A few weeks ago, I watched almost every episode of the genre-defining reality show, Kimora: Life In The Fab Lane. Running from 2007-2010, it was based around the fast-paced and 24 karat gold-plated life of Kimora Lee Simmons. Cameras trailed the former supermodel turned fashion designer, creative director, and president of famed women’s streetwear line Baby Phat as she moved between her mega-mansions in New Jersey and Beverly Hills, and the Phat Farm offices in midtown Manhattan, where she manned the multi-million dollar fashion empire started in 1998 with her rap mogul ex-husband, Russell Simmons.
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I declared it research in preparation for this article, as I had just interviewed Simmons a few days prior. After purchasing the license back from a holding company this past spring following a nine-year hiatus from the company, she recently brought the brand back to market through a collaboration with Forever 21 and will be launching new collections online this fall. With her teen daughters, Ming Lee and Aoki Lee, by her side as Creative Directors, Simmons is betting on the nostalgia for the early-aughts to propel a revival of the brand. The lane she helped carve out nearly 20 years ago — a nexus of hip hop, high fashion, streetwear, aspirational fabulosity, and multiculturalism — is now much more saturated than before. But other brands in the space don’t have Simmons, a singular personality and visionary, at their helm.
Sunk deep into my couch, I watched as the six-foot-tall Korean-Chinese-Jamaican glamazon produced a six-figure ad campaign in a matter of days, put the design control of a childrenswear collection in the hands of her then-toddler daughters, and hired a sustainability expert who helped her “go green” before so many of her industry peers did. Flashing golf-ball-sized diamonds and dropping trou in her palatial closets as she stepped into floor-length gowns or low-slung jeans of her own design, Simmons was an uninhibited maximalist. Budgets were of no concern. This was, after all, the woman who famously staged Baby Phat fashion shows at Radio City Music Hall and enlisted David LaChappelle to shoot the brand’s traffic-stopping ad campaigns.
Witty and unedited, she brandished a seemingly endless supply of quippy one-liners that landed with precision. For example, the model CEO once told her loyal staff, “Don’t play me! Play lotto!” She shouted executive orders and demands with a mix of urgency and levity. And while there were hijinks, Simmons wasn’t playing either. She had high expectations for everyone around her — from her Director of Marketing whom she made cry to her real estate broker tasked with finding her a seven-figure home in three days. She set grueling deadlines and watched as her staff and family (usually) lived up to all of them; kind of like hip hop fashion’s Anna Wintour, if you will.
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The impulse to call her a diva is there (she was a controversial and polarizing It girl of her time) but Simmons herself encouraged it. As one tag line of a former Baby Phat advertisement bore: “Baby Phat defines diva.” Still, as a woman of color in the spotlight, working in the notoriously all-white fashion industry, I could tell that was far too reductive a term; she was much savvier than that. She was onscreen for a reason — to sell her brand, her lifestyle, even her book. She was trying to move units and get people to buy into the world of Baby Phat, playing up people’s perceptions of her and her over-the-top lifestyle. Pre social media, she was a master of branding and self-promotion, embossing each piece of Baby Phat merchandise with her full name, “Baby Phat by Kimora Lee Simmons.” Even the hedges of her $23 million Saddle River, New Jersey mansion bore her initials. As she told me during our conversation, “I’m not a rapper, but I have that following!” And she’s not wrong.
Like the artists who were signed to her ex-husband’s Def Jam record label, Simmons was talented and boastful about it. She was also a crowd-pleasing draw who spoke directly to an oft-ignored audience: young women of color who were fashion-obsessed but didn’t necessarily have access to luxury goods. Selling “fabulosity,” a term she coined in her 2009 book of the same name, as “a state of everything that is fabulous…a quality ascribed to that which expresses glamour, style, charisma, power, and heart,” Simmons took the “urban market,” as it was called, mass. She styled the brand’s muses, Aaliyah, Lil’ Kim, and Ananda Lewis, in Baby Phat’s signature baby tees, hip-slung jeans, and faux fur coats. She expanded the business to include jewelry, perfume, an inclusive range of beauty aimed at WOC (pre-Fenty, mind you), and even diamond-encrusted Samsung flip phones famously used by rapper Cam’ron. Simmons knew her girl, and she valued her customer as a trendsetter when capital-F Fashion did not. Even her reality show seemed to be lifting up a curtain for WOC, offering an insider’s view into how exactly the exclusive fashion world was run. “I felt that girl was very much comfortable with me, but also because we gave her a voice, gave her a look, and gave her a style that oftentimes was easily copied,” she explained to me over the phone. The company raked in millions because of this intuition.
