then it may be time for [me] to retire. You always think hungry. You always have to stay young mentally and stay true to the streets. We stay in tune with the new hip-hop artists, what they talk about, the culture, the vibe, and the energy. Because that is the future of where streetwear fashion is going. I feel like once you go against that grain it’s time to hang it up.”
Like Harlem, New York fashion legend Dapper Dan, Karl Kani was adamant about developing his personal style to the point of admiration and appeal from New Yorkers and then celebrities. He grew his style into a global brand after countless early inquiries on the street for the custom-made garments he wore before creating an unlabeled line, with a mantra in question; “Can I?” Karl ‘Kani’ was the answer for its founder and made to reflect the style seen in the streets of New York City in the late 80s and early 90s.
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