Kimora Lee Simmons Vs Chanel
New York magazine|August 19 - September 1, 2019

The Baby Phat designer returns.

Allison P. Davis

Kimora Lee Simmons spots someone at the table across from her. She’s at her usual haunt, sitting with legs crossed in a plush, poppy-colored armchair in the opulent lobby restaurant of the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris. She makes eye contact with an older black gentleman sipping a beautiful drink in a crystal glass. He gives a smile and a nod of recognition; she returns the nod in kind.

Simmons, the onetime model and onetime mogul, loves it here. She has spent stretches of the summer in Paris since she was 13, when she was plucked from a modeling school in a St. Louis mall, signed to an exclusive Chanel contract, and selected to wear the coveted last look in Karl Lagerfeld’s 1989 haute couture show: a wedding gown for the fashion industry’s child bride. Success and money led to frequent stays at the Plaza Athénée like a barely adult Eloise. She threw her children’s birthday parties here. (Once, there was a Marie Antoinette theme.) She spent time here with her ex-husband, Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons, whom she met when she was 17 and he was 35.

Now, at 44, Simmons rents an apartment just around the corner but comes to the Plaza Athénée lobby several times a week, talking for hours and ordering snacks for her four children, three of whom are here today—Aoki Lee, 17; Ming Lee, 19; and Kenzo Lee, 10. (Her 4-year-old is at home napping.) Here, everything you touch is of lush velvet, the sounds are of spindly heels tapping on a marble floor and a harp playing, the smells are of the most delicate florals, and the tastes are of fresh white truffle sprinkled on pasta.

Does she know the man across the lobby? “Not really,” Simmons says. They’ve never talked. But they are both often here, sitting in the lobby, having snacks, she explains out of the side of her frozen smile, lips barely moving, as if she were her own ventriloquist. He’s probably someone important because everyone here is somebody. “He’s probably like the king of Zimbaaaabwe or something!”

There’s no king of Zimbabwe. There’s a president. It is not that man. But sure. In the flashy, bedazzled dimension Simmons created for herself long ago, there has always been a different sort of possibility. After all, a five-star Paris hotel where Elizabeth Taylor stayed is her kids’ Chuck E. Cheese’s.

The unapologetic consumerism of the early-aughts hip-hop fashion scene can be summarized in the image of a six-foot-one Simmons walking down the Baby Phat runway in a precariously low-cut white jumpsuit, Ring Pop–size diamonds on her fingers and ears. She was the loud-voiced, big-egoed high priestess of a particularly campy version of bling. Baby Phat, the clothing brand Simmons ran from 1999 to 2010, was a billion-dollar company built on the lifestyle she embodied. The popularity of the brand—which started with bedazzled-logo baby tees the Simmonses passed out to model and musician friends like Lil’ Kim, Naomi Campbell, and Christy Turlington—helped turn streetwear into a movement. Baby Phat brought the attitude and style of hip-hop to the mainstream. It meant a lot to people, especially to female fans of streetwear, who hadn’t had a line to call their own, really, before that. Baby Phat didn’t dismiss their desire for more, and Simmons personified the promise of upward mobility through purchasing power.

In several weeks, Simmons is relaunching Baby Phat. She announced it in March, on International Women’s Day; she tells me she’s leaning into her legacy as a “woman of color in a creative ownership position.” She wants to collect on some of the credit she feels she’s owed for the work she did for the culture. In some ways, her timing is good. There’s rampant early-aughts nostalgia, with a definite soft spot for Baby Phat and Simmons in particular. (The vintage purveyor and fashion historian Gabriel Held reports selling his entire archive of the brand to Rihanna last year.) If Paris Hilton would have worn it to pose vacant-eyed in front of a party photographer at Bungalow 8, a designer is bringing it back in 2019. But then again, Baby Phat is being reborn into a world still reeling from a recession while anticipating another, a world that has reckoned with the ugly sides of celebrity and consumption and inequality.

In June, Simmons surprise-dropped a Baby Phat x Forever 21 collaboration as a sort of pilot program. The clothing was on-trend—cropped tees, spandex miniskirts, and leopard-print bike shorts to be worn under huge T-shirts or with matching tube tops. But they all had the Baby Phat logo, that delicate line-drawn cat image based on Simmons’s own pet Siamese, Max. The collection sold out in a day.

