How Baby Phat Won the Early 2000s
Dripping in the decadence of early 2000s hip-hop culture, Baby Phat served women of color by being authentic, aspirational, and unapologetically confident.
Photo by Jemel Countess/WireImage
When word let out that supermodel, businesswoman, and entrepreneur Kimora Lee Simmons was resurrecting her clothing brand, Baby Phat, fashion mavens everywhere rejoiced.
Founded in 1999, Simmons’ Baby Phat became, specifically for women of color, a cultural symbol for the decadence, glamour, and sex appeal with her now iconic rhinestone tees, adorably chic feline logo, jaw-dropping magazine ads, and star-studded runway shows. Simmons told People Magazine on International Women’s Day, that the comeback of her brand felt like “the rebirth of my baby.”
Simmons’ timing couldn’t be more apropos. In a time when Black women’s physical attributes are being co-opted for Instagram followers and contemporary brands like Fashion Nova are tapping Kardashians to model their curve-contouring apparel, authentic representation is at a deficit. It also helps that early 2000s nostalgia is trending—evident with the comebacks of tiny sunglasses, logomania, and low rise jeans.
“When [Baby Phat] first popped on the scene what I loved was that it was so in your face and you could tell that a woman of color put it together,” writer and educator Stevona Elem-Rogers tells Broadly. “It was luxury that she made attainable to everyone. No matter who you were, you were, for the most part, able to access this brand that was unapologetically for you. It wasn't trying to be for white women, it was for us.”
As a young Black-Asian-American model from St. Louis, Simmons was an anomaly in the modeling industry, and yet, she was handpicked by Karl Lagerfeld to close a Chanel runway show at only 14 years old. She credited her time spent as Lagerfeld’s muse as to how she nurtured her own fashion tastes and skills. Simmons took those lessons with her when she was given the reigns to launch Baby Phat, at first just an offshoot of her then-husband Russell Simmons’ Phat Farm hip-hop clothing brand. Baby Phat’s apparel quickly inherited the urban aesthetic of Phat Farm—aspirationally decadent, comfortable, bold— but for a more feminine customer.
“All of the excesses of the logomania era reminds us of a time when anything seemed possible. Nostalgia and fashion are like little magic spells that can transform us into those hopeful kids and teens again,” says Hannah Black, a Chicago-based stylist and creative director for The Isis Nicole Magazine. “It was a more carefree, irreverent time, pre-smartphones. I think we subconsciously crave a time when the radio, magazines, and MTV were our connecting cultural forces.”
As one of the only women of color who had a regular spot in the annual fashion week lineups, Simmons intentionally cast diverse models, at a time when it was still rare to do so as well as having herself, the CEO and designer, be the face of the brand’s countless campaigns. To double down on appealing to women in hip-hop, Simmons’ styled artists like Lil Kim, Missy Elliot, and Aaliyah, regularly, in her garments. And through advertisements, Simmons and her glam lifestyle were always front and center—diamonds and fur galore, casual product placement of a then must-have Motorola Razr, and role-playing as the first female President.
Simmons via Baby Phat, helped meld together the worlds of high-fashion and hip-hop, in a way that wasn’t kitschy or forced, because it was merely a reflection of her lifestyle as the model wife of a hip-hop mogul.
“People of color, even today, we're still just trying to etch out space in the fashion market and we're still just trying to get a little shine,” says journalist and former Vogue senior fashion writer, Marjon Carlos. “I think there was something about that moment that was really deeply authentic, which I think we're kind of missing right now. It was its own style, it's own moment.”
The resurrection of Baby Phat, however, isn’t solely about cashing in on nostalgia-inducing trends. Rather, a Baby Phat comeback signifies the reminder that we need POC designers creating for POC consumers and rightfully claiming ownership in traditionally white spaces.
“[Kimora] was a woman of color, obviously Russell Simmons was a person of color, and they were moving in this fashion space and they had clout and were actually making money,” says Carlos. “When young kids of color saw this brand that offered an aspirational lifestyle from people that were really living it I think that they were like ‘Oh yeah, I’m totally down for this, I see myself in this and maybe I'm gonna get a piece of the pie too.’ It was aspirational in that respect.”
Simmons putting herself, and eventually, her two young daughters, Ming and Aoki Lee-Simmons, as the starring faces of the brand throughout the years, was a solidifying factor in assuring that the Baby Phat product resonated with its targeted audience—Black women. Simmons could have gone the route of designing “for everyone” (ie: the very white fashion consumer with a disposable income) but catering to the type of woman that her friends were, her daughters would grow up to be, and who she was herself, was her clear agenda.
For Rogers, the inclusion of Simmons’ daughters as part of the rebrand is a smart and culturally conscious decision as well.
“I’m excited to see what [Ming and Aoiki] will produce alongside someone who is the architect of so much of what we love in clothing that is specifically for us and by us,” Elem-Rogers says. “It's really intergenerational—you're talking about women of color across generations who are really putting something back into the culture and I can’t think of a more perfect time for that to happen.”
Regardless of what styles and pieces the upcoming Baby Phat relaunch will bring back or newly introduce, Simmons has solidified since day one, her role as the unofficial spokeswoman for the you-can-have-it-all working mother mantra that so many Black and brown women of today aspire to achieve. The 43-year-old mother of four exists as a figure outside of her romantic partnerships and assured that her name, her brands, and her money, were always a top priority.
“Kimora wore so many hats and allowed me to really think about and dream about the different hats that I could wear and still be my full self,” said Elem-Rogers. “I could express the different parts of myself and didn’t just have to choose one—I didn’t just have to be in a relationship and be all about my partner, I don’t have to be just about my children. I can live in these multitudes of spaces, and I think she taught [women of color] that. She really helped us define who we were going to be.”