“It’s the only way to make it, girls: a little class, a little hooch. How do you think I made it so far?”
The year is 2005, and model-turned-mogul Kimora Lee Simmons is behind the scenes joking with an interviewer before showing her AW05 Diamond Diva collection. She’s joking, but she isn’t wrong: Kimora Lee (born Perkins, now Leissner) turned an offshoot of her former husband Russell Simmons’ Phat Farm streetwear label into Phat Fashion’s most valuable line.
With short mini skirts, knee-high boots, navel-grazing necklines and tight, bum-hugging low-rise jeans – complete with iconic diamanté cat logo – all on the line-up, Kimora Lee spent the better half of the aughts dressing everyone from honest-to-god hip-hop divas like Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott, and Mary J Blige, to the aspirational video hoe in all of us, through her particular brand of (notably, affordable!) Fabulosity™. Channelling that “hoe, but make it fashion” energy made infamous by Tyra Banks on America’s Next Top Model, the line became a staple of teen girls everywhere in the early 00s, and, at one point, was estimated to be worth over $1 billion.
Now, after nine years away from the brand that was her baby, she’s bringing it back – announcing the news on International Women’s Day last Friday. Swept up in a wave of 00s nostalgia, here we look back at Baby Phat’s definitive moments and its inimitable fashion legacy in anticipation of its return this summer.
BABY PHAT: THE BEGINNING
Right from its inception, Baby Phat was set to go down in history. It wasn’t Kimora Lee’s first fashion rodeo, though: the designer had been plucked from obscurity by Karl Lagerfeld and thrust into the spotlight when he signed her up as an exclusive Chanel model when she was 14, later becoming his muse. In later years, she cited the legendary designer’s influence when it came to creating a fully formed fashion label, as she brought together luxury fashion and streetwear sensibilities long before the likes of LV x Supreme ever came to be.
Baby Phat’s first show took place in 2000 as an extension of Kimora Lee’s then-husband Russell Simmons’ Phat Farm and overarching Phat Fashions label, Naturally, it drew in the hip-hop community that were so embedded in his label, Def Jam Recordings: not many can boast of having Aaliyah sitting front row, or Lil’ Kim modelling a rhinestone, logo-emblazoned sheer bikini under a faux-fur coat as they make their debuts, but Baby Phat’s legacy was cemented from the off. And that’s before you’ve even noted just how wearable, even looking back now in 2019, her first collection of slip dresses and lingerie was.
THAT FLIP PHONE
You’ve all seen the photo. Cam’ron in head-to-toe pink, from his fluffy hat, hoodie, and bandana, right down to the flip phone he’s holding (we unpacked the significance of Cam’ron’s look and how it foretold the future of fashion here, FYI). What you might not know, though, is that this now iconic 00s photo was taken in 2002 outside a Baby Phat show, and that the flip phone itself can be attributed to Kimora Lee’s ever-expanding Baby Phat empire. “It’s got wonderful applications, it’s got applications for my last fashion show, in case a girl wants to do a little shopping,” she explained backstage. (Sign us up for the 2019 re-release!)
It wasn’t just flip phones and early iterations of shoppable apps that Kimora Lee’s label released alongside its ready-to-wear lines through. The designer foresaw the value of an all-encompassing lifestyle label offering covetable, Instagram-worthy-before-Instagram-was-even-a-thing items including stick-on diamante jewellery, designed in collaboration with Hello Kitty, and even a pink Baby Phat credit card that offered account holders 10 per cent off its products.
THE FRONT ROW TO END ALL FRONT ROWS
Early Baby Phat shows were attended by a crowd of guests that epitomised black excellence, bringing together everyone from Cam’ron, Puff Daddy, Mary J Blige, and Missy Elliott, right through to Tyra Banks and even Janet Jackson. Meanwhile, on the runway, Lil’ Kim’s turn at the brand’s inaugural show wasn’t even its most #iconic moment – that prize goes to Puff Daddy’s mum, Janice Combs, who led her two dogs down the catwalk (on Baby Phat leashes, obvs) wearing a satin slip-dress and a deliciously extra floor-length faux-fur coat. When it comes to fashion as we now know it, Kimora Lee walked so the likes of Kanye West could run with their celeb-filled runways and influencer-studded front rows.
BABY PHAT FOR ALL
“I remember when I started as a model, it was very hard. ‘Well, what is she? Is she black, is she Asian? She’s not black enough, she’s not Asian enough,’” Kimora Lee recalls in an interview from 2005. When it came to her own casting, she says she looked “for a great mixture of ethnicities – sort of like the rainbow coalition.”
As a result, Baby Phat shows often featured cult models of colour like Alek Wek and Devon Aoki, Aoki going on to star in the AW02 campaign. That season, Kimora Lee explored both sides of her Korean-Japanese and African-American heritage with a collection that blended Asian influences with hip-hop attitude. But inclusivity didn’t end there: built on a core of denim pieces, Baby Phat was applauded for what Missy Elliott called its ‘big girl stretch’ backstage, with a selection of styles built with a curvier body in mind. Whatever their size or heritage, what united the Baby Phat girl was a desire to “look good, feel great, and do it on a dollar,” as Kimora Lee put it. “I’ve always given you great, great fashion, at great, great value.”
“I believe you can have it all,” Kimora Lee once said, describing the contents of her self-help book, Fabulosity: What It Is and How To Get It, when it was released in 2006. Baby Phat, and her subsequent position as head of the whole of Phat Fashions after ex-husband Russell Simmons sold his share in 2004, made her a billionaire and Kimora Lee has since lived accordingly: just look to her reality show, Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane, for evidence of this. But, like, what were you expecting from someone mentored by Karl Lagerfeld?
By contrast though, Kimora Lee’s line and shows spoke to a desire to democratize fashion. In addition to its affordable prices, when her earlier shows went way over capacity, she became the first designer not only to show at 6,000 person capacity venue Radio City Music Hall, but also to livestream a show onto the boards in Times Square in 2009. Your heavily distorted, pixelated IG live could never...
A NEW ERA
At its height, Baby Phat was worn by everyone who was anyone, becoming one of the most sought after labels in the the world, particularly among teens. Even more than Juicy Couture and Von Dutch, Baby Phat sold a dream of 00s excess, which, though that idea became passé following the label’s demise in 2010, the heavy sense of nostalgia that has gripped fashion means it’s ripe for the picking right now.
Set to tap into Kimora Lee’s ‘amazing personal archive’ presented via ‘new messaging’ as she told WWD last week, also in the mix now are her two grown daughters Ming Lee Simmons (19), and Aoki Lee Simmons (16) – who came out for every fashion show bow as kids, and grew up in their mother’s atelier. With two Instagram natives now contributing to the reboot, Baby Phat 2.0 looks set to enrapture a whole new generation of thots. Kimora: we’re ready.