Simmons perks up and straightens her shoulders as an attractive, dark-haired man comes over. “Oh, hi! Julien, no one will come see me. How have you been? I’m back,” she says. He’s the hotel’s concierge.

“Today I walked all over the city,” she says to Julien, who is kneeling next to her chair, rapt. “I took the train. I feel very French, française. I’ve got on flat shoes”—she gestures to her pearl bedecked Prada slides, which have slid halfway off to reveal the fading butterfly tattoo on her right foot. She’s dressed to match her lifestyle à la française, in red pedal pushers, a simple white silk button-down, and only one large canary-diamond ring.

We were all supposed to meet an hour earlier, at the Musée d’Orsay, where an exhibition called “Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse” was in its last days, focusing on overlooked and anonymous figures who appeared in artworks from 1758 to 1956. She’d been excited to walk through the show with me and her children and discuss the legacy of other models of color. (Simmons is of Japanese-Korean and black ancestry.) “I wanted to talk about all the old girls,” she said. “Not like I was one of them, but I can appreciate it.” But the Métro she was on broke down and she was stuck in an un-air-conditioned car. The hotel was nicer.

Simmons is the first to admit that her modeling career, which tapered off at 21, did not have the same longevity as that of “the old girls,” though she’s talking more about Naomi Campbell. Instead, there were marriages. Kids. Baby Phat, of course, which was a spinoff of Phat Farm, the preppy take on streetwear her then-husband had founded in 1992. And there were also her more expensive lines: Kouture by Kimora and the KLS collection of high-end sportswear (think $1,000 tropical-coloured sheath dresses). During the era when the Going-Out Top reigned supreme, she had a beauty line and half a dozen fragrances and hosted a couple of talk shows. She threw the best parties at Cipriani Downtown with stacked guest lists and giant ice sculptures.

Aoki excuses herself to go to the bathroom. If Ming touches her dessert, she will end her life, Aoki threatens as she leaves.

“I’m not going to touch her dessert,” Ming snaps back, and shows me her favorite picture of her mother, taken backstage at a Baby Phat show in 2002.

“ ‘I will end your life,’ she said,” Simmons repeats, and laughs to herself. “She said, ‘I won’t touch it.’ She said, ‘I will end your life.’ That’s my Aoki.”

Simmons waves down a passing waitress to order Aoki another dessert to preemptively avoid an act of sororicide, even though Ming

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM NEW YORK MAGAZINEView All

Hanya's Boys

The novelist tends to torture her gay male characters—but only so she can swoop in to save them.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
January 17 - 30, 2022

Joan Didion's Greatest Two-Word Sentence

The power of an ice-cold, unflinching gaze.

5 mins read
New York magazine
January 3-16, 2022

72 minutes with… Connor Pardoe

Pickleball, once a game for the 50-plus crowd, exploded during the pandemic. This sports commissioner wants to turn it into a national pastime.

6 mins read
New York magazine
January 17 - 30, 2022

13,000 Pounds at 118 Miles Per Hour

The wreck of a limo near Albany was the deadliest U.S. Transportation disaster in a decade. And the man behind it was one of the most notorious confidential informants in FBI history.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
January 17 - 30, 2022

The Undoing of Joss Whedon

The Buffy creator, once an icon of Hollywood feminism, is now an outcast accused of misogyny. How did he get here?

10+ mins read
New York magazine
January 17 - 30, 2022

Last Sane Man on Wall Street

Nathan Anderson made his name exposing—and betting against—corporate fraud. But short selling in a frothy pandemic economy can be ruinous.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
January 17 - 30, 2022

Locals Only

A cabaret star asks: Can you find yourself without leaving home?

4 mins read
New York magazine
January 17 - 30, 2022

Mitski in Nine Acts

If the musician has to reveal herself at all, she’d rather do it one short burst at a time.

9 mins read
New York magazine
January 17 - 30, 2022

SEE SPOT PAINT

Agnieszka Pilat has become the Silicon Valley elite’s favorite artist. Even The Matrix’s Neo owns her work.

10 mins read
New York magazine
January 17 - 30, 2022

The City Politic: Errol Louis

The Eric Adams Show: A beginning stocked with masterstrokes, gaffes, and eyebrow-raising appointments.

6 mins read
New York magazine
January 17 - 30, 2022