When Karl Kani started selling baggy jeans out of the trunk of his car in Brooklyn, N.Y., eight years ago, he wasn't trying to rock the fashion industry.
But he did.
Kani, now head of his own fashion design firm that started in a Crenshaw storefront and is now based in the warehouse district Downtown, created the fall-off-your-butt-jeans, oversized-shirt-hanging-out, hip-hop-homeboy style now wildly popular coast to coast.
At age 26, he sits atop Karl Kani Infinity, which he predicts will yield more than $40 million in sales this year. Kristi Ellis, an editor at the West Coast fashion industry journal California Apparel News, called those figures "an exceptional number."
His success is phenomenal not simply because someone so young could fly so far so fast, but that in an industry dominated by white designers and manufacturers, a black man with no formal education is not only competing, but also leading.
He has done this in just three years, coming to Los Angeles without a car and settling in with a friend in an apartment over the Crenshaw storefront, where they eked out a living selling their funky clothes.
Discovered by the Cross Colours apparel company in 1992, Kani developed his own line for the firm and left earlier this year as it went belly-up.
Although he has left the streets--he now lives in the Hollywood Hills--the streets haven't left him.
His sales staff is headed by A.Z. Johnson, a boyhood friend from Brooklyn who, in turn, has hired others from the inner city, an example Kani implores other businesses to follow.
The hip-hop magazine Vibe calls Kani an "empire builder" who is "bringing his ghetto reality to the masses." But will Kani's good fortune last in an industry rife with overnight smashes--and crashes?
Kani is determined to cut out failure like a bad piece of fabric.
"I never feel like I'm where I want to be at. I always want to be better than I was yesterday," said Kani, whose real name is Carl Williams. Before moving to Los Angeles, he changed it to Kani--an alternative spelling of "Can I?"--as part of his new image. "I'm hungrier now than I've ever been before."
Clive (Paul) Taylor, owner of New York Looks clothing store on Crenshaw Boulevard, was one of the first customers for Kani's line. "It's kind of different, it's unique, it's attractive," Taylor said, adding that the majority of customers for the pants, shirts and shoes are males ranging from teens to mid-thirties. "It's a good portion of my business."
But style alone does not guarantee success.
Ellis has seen dozens of high-flying beginners nose-dive. "In this day and age, it's more important to be a good businessman and marketer than a good designer."
Kani, shy yet exuding a cool, tough demeanor (he has several Rottweilers), said he is a businessman first.
Unlike Cross Colours, which at one time had 300 employees and manufactured its own clothes, Kani runs a lean operation with just 15 employees, licensing his manufacturing (and the resultant headaches) to several companies.
His passion is earning cash, creating clothing a means to do that. At 18, just out of high school, where he enjoyed time on the football field and baseball diamond more than the classroom, Kani eschewed a formal education in favor of honing his business skills on the streets.
He began with a simple idea: big jeans.
"We never liked our jeans fitting tight," he said. "If you wear a Size 34, we'd buy a pair of (Size) 40 jeans but the waist would be too big. So I just figured, why not increase the size of the leg of the pants?"
With the blessing of his parents--his father is a real estate developer and his mother a doctor--and support of his older sister, he sold clothes out of his car and home.
He even sought out high-profile performers at rap concerts to wear his designs, which also included sweats with leather trim.
"The only thing that really kept me striving was seeing black people being successful in the music industry," he said. "I wanted to be a part of that, but I knew I couldn't sing or dance or rap. I couldn't do all that, but I could provide clothing for these people who were out there, who could make me famous at the same time."
Kani's jeans and a variety of custom-made shirts, jackets and sweat suits with leather trim graced such big-name rappers as Heavy D, LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane.
"At the beginning, there was no real game plan. It was more like a fun, gimmick type of thing," Kani said. "But when I started seeing the response I was getting and the way people were reacting to it, then a game plan came to mind that 'I need to take this thing to another level because I'm getting a good response and I can create history.' "
But it was hard to make history selling jeans and jackets one pair at a time. Kani figured California was the place to be. Business costs were cheaper there and he figured it would be easier to make a name in the less crowded garment market.