Simmons is calling me from an unspecified range of mountains, and in what could be a scene from her reality TV show, we play a comical game of phone tag before I finally get her on the line. She doesn’t miss a beat, waxing on what she and her husband built within fashion. “I created the category and we married fashion and hip hop culture. You add fashion and you add models, and you had something that looks like fashion and rock and roll. It was our time for that. We were Stephanie Seymour and Axl Rose!” she muses. And, while not a perfect analogy, it rings true. As she notes, she was one-half of a renegade couple that was shifting culture. “There was a voice missing from the conversation…You had Nelly, Apple Bottoms, but we came into an area that didn’t exist.” The female streetwear game was uncharted terrain, and Baby Phat was dead set on conquering it.
These kinds of business instincts, she explains, came from learning under the tutelage of Karl Lagerfeld at a young age. Standing six feet tall by the time she was twelve, the multi-racial beauty became Chanel’s youngest muse to date, modeling for Lagerfeld at age 12 and closing the storied label’s couture show at 13. The St. Louis, Missouri native was overwhelmingly shy as a child, teased due to her height and racial ambiguity. Her mother, Kyoko Perkins, pushed her pre-teen daughter into modeling to work on her confidence. Images of Simmons at that time show a lanky, nubile ingenue who is all legs — a reported 42 inches of them — and whose looks were bound to test the limits of race and beauty standards in the very white world of haute couture. “I learned a lot from Karl and working all the pret[a-porter] collections. I learned a lot about fashion and business and also just from the streets and the music and hip hop and R&B,” she says.
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Those days spent working within the top-tiers of fashion kept Simmons focused on providing the brand with a certain “legitimacy” that the mainstream industry was not quite prepared to offer an “urban” brand at the time. Pre-Instagram, Simmons and the Baby Phat team were creating opportunities for themselves to be recognized: turning Baby Phat’s fashion shows into must-see events, wherein the front row was dotted with A-list celebrities like Puff Daddy, Mary J. Blige, and Missy Elliott, was one part of that equation, and advertising campaigns was another.
The former model understood that while advertising campaigns were hardly new, the WOC who patronized her brand weren’t used to being represented in fashion. The Baby Phat woman was finally being targeted as a bonafide fashion consumer, and subsequently, the production value and placement of ads had to be top-bill. Whether photographed naked wearing nothing more than a Baby Phat body chain or exiting Air Force One with her two children as the would-be first female president, Simmons hooked her customers with a trademark glamour and over-the-top aspirational lifestyle. “We created a world and universe with these young women and it catered to them, and they saw a part of themselves that you didn’t necessarily see on the pages of Vogue.” Aligning the brand with muses like Aaliyah, Missy Elliott, and Lil Kim, Baby Phat was also codifying a more diverse mix of cultural heroines for the fashion space. From the runways, which Simmons consistently kept filled with curvy brown and black women, to the billboard ads, there was a straight line that led back to WOC.
Subsequently, brand loyalty was massive, and Baby Phat’s impact is perhaps most perfectly sized up in the ubiquity of its logo, the diamante-encrusted silhouette of a perched cat looking off into the distance. “To this day, it’s one of the most tattooed logos,” Simmons boasts. You can audibly hear her smile as she says this. “There were no girls running around with the Playboy bunny! The Playboy bunny was cool and it may be on your t-shirt, but it wasn’t on your butt or your leg or your arms!” The signature Kimora comes out as we discuss this detail: the bass in her voice, the witty, verbal flourishes. “I have a cat tat on my lower back. I’m very proud of it. Because there were a lot of girls right there with me. It was a logo — it wasn’t me! It wasn’t my name! It’s not like tattooing Ralph Lauren on your butt! It was cute, sexy, feline — it was slinky and mysterious catty. We can be catty too! It says a lot about our personality, I think, and not being afraid of who you are.”
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In both its past and new iterations, the brand has celebrated a form of unapologetic sexiness that is never demeaning or exploitative. Simmons recognized she was and is a powerful female business leader, but she was never prepared to forfeit exerting her sexuality — hence the micro-minis and tight jeans. “We didn’t want to dress like TLC. TLC is super cool as a super girl group but we don’t want to wear everything reverse and inside out. We want to be fly and sexy. And that never goes away!” she says. “How can you be fly and sexy and recognized in your own group and also internationally, and not be exploited?”
It’s the eternal question for her — after all, men in her position are hardly ever confronted with the conundrum. “Men are not appraised for their looks! They are appraised for their business savvy and they can say what they want to say and no one says, ‘Oh, you’re being emotional.’ ‘Oh, you have a big mouth!’” she laments. “No one says that to your president or whoever. But for women, it’s, ‘You don’t belong in the boardroom!’ or ‘That’s not taken seriously!’” Kimora’s brand of feminism and female empowerment instead recognizes and encourages multiplicity for women. “You can be and pick from a little bit of everything and put that in your basket, and be your authentic true self and be in power and be a leader and be strong and be emotional if you want — I am all the time! And I don’t care! I’m a badass leader, director, and CEO and businesswoman. And I’m smart. I’m not going to let someone just screw me over for the sake of getting a foot up on me.”
