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Stylemaker / Karl Kani : New School : The godfather of hip-hop clothes heads into different territory with business suits and women's and children's wear.

September 10, 1999|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All afternoon, Los Angeles designer Karl Kani, godfather of urban sportswear, has been waiting for this moment, when he unveils his new line.

Jesse Gutierrez, a production coordinator, walks into Kani's downtown office: a sweeping suite of rooms, several filled with comfy leather sofas, glass-top desks covered with awards, banks of television screens playing Kani's commercials, runway shows and rap music. In Gutierrez's hands are two men's suits.

"Aren't they sweet?" Kani, 30, asks about the prototypes--one in a hot, futuristic crinkle fabric, the other in a conservative fine wool. The suit line is sleek, stylish--and, yes, very sweet.

Business suits are a dramatic departure from the signature clothes Kani designed 10 years ago: bold and baggy colorful garments splashed with his billboard-sized Kani logo. It was his popular look that sparked the urban wear movement in the early '90s.

Since then, companies such as Fubu, Jnco, Groove, Exsto, Mecca, Dada and scores of others, including the likes of Puff Daddy's line Sean John, have jumped on the hip-hop fashion train led by the Kani engine when the designer moved to L.A. from Brooklyn in 1989.

But through the years, the engine lost some of its steam due to the competitors, many who do 10 times the business of Kani's expected sales of $75 million this year.

Now Kani is moving in new fashion directions--and in some cases, away from the urban wear aesthetic that put him on the map. Besides the suits, which will retail for $600 to $2,000, Kani--ranked 34th among the top 100 black-owned companies in the country by Black Enterprise magazine--is offering a children's line, a leather collection for women and, of course, his trademark jerseys, T-shirts, jeans and jackets.

On Sept. 17, the White House will have a sneak peak at the new Kani. That's when the designer will show off about 15 new pieces from his men's and women's collections at an informal fashion presentation. The event, to be attended by the president, vice president and community leaders from across the country, will take place on the third and final day of an Afro-Latino Summit Briefing--a symposium highlighting issues affecting people of both African American and Latino descent.

A Childhood Motto

Inspires Company Name

"We are definitely taking the brand to the next level," says Kani, son of a Costa Rican mom, Mariger Williams, and Panamanian dad, Perceval Williams, both fluent in Spanish. His real name is Carl Williams, and his childhood motto, "Can I do it? Karl, Can I," led to the name of his company: Karl Kani.

"I think to compete in the marketplace, Karl has to continue to be cutting edge to be the leader," says Marian Ensley, West Coast marketing director for New York-based Vibe and Blaze magazines, music, fashion and lifestyle publications. "Now he's really taking his designs to the next level: clean and classy but still with a slight urban flair."

Kevin A. Smith says Kani is a big seller at his 4-year-old store, 2nd Base on Melrose Avenue. The 32-year-old Smith, who previously had worked as a Nordstrom buyer, says he can hardly wait to get Kani's fall collection, a safari influence, and next year's spring lines in the store.

"This is the most excited I've been about any line in a long time. Karl is changing with the times. A lot of people in this business get set in doing something a certain way, and they don't change," Smith says.

"I had to change," Kani says. "We kind of lost focus. We realized that a whole new generation was growing up on other brands and that our original, loyal customers are 10 years older now with kids. I've got a son myself," he says, referring to 2-year-old Karl Kani Williams Jr., who is featured in the company's new ad campaign. "He's learning about the business," Kani adds, laughing.

Kani remembers always working as a kid. When he was 12, he had a newspaper route in Brooklyn that began at 5:30 a.m.--a work ethic taught to him by his parents, who today are divorced. His mom, known as Marge, who lives in Atlanta, worked as a nurse, often on the graveyard shift. His dad, who lives in Costa Rica, started a print shop when he emigrated from Costa Rica to Brooklyn and settled in the projects with his family when Karl and his older sister, Melvenia, were kids.

But it was in high school that the designing pioneer got the fashion fever. Enrolled in a work program, he spent his money on clothes and every color of Puma and Nike sneakers.

"I always wanted to be the person that shined in the projects," he recalls about his youth and, more important, his appearance, down to the care he took to get the right waves in his hair and to make sure not a smudge of dirt appeared on his sneakers that he cleaned daily with a toothbrush and soap. "I even ironed my shoelaces.

"None of us had cars. Your shoes were your car, so you had better be wearing the best-looking shoes during the weekend or you'd get snapped, get made fun of."

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