Simmons, Kimora Lee
Kimora Lee Simmons
Model, fashion business executive, entrepreneur
A towering 6-foot, 4-inches in heels, Kimora Lee Simmons began a successful career as a model when she was 14 years old, working under exclusive contract with Chanel. Then, in 1998, she married hip-hop media mogul Russell Simmons and entered the fashion design business. Expanding her husband's Phat Farm men's clothing line, Simmons became the creative genius behind Baby Phat, which offers urban, chic clothing and accessories for women and children. Outspoken and with a definite flair for high-end extravagance, Simmons has created a brand-worthy name for herself that has overflowed into jewelry, cosmetics, and shoes. She also has a fledgling career in film and television.
Modeled as a Teenager
Simmons was born on May 3, 1975, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her Japanese-born mother, Joanne Perkins (who is also known as Joanne Kyoko Syng) came to the United States in the aftermath of the Korean War when her mother, who had fled Japan for Korea during World War II, married a U.S. serviceman. Kyoko Syng, who never married Simmons's father, worked as a district manager for the Social Security Administration and raised Simmons in the lower-middle class St. Louis suburb of Florissant. Simmons's African-American father, Vernon Whitlock, Jr., a native of St. Louis, spent three years in prison on drug trafficking charges while Simmons was in grade school. Whitlock was previously estranged from his daughter but did attend her wedding in 1998.
Simmons attended public school, but when she grew to 5-foot, 8-inches by the time she was ten years old, she became the easy target of schoolyard taunts and teasing. With no Asian population in her community, she also had difficulty fitting in with other African-American students who accused her of being white. Hoping to boost her confidence, Simmons's mother enrolled her daughter in a modeling class when she was eleven years old. Two years later, at the age of thirteen, Simmons was awarded an exclusive modeling contract with Chanel, and just after her fourteenth birthday, she boarded a plane for Paris to work under the tutelage of famed Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld. Simmons quickly gained attention in the fashion world when Lagerfeld closed his haute-couture show with Simmons, who strutted down the runway decked out as a child bride. "Everything people thought was weird about me before," Simmons told People Weekly, "was now good."
For the next two seasons, while working with Lagerfeld, Simmons developed her taste for expensive luxury items and, despite her mother's advice, at the age of 15 had spent part of her small fortune on such purchases as designer bags, a Rolex watch, and a BMW convertible. "She always had the new Prada bag and would laugh at me because mine was from Wal-Mart," friend and Chanel roommate Tyra Banks told New York Magazine. Shuttling back and forth between Paris and St. Louis, Simmons managed, with the help of an academic coach, to graduate from St. Louis's Lutheran High School North on time.
Met Russell Simmons
When Simmons was 17, and still working on finishing up high school, she met 35-year-old hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons. He had become smitten with the six-foot-tall Simmons after seeing her on the runway during New York City's Fashion Week and had sent the young model a bouquet of flowers so large that it took two men to carry. She was impressed, but Banks, who had also received flowers from the mogul, initially warned Simmons to forget him for he was a self-professed and well-known womanizer and playboy.
Russell Simmons, once a New York City street hustler, had risen to the height of fame and fortune as the godfather of the hip-hop movement. He founded the Def Jam record label in 1984, which released the work of such influential artists and groups as Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, Slick Rick, Public Enemy, and the Beastie Boys. In 1991 HBO's Def Jam Comedy Hour became a forum for black comedians including Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock, Jamie Foxx, Steve Harvey, and Bernie Mac. In 1992 he created Phat Farm, which became a successful men's clothing line featuring hip fashions for the urban male.
Despite her friend's warning, Simmons allowed her suitor to pursue her, but his roaming ways strained the relationship, which was on-again, off-again for several years. When Simmons retreated to Milan, Russell Simmons took up yoga and reformed his lifestyle to the straight-and-narrow, and eventually convinced Simmons's mother to give him her daughter's phone number in Italy. Reconciling with her reformed king of hip hop, Simmons moved in to Russell's Beverly Hills home and attended classes at UCLA. With the relationship now on solid footing, in 1998 the couple were wed on the Caribbean island of St. Bart, vowing before a gathering of entertainment, music, and fashion elites to stay together "for richer or richer." The service was performed by Russell Simmons's brother, Pentecostal minister and rapper Joey "Rev Run" of Run-D.M.C. The elaborate reception was held on a 190-foot yacht.
Entered the Fashion Design Business
Following the wedding Simmons set up house in New York City, but her modeling career had tapered off (by some accounts because Simmons was reported to be difficult to work with) and the new bride found herself bored. "Manicures, sleeping all day—it wasn't fulfilling," she told VIBE Magazine. "Being around someone as driven as Russell rubs off on you." When her husband started passing out Phat Farm baby tees to some of his celebrity friends to promote his menswear, Simmons took hold of the project, and in 1999 Baby Phat was born.