And no doubt there were some who tried: Kellwood, the holding company that purchased Phat Farm in 2004 from Russell Simmons for $140 million, reportedly chose not to renew Simmons’ contract in 2010 due to overspending (see: the ads) and drops in sales. Kimora pivoted, though, with the evolution of the Kimora Lee Simmons line, a higher-end brand of office-ready separates (“It’s a different woman — or maybe a similar woman but a different part of her day or her life”). Last year, she tracked down the license of Baby Phat and purchased it back so that she could relaunch the brand.
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While Simmons and her brand are largely beloved, with loyal fans salivating at the idea of a relaunch, she has her detractors too. Her ex-husband, Russell Simmons, faced 13 accusations of sexual misconduct — ranging from harassment to rape — made against him over the last two years. Accusers included filmmaker Jennifer Jarosik and PR vet Kelly Cutrone. Jarosik attempted to sue Simmons for $5 million but the case was later dismissed. The former Def Jam president later denied any wrongdoing but, in an Instagram post, admitted that the #MeToo movement has made him reflect on his past behavior and the “male energy” that has “governed this world without guidance.” Kimora threw her support behind her ex, who she’s known for over 25 years, saying in an Instagram post that, while she strongly opposes sexual harassment of any kind, “These allegations against him are nothing like the person I have known in all that time. I have known him to be a caring and supporting father and someone who has worked tirelessly to uplift disenfranchised communities.”
While Kimora is in no way responsible for the behavior of her ex-husband, the support didn’t necessarily track with her fans, nor did her controversial recent appearance on Keeping Up with the Kardashians where she counseled Khloe on her breakup with Tristan Thompson and his relationship with Jordyn Woods. Simmons said to Khloe, “‘I just think you guys cannot let people take advantage of you like this…If you don’t protect your family, you don’t protect your child, your household, what goes on in your home, what kind of shit are you running? That’s your baby daddy, whether you’re with him or not. You cannot allow this kind of disrespect.” Adding, “So you have to let her [Woods] know: Don’t start none; won’t be none.” The nuggets of advice didn’t land well with female viewers, with plenty of WOC taking to social media to express their disappointment. Many were surprised Kimora would publicly berate a young woman close to her daughter’s age or encourage bullying of another woman, asking “Damn Kimora, you wanna be down that bad????? and “I did not expect that from you smh disappointed.” There were even calls to boycott Baby Phat’s collection. Always controversial, it looked like Kimora would need to adjust for a new generation.
That includes working alongside her college-aged daughters (Ming Lee,19, attends NYU and Aoki Lee, 16, just enrolled at Harvard) in an entirely new capacity. It’s comical and poetic to hear Kimora discuss mining the brand’s archives and finding designs that she would never let them wear. “You never think your kids are going to be teenagers and young adults coming up in a time when they can be like, ‘Mom, can I wear this thing that you made?’ Or even more importantly, ‘Mom, can we make this again?’ and you’re like, ‘Oh boy!’ ‘Cause now it’s your kids!” she groans. She must reconcile Baby Phat’s leather booty-short past while creating merchandise for a new generation that is both social media-obsessed and desperate for any relics from the aughts — a time less fraught by endlessly ominous headlines. “We had a sense of optimism that we don’t have now. It was an optimistic time after the turn of the century. Nowadays it’s more skeptical and all over the place,” Simmons opines. So can a ’90s brand revival remind us of a simpler time? Maybe.
When the Baby Phat relaunch rolled out via a limited in-store and online collaboration with Forever 21 in early June, the collection quickly sold out. The accompanying campaign showed Simmons in the velour tracksuit hoodie that defined her generation, roller-skating alongside the stars of today: her daughters and a new crop of influencers, including the late Kim Porter and Puff Daddy’s pre-teen twins D’Lila Star and Jessie James. However, the reviews were mixed — and loud. Fans took to Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram to voice their concerns. Where was the signature snorkel coat? The backless dresses? The frontless going-out tops? The fabulosity? Just bedazzled velour crop tops and oversized sweatshirts?
But Simmons assures me there’s more to come, saying she’s planning to branch into swimwear, jewelry, and beauty. She’d like to move quickly, and she’d like the brand to get the respect it deserves this time around. “We never got our proper just due and proper comeuppance. To this day, we’re still looking for it and trying to get it.”
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