When Kimora Lee Simmons started Baby Phat in 1999 — a clothing, shoes, and accessories off-shoot of her then-husband Russell Simmons’ Phat Farm — she should have been lauded as being way ahead of her time. Instead, Simmons was shut out of mainstream fashion and negatively labeled as “urban.”
“I always strived to represent my audience,” she said last year in an interview with The Fader. “Back then, I called Baby Phat 'aspirational' because you could mix the high luxury with everyday streetwear but still, fashion is about that aspiration. It was living a dream. It was the American Dream, and that was who we represented and that was my customer. We were the American Dream. People may have tried to take us out of that, [but] we were nonetheless American.”
“Now, everybody’s doing retro with a little high-waisted jean and tube top, or the sneaker and the jean — that’s the Baby Phat girl,” Simmons tells Refinery29 backstage at her KLS spring 2018 show. “That’s popular [again], and we were one of the first ones to do it, one of the biggest ones to do it, and one of the greatest ones.” Simmons is not discounting those who came before her (she cites labels like Cross Colors and Karl Kani), but she is acknowledging the role Baby Phat had in pushing streetwear forward. “We created the idea of a lifestyle brand. I don’t want to be confused and say we were the only ones doing that, but certainly for most people of color that came after us, we were the ones who did it first.”
Part of what made Simmons’ lifestyle brand so aspirational was that it actually reflected her life on and off the runway. “I could never go to work and do anything I do in any of my businesses, whether that’s health, fitness, drinks or fashion or accessories, TV, books, you name it, without representing who I am,” she says. “Who I am is a mixture of a lot of different things, and so I would never not represent that on the runway. I’ve done it out of necessity to explain and express who I am, and to embrace my people — my people in quotes meaning anybody that is of a diverse background, that is mixed or whatever other box they’re checking. So I couldn't do this without paying homage to myself, my children, and where I came from.”
She echoes that sentiment when asked if anything in her KLS offering could be considered a throwback to her Baby Phat days. “There’s no Baby Phat throwback," she responds. "I’m in the collection, I’m a Baby Phat throwback. That’s probably it.” There are more tangibly, however, some of the silhouettes Simmons has become known for, but in a more pared-back, sleek way.
“She doesn’t take her foot off the pedal and that’s an important thing,” says former model and activist Bethann Hardison, who had stopped by the presentation to support Simmons, for whom she once acted as both an agent and legal guardian. “[There’s] much more to her than just making clothes.” Hardison then pulled Simmons’ 17-year-old daughter Ming Lee to the side to offer words of encouragement.
Simmons admits she's a stage mom, and when Ming Lee did her very first photoshoot for Galore, she watched from a futon all day. “When I go everyone’s like ‘Oh, it’s so nice to have you.’ [Ming’s] like ‘Hi, it’s not about her, it’s about me, it’s about me today.’” Ming Lee really wants to have a career in modeling, but she and her mother agree that for now, she can do fun projects on the side while focusing on school.
“People always tell me that I look like her but also I act like her in my mannerisms,” Ming Lee says. “People see me out of the corner of their eye and they’ll be like, 'Oh my god, I thought you were Kimora.' I’m like, I don’t know if that's good or bad, but as I’m getting older, I think it’s a really nice compliment.”