Kimora Lee Simmons, the Return of Baby Phat, and The Fabulous 2000s
On International Women’s Day, March 7, it was announced that Baby Phat, the urban women’s wear brand, and brainchild of Kimora Lee Simmons, that notoriously married denims with golds, rhinestones, and sequins, was scheduled to relaunch in the summer of 2019. If you may recall, fashion model, designer, and business mogul Kimora Lee Simmons owned the early aughts. As the founder and creative director of Baby Phat, Simmons earned a nation’s attention for her extravagant and hip-hop infused vision of life, fashion, and the so-called “fabulous.”
Before Kimora, “fabulous” was still a descriptor most often attributed to icons of white femininity and privilege. It was a word used in media for the likes of Paris Hiltons, and rarely ever applied to women of darker skin tones or humble working-class beginnings. In the late 90s and early 2000s, however, we began to see a shift in the public life of the word ‘fabulous’ as cultural obsessions moved away from its traditionally suburban and white implications. On his platinum 1998 album “Ghetto Fabulous,” New Orleans rapper Mystikal began the work of affixing fabulosity to a new class of demographics. With Baby Phat’s release in 1999, Kimora continued this effort on a larger stage, pushing hip-hop culture and luxury fashion closer together with the force of her “fabulous” brand. Under her reign in pop culture, “fabulous” got a makeover.
As for the clothing itself, Kimora’s creative direction for Baby Phat was rooted in her vision of a high fashion world that could embrace and learn from the style and beauty standards of urban communities of color. Baby Phat clothes set out to cater to an audience of consumers who were interested in taking up space. The brand envisioned a womanhood that was puffy-sleeved, bedazzled, and skin-tight. Privileging affordability and fit, Kimora had no interest in making this aesthetic vision inaccessible to the kind of women and girls she grew up with. “Not every girl can afford a pair of Cavalli Jeans. I know I can do a jean that’s probably better and grabs your ass right,” she said in a 2002 Vibe interview.
As Kimora explained, Baby Phat was not simply a fashion line, but an “aspirational lifestyle brand.” Shiny, confident, and assertive, the clothing and vision of Baby Phat seemed to rearrange the hierarchies that existed in the elite world of high fashion. Even the brand’s name, Baby Phat, is doing a kind of linguistic double duty. At once, the name is an exaltation of the excess flesh we are born to grow into and also a model of cultural elevation. Replacing the ‘F’ in “fat” with the ostentatious ‘ph’, Baby Phat, in name and style, came to represent the kind of innovation and creativity that was and is central to the history of Hip-Hop and the Black communities that forged it. Recognizing the power of the brand, in just a few years, Black celebrities in the fashion and music worlds alike--Naomi Campbell, Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Raven Symone, and Faith Evans, just to name a few--could be seen sporting Baby Phat couture.
Born in 1975 in St. Louis, Missouri to an African American father and a Japanese-Korean mother, Kimora (neé Kimora Lee Perkins) learned quickly what it meant to refashion oneself and take control of your own image.Capturing the eyes of the fashion world in the midst of adolescence, Kimora signed an exclusive modeling deal with Chanel just a few days shy of her fourteenth birthday. Black, Asian, and 5 feet 10 inches, the fashion industry embraced a teenage Kimora for all those things that made her stand out in Missouri. Enjoying a quick rise to fame in the late 80s and early 90s, Kimora made "standing out" into a career and a way of life.
After marrying Def-Jam co-founder and entrepreneur Russell Simmons in 1998, Kimora pivoted from modeling to fashion design and business. In 1999, she founded and developed Baby Phat as a counterpart to her husband’s, Phat Farm, creating the $75 million-dollar fashion empire that would go on to revolutionize the relationship between the Hip-hop industry and the fashion world at large. Today, with the success of Kanye West’s Yeezy line and the growing attendance of rappers at New York Fashion Week, we must be careful not to forget when the high fashion world was not so keen and welcoming to Black people and our cultural production.
Due to the oversaturation of the urban wear market and high fashion’s growing interest in appropriating African American styles and fashions, Baby Phat suffered a dramatic decline in sales around 2008 and by 2010, Kimora was swiftly forced to resign after selling a majority stake of the company. Just as the early 2000s had ushered in unprecedented success for Black hip-hop artists and streetwear businesses, the decade’s end led to the reconfiguration of the marketplace and the evolution of an industry at the hands of communities they’d previously failed to account for. For this reason, Baby Phat’s projected 2019 return will occur in a vastly different culture and fashion economy than the one in which it enjoyed immense success and acclaim. Still, one wonders what Kimora and her daughters, Ming and Aoki Lee Simmons, who are said to be the inspiration for this homecoming, have in store for us. Surely, the world is running low on fabulousness.