Sunday, June 26, 2022
Karl Kani Talks Life, Fashion, and the late Tupac Shakur Repping His Brand
By Lapacazo Sandoval, contributing writer
Published June 22, 2017

Actor Demetrius Shipp Jr. shown embodying the style and swagger of the late “Keep Ya
Head” rapper Tupac Shakur.
(Courtesy of

There was a time in the ’90s when you weren’t legit if you didn’t have a steady stream of Karl Kani in your closet. The legends of hip-hop modeled for the label, including  Tupac, in an era when rappers and urban wear were in a symbiotic relationship.

Who is Karl Kani?  According to Forbes magazine he’s the “Godfather of Urban Streetwear,” a bold innovator not afraid of re-invention who took the mantel, rebuilding his $100Million brand.  He’s also the type of creative that has his ears — finely tuned to the rhythm of the streets—not just around the corner but around the world.

I caught up with Karl Kani on Fathers’ Day having just finished viewing the Netflix documentary “Fresh Dressed” to chat about the new film “All Eyez All Me” in which his clothing is prominently featured. During opening weekend, the film did very well despite taking a hit from film critics and negative comments from Black Hollywood including Jada Pinkett Smith and John Singleton who were both very vocal about their disappointments.


Back to Karl Kani, the innovator whose clothing brand is forever connected with several legends of hip-hop most notably three that have since crossed to the other side: Aaliyah, Biggie Smalls, and of course Tupac.

In a smooth, measured voice Karl brought me back to his early, lean hungry years when “just having enough for a McDonald’s breakfast” was considered a special day.  Here’s an excerpt from my interview with designer Karl Kani


Who is Karl Kani?

Karl Kani is the visionary of streetwear. Karl Kani is a kid [who] grew up in Brooklyn, New York that had a dream and followed his dreams and observations to accomplish his goals in life.  Karl Kani is the type of guy whose [motto is] … ‘failure is not an option.’  And Karl Kani, he had a plan to change how the world looked at every street inner-city kid in regard to fashion.  He grew up knowing that Black inner-city youths did not play a role in the fashion game.  We were only consumers and that he had two options.  Either he could sit and complain about things or do something about it …  and Karl Kani wanted to change the game, he decided to put his name on clothing, not knowing that people were going to gravitate to that but he knew that he didn’t have an option but to do that, and his destiny was set since 1989.  That’s who that man is.



I remember your iconic ads the one that featured the late Tupac particularly stands out.  Can you share more about this experience?


It was an amazing experience.  Growing up in Brooklyn, we only understood what we grew up around and when I moved to the West Coast, where I have my clothing company, we got introduced to the West Coast Black people and West Coast inner-city culture which was new to us.

We were only 20 years old and in that new environment we realized that we were all the same. We were all Black people just trying to make it.  And Tupac wore my clothing so much even before I met him. I just wanted to meet him. Every time I turned around he was in (inaudible) Word Up or Right On magazine wearing Karl Kani and we were not giving him the clothing. He was out there buying it.  So, I wanted to meet Tupac.  So I set a meeting with him at the Hotel Niko in Beverly Hills. When I went to meet this man, and when I went to his [hotel] room he was there by himself.  He is a fellow Gemini, just like me, and he was on the computer, typing a script for a movie. And he never looked at me in the eyes.  He kept typing the script, he never looked up from the computer keys.  I was thinking—‘whats’ up with this guy/‘ — I was trying to feel him out.  I didn’t know him.  He was very respectful with his conversation he just never looked at me. I was trying to figure out what was going on.  So, I was waiting for a moment to ask him the question that I wanted to ask him.  I wanted to ask him to do a campaign for Karl Kani.  And finally when room service knocked on the door, I thought this is the moment, I better do it now. So, I said ‘yo [Tu] Pac, how much would you charge me for an ad and he just got quiet for a minute and the room turned silent. Then he said ‘I don’t charge my people for nothing. You Black!’ The man kept his word and two weeks later we were in New York and we did the photo shoot, and it was game on since then. Tupac was living proof; what he talked about he lived about it.  Tupac could have thrown out any number to me but his view was that you’re a Black person. You’re young and Black and I want you to be successful, so I am going to blow your brand up.  We became the best of friends—ever since that moment.

And everything he said — he did it and he’s [Tupac] the gift that keeps on giving, straight up!


Wow. Tupac, the gift that keeps on giving.


I can’t get any more realer than that. You know what I mean? That’s a true story, a true experience to go through and see how he is today, and see how the movie [“All Eyez On Me’] came out — how they are representing the culture, the clothing the movie, it all made sense.


I understand the your brand has global power and that Tupac Amaru Shakur aka  2Pac, Makaveli, and Pac is worshipped in Europe and a particularly loyal following in Japan. Can you share some light on this?