As the company's creative director and president, Simmons expanded the Baby Phat line beyond its humble t-shirt beginnings to include an offering of bold, high-end urban-inspired womenswear. The Baby Phat label also appears on denim separates, leather, outerwear, and handbags. Simmons received accolades for her designs as well as the highly anticipated annual Baby Phat fashion shows, which were as hip and urban as the clothing they touted.
At a Glance...
Born on May 3, 1975, in St. Louis, Missouri; daughter of Joanne (Perkins) Kyoko Syng and Vernon Whitlock, Jr.; married Russell Simmons, 1998; children: Ming Lee. Aoki Lee. Education: Attended University of California, Los Angeles.
Career: Model, 1989–; Baby Phat, president and creative director, 1999–; Life&Style, television host, 2004–; actor, 2004–.
Selected awards: Tony Award, for Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam (executive producer), 2003.
Addresses: Office —Phat Fashions LLC, 530 7th Ave., 14th Fl., New York, NY 10018. Web —www.kimoraleesimmons.com.
In January 2004 the Simmons sold the apparel and licensing of Phat Farm and Baby Phat to Kellwood Company for $140 million, but they retained the rights to peripheral items such as cosmetics and fragrances. As a result 2004 was a busy year of expansion into new arenas for the Baby Phat brand. The Simmons created the Simmons Jewelry Company to market jewelry items under the Phat Farm and Baby Phat labels, which resulted in Simmons's "Diamond Diva" line of jewelry. The couple also signed a license deal with Coty, Inc., to produce fragrances under the Baby Phat by Kimora Lee Simmons brand. In the same year Simmons also partnered with Vida Shoes International, Inc. to create a new shoe line for Baby Phat to include stilettos, wedges, boots and toddler shoes, and in December 2004 she introduced a pink diamond-encrusted limited-edition Baby Phat i833 Motorola cell phone that retailed for $699.
Led an Extravagant Lifestyle
The Simmons, who have two daughters, Ming Lee, born in 2000, and Aoki Lee, born in 2002, live in a 49,000 square-foot home with 20 bathrooms on four acres in Saddle River, New Jersey, serviced by five maids, four assistants, two live-in nannies, a full-time chef, and two drivers. Simmons, who sports a 25-carat diamond ring, owns a fleet of luxury cars including a platinum extended-base Bentley, and brags about her extensive collection of Manolo Blahnik shoes, admits that she has a taste for the finer things of life.
Although her husband donates over a $1 million annually to some 70 charities and sports a Timex, he sometimes finds himself defending his wife's extravagant tastes against scrutinizing media attention. "Every other week it's the same thing, and I'm upset about it and she's upset about it," Russell Simmons told the New York Daily News. "This is all because Kimora is an African-American Asian woman. It's as if they think she's undeserving." Simmons did not help her public image in July 2004 when she faced drug and motor vehicle charges after failing to stop her Mercedes when police attempted to pull her over for driving erratically. When she did stop just outside her home police reportedly found marijuana in the car. Simmons denied the charges at her municipal court hearing in August.
Married to one of entertainment's biggest names, Simmons has proven her place alongside her husband as a trendsetter and fashion guru, but her sights are not just set on the fashion world. She is also carving out a place in the entertainment industry. In 2003 Simmons earned a Tony Award as the executive producer of the critically acclaimed Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam. She has hosted MTV's Fashionably Loud, served as a judge on Tyra Banks's talent-search series America's Next Top Model, and appeared on MetroChannels' Full Frontal Fashion. In the fall of 2004 she began co-hosting the Life & Style, a talk show produced by Sony Television based on The View, but aimed at a younger audience. She also appeared in the film The Big Tease and has parts (as herself) in the film Beauty Shop and as a reporter in Rage Control, a 20th Century Fox comedy starring Martin Lawrence.
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Adweek, March 8, 2004, p. 30.
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Crain's New York Business, January 27, 2003, p. 29.
Jet, March 4, 2003, p. 44; August 16, 2004, p. 58.
New York Magazine, June 21, 2004.
The Observer (U.K.), October 10, 2004.
People Weekly, July 5, 1999, p. 105; July 1, 2002, p. 97+.
PR Newswire, September 10, 2004.
VIBE Magazine, September 2002.
WWD, June 8, 2000, p. 10B.
"Baby Phat," WE: Women's Entertainment, www.we.tv/article/0,,key=344&tzOffset=0,00.html (March 2, 2005).
"Designers: Kimora Lee Simmons of Baby Phat," Factio Magazine, www.factio-magazine.com/Designers/des_KimoraLeeSimmons.htm (March 2, 2005).
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