Q&A: Kimora Lee Simmons

Some might say Kimora Lee Simmons is over-the-top or flashy, but as president of Baby Phat, she has proven herself to have quite the business head.

Some might say Kimora Lee Simmons is over-the-top or flashy, but as president of Baby Phat and creative director of Phat Fashions, she has proven herself to have quite the business head. Over the past 10 years, Simmons has partnered her brands — Baby Phat, Phat Farm, KLS Collection and Fabulosity — with extensions with major companies, including her Kimora Barbie doll with Mattel, her “Fabulosity” book with Harper Collins, several cell phones with Motorola, fragrances with Coty and her reality show, “Life in the Fab Lane” with the E and Style networks. She’s come a long way since that first Baby Phat logo T-shirt hit store racks, which no doubt will be in evidence Friday evening at her spring runway show. Now that her ex-husband, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, has left the helm at Phat Fashions, Kimora is in charge and here she talks with WWD about the past and the future.

This story first appeared in the September 11, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

WWD: What does 10 years mean to you?

Kimora Lee Simmons: I think it says a lot when you can be in business for a decade. To think that we started with just a T-shirt and became a jeans company and then became a whole lifestyle brand — we’ve gone through such an evolution and I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved.

WWD: How do you keep the Baby Phat customer interested in your brand?

K.L.S.: I really understand my customer so well and make sure that I change when she changes. I grow with her and she grows with me. In order to stay strong in this business, you have to be that way. It’s about understanding your customer’s needs and evolving with her in every aspect of her life. Also, we are always sure to communicate with our customers in very relevant ways. People are exposed to so much these days and we realize the importance of being where they are — shopping on the Internet, browsing Facebook — it’s all about embracing your customer in nonconventional ways.

WWD: What are some highlights from the past 10 years?

K.L.S.: Every time I see people wearing my product, that’s a highlight. I was just traveling in Africa over the summer and saw women wearing Baby Phat — that was thrilling. Also, years ago, we dressed all the dancers for Madonna’s concert tour. And, even more recently, Karl Lagerfeld is wearing Phat Farm jeans in the new issue of Harper’s Baazar. That’s so amazing for me, especially since I credit him for being such a major part of my career. [Simmons walked the runway for Chanel when she was 13, and Lagerfeld “launched” her as a model.]

WWD: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

K.L.S.: I don’t like to live my life with any sort of regret. But, I do have to say, I have had a difficult time adjusting to the changes in structure we had when we sold the company to Kellwood. And now, with Sun Capital owning us, there’s been even more challenges. It’s just that for me, it was hard getting used to the way they do business. I’m not saying I would have not sold the company, but I may have done things differently.

WWD: Can you be more specific about what you would have done differently?

K.L.S.: No. Let’s talk about happier things.

WWD: OK, so what’s it been like designing men’s wear for Phat Farm?

K.L.S.: When Russell left the company about two years ago, it was sort of a down time for Phat Farm. Since I started overseeing the design of Phat Farm, it’s been all about reconnecting with the customer, understanding the brand, the market and the message — similar in the way we do with Baby Phat. We have to know what he’s into, what he wants from us. I’m all about adding a little bit of fashion to the classic feeling of Phat Farm and, so far, it’s working. While I do think there is still a lot of work to be done with the brand, I am seeing sales getting better.

WWD: Does your boyfriend [actor Djimon Hounsou] help you with the men’s wear?

K.L.S.: He helps me with everything in every aspect of my life. He helps me with family, with business — with everything. He is such a wonderfully grounded, spiritually calm person and anyone who knows him would say the same thing.

WWD: What if your daughters, Ming and Aoki, wanted to follow in your footsteps and become designers?

K.L.S.: They are already such fashionable girls and they do work on the design for Baby Phat Girlz. They both change their clothes like six times a day — maybe three times on the days they are at school. I encourage them to show self-expression and I think that fashion is a great, artistic way for young girls to express themselves. It’s a safe outlet for children to express themselves, so I would hope they would follow in my footsteps. I think that Ming is already on her way — she has a sewing machine now and loves to sew on trims and embellishments to her clothes.

WWD: What would you like to do with Phat Fashions that hasn’t already been done?

K.L.S.: I would love to expand my retail presence. We already have stores all over the world, but I really want to get into it even more so. It’s such a great way to show off our whole lifestyle, so I want to get the whole retail model under control.