In the late 1990s, hip-hop crossed over into popular, mainstream culture, bringing with it the idiosyncrasies of the communities that birthed it. For years, rappers and their peers were known to improvise, buying jeans from legacy labels like Polo a couple of sizes up to create a baggy silhouette and turning non-fashion brands like Timberland into wardrobe staples. But by the late ‘90s, instead of continuing to promote established brands, rappers and hip-hop industry influencers began creating their own platforms and launching black-owned clothing labels such as FUBU, Pelle Pelle, and Rocawear. In 1999, supermodel and clothing designer Kimora Lee Simmons started Baby Phat, a clothing, shoes, and accessory line designed for women and girls at a time when similar brands were geared towards men. It was built alongside Phat Farm, the line owned by her then-husband Russell Simmons, whose renown as a hip-hop executive also positioned Simmons close to the hip-hop community. Soon, Baby Phat became a billion-dollar enterprise.
Baby Phat cultivated and sold an aesthetic that was both accessible and ambitious. When rap icon Lil Kim modeled for the brand in 2008, she hit the runway in a long fur coat over a cropped white tank, bikini bottoms, and a massive diamond cross chain. It mirrored the celebration of black culture in many of Simmons’s designs, a quality that led traditional fashion institutions to label Baby Phat as an “urban” brand that wasn’t supposed to penetrate high-end fashion spaces.
In 2016, the overt embrace of “fabulousity” that Baby Phat was once shut out for is channeled in some of contemporary, mainstream fashion’s current trends. Runways are styled in appropriated looks like oversized logos, faux furs, and embroidered denim reminiscent of Simmons’s designs from 17 years ago. In his 2014 Fall/Winter Paris fashion show, Rick Owens formal dresses white models in du-rags, and at this year’s New York Fashion Week Alexander Wang showcasedairbrushed t-shirts; both styles have been ubiquitous in black communities around the country for decades. In such instances, these looks are presented as innovative and no acknowledgment is given the black culture responsible for creating the pre-existing trends or to the black designers who were stigmatized for bringing that culture to their designs.
In September, The FADER spoke with Simmons to talk about what it was like to innovate women’s fashion, the racial undertones of being labeled as “urban,” and the credit that is due to black culture.
When you created Baby Phat, what was your vision for it?
When I created Baby Phat, it was something that was very authentic to me. In that respect I feel that I am a pioneer because there were not a lot of women what I was doing at that time. I didn’t want to wear a football jersey from a man. That was not what I wanted in the sense that it was like your boyfriend’s clothes, like his jerseys. If anything, I would’ve made a sporty-looking jersey that was much smaller and more tailored and that’s why we created what everyone called the “baby tee.” At the time, there were a lot of men doing these things. You can speak with Russell [Simmons] or Puffy, but no one was doing it like we were doing it. We were speaking to the women. At that time [our customer] was a young woman and she wanted to feel sexy. We were crossing over to be more feminine and fitted and sensual. Not only did I bring a history of where I came from but also things that I’d seen and where I’d started and for me that was high fashion.
So, for Baby Phat, a result of that combination was a great fitted jean. They were super stretchy, I had the best jeans in the world. It was a denim company with little t-shirts, and dresses. The way that it was done and how we did our color blocking was different. It was offering something towards women.
A lot of the looks that you introduced with Baby Phat were marginalized in the late 90s and early 2000s and it was implied that they were limited to an “urban” community. Now, we see women who wouldn’t be considered a part of that demographic formal dresses uk this way and it’s no longer labeled as “urban.”
And I was certainly embracing my history and where I’d come from, in coming off of the fashion runway and in the physical sense of where I was from in St. Louis, Missouri. There was nothing weird about that, certainly not as far as the fashion was concerned. The weird came from New York City streets, and Paris. It was homegrown [from all the different cities I’d spent time in].
I was paying homage to the feminine form, body, and shape and the references that I was using, the materials, the finishings, the metals and so on and so forth. The sizes of the logo, the placement of the logo — they were really big and they’re looking really big nowadays, too. Who would’ve thought ever that Ralph Lauren would have a logo on the chest that is the size of the palm of your hand? There was a time that someone would’ve mistakenly called that “ghetto.” But, that at the time would’ve been a negative connotation. So all I’m saying is, to me, whatever it is [labeled] is not negative. Even though you may have seen that in the ghetto you never would’ve said, “Oh, Ralph Lauren is ghetto.” Even now, for these other brands that are higher end, the logos are huge and so are the sizes of the zippers, the earrings, and the stitch. I call it “retro” but what I was doing back then was something that was true to myself because that’s where I was from.
I didn’t want to be called “urban” because I didn’t understand what made me urban and, let’s say, Tommy Hilfiger not. Now, people in fashion might call it that but they would not have said it then. To me, it was only called that because of the color of the people working there and I thought that was some real racist shit. So back then, I was fighting the fight because I wanted to be included — it was fashion.