When we first started, we did not know there was hip-hop culture outside of the United States [of America].  We were 19, 20 years old just trying to make it happen.  It was after we started doing these trade shows, called the Magic Show, back in the late 80’s that we became aware.  These cool Japanese guys would come up and make these small orders and, at first, we didn’t take them seriously.  They said that they had a small store, in Japan, and every couple of months they come back with bigger and bigger orders. We were [actually] wondering ‘what do these guys do with all this clothing that they order from us?’  They were an after thought. We did not understand how much of an impact the hip hop culture had internationally until Japan [really] came aboard. These kids worshiped hip-hop culture and they wanted to be a part of it. They know more about the hip hop culture than most inner-city American kids. And Tupac, they idolized him like a God and not only in Japan but in Europe … Switzerland, Amsterdam, Finland, Germany, and in Russia. [Tupac] became our ambassador for our clothing. It goes hand-in-hand for them [Tupac] personified what they were about, who they are and they believed his message and he wore a certain brand and, again, it went hand-in-hand.


How did you settle on the brand name, Karl Kani? Can I ask?


As you know Kani [can I] was a question that I would ask myself, all the time, ‘Can I be successful?’ ‘Can I come from the inner-city and establish a brand for international?  My family last name is Williams but I wanted a name that had a meaning.  A name that can transcend the moment and ‘Can I’ is a question that I ask myself every day and the answer is Yes. Yes, I can.  Yes, you can. Yes, we all can. All together and that’s how I came up with Karl Kani.


What do you feel about the gender fluid choices of some of the young generation?


Now a days, I hear a lot of people are commenting on the young generation of rappers and the clothing that they are [choosing] wearing, saying that some of the clothing seems kind-of feminine, and noticing that they are wearing pocketbooks … and I feel like in fashion there are no boundaries.  There are no rules for fashion it’s just an open door policy.  What trends you want to wear is your choice.  I remember in the ’90’s we were wearing those baggy jeans and how our parents hated it and people complained about it. Here’s the deal … as you complain about it, the kids are going to rebel and do it even more!  The more parents complained about it, the kids started sagging their pants even lower. You know what I’m trying to say?  It got to the point that certain states gave out tickets for sagging your pants.  You understand what-I’m sayin?  So my point is that we have to embrace this young generation of culture and the more we complain about what they are doing the more they are going to do it!  I think that we have to let them burn themselves out and whatever fashion statement they are dealing with. Times will change, things will change but you got to let [individuals] be who they are.  Especially when it comes to fashion.


Your brand was the first to have a space in Macy’s next to Ralph Lauren, Polo, Tommy and Naticua.  That is huge!


Thank you.  It only takes one. [Karl Kani] We broke down doors, we opened it for others like us to come in.  It only takes one.  It takes one person who looks like you. One person who acts like you. One person that thinks like you that you can relate to that has been able to become successful in a certain field and what it does subliminally is that it makes you feel like, yo, if he can do it, I can do it.  You know what I’m sayin?!  Sometimes I joke around with people and say, just imagine there was a Black kid from the inner-city that came up with a line of toothpaste. Imagine this. A Black kid that came up with an alternative to Colgate [toothpaste], right, and he  started marketing through hip-hop, and let’s say everybody starts embracing this new line of toothpaste. And this kid just blows up and he makes multi-millions of dollar because of toothpaste, do you know how many other Black kids will want to start making toothpaste?  Do you understand what I am sayin’—it takes one person to enter into a field that [they] were not accustom to being in, to make them feel like like yo…..[they can succeed].  And that’s what happened to Karl Kani.  There was no other young, Black kids from the inner-city that made a clothing brand that transcended the moment and became big.  So what did we do?  We opened the flood gates for everybody else. If Karl can do it, I can do it, too. If you look at the documentary (“Fresh Dressed”) Diddy (Sean Puffy Combs) confessed it to what I just said. Did you read Diddy’s statement in that documentary?  He said that ‘Karl Kani’ made the dream attainable. If he [Karl] could do it, I can do it. Meaning that [I] made the dream attainable, accessible. He’s a Black young kid. He did it, now I can do it!  Diddy did it now other Black kids know that everyone can do it.


There are two other artists of note, that have passed who wore your brand during the pinnacle of their careers:  Aliyah and Biggie Smalls. Interesting?


Aliyah wore my clothing on her album titled Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, and Biggie obviously rocked my stuff a lot in his videos and he mentioned my name in his song, One More Chance, as well. We’ve been blessed to have every top industry [hip-hop] in the 90’s representing the [hip-hop] culture that knew what Karl Kani was all about, and that’s real.

What did you think of the Benny Boom’s “All Eyez On Me?”


I thought the movie was amazing.  I thought Demetrius Shipp Jr. , the actor that played Tupac was God sent.  Some people have commented that he does not look exactly like Pac?  Come on?  Do you think you are going to re-create Tupac?  That’s never going to happen!  How much closer do you think that you’re going to get?!?  [Demetrius] delivered the emotions, the culture, what it was about. He wasn’t over acting. You know what’s crazy—I don’t know if many people know this—but Demetrius’ father actually worked with Tupac, that he actually produced music for Tupac.  They need to know that because his dad produced music for Tupac.  It’s so much it’s meant to be, for this to happen.  The way he pulled this off, it’s incredible.  They had to try to tell a story of 25 years of Tupac. Can you imagine this in two hours?  Overall they told his story as it was.


What’s next?


We have re-energized the brand. We will continue to build world-wide and cover ever pocket.  My understanding is that there is life on Mars so we are going to send some sales people up there to get some orders.

Karl Kani on Mars!  I can see that!


Categories: Entertainment | Movies
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