NEW YORK — Unlike nearly every other celebrity with a fragrance, Russell Simmons makes no bones about the fact that having a namesake scent was never one of his life goals. In fact, until Coty — which also produces his estranged wife’s fragrances — came up with the idea of donating the music and apparel impresario’s profits to charity, it’s fair to say that Simmons not only didn’t have a driving need to do a fragrance, he didn’t even want one.
“It wasn’t at the top of my list,” Simmons said wryly. But that was before Simmons and Coty came up with an idea: to create a scent that funded charities closest to Simmons’ heart. Those were the magic words to Simmons. He became best-known for his role as the co-founder of Def Jam records and then parlayed his success into Phat Farm, the apparel line, but Simmons considers his role as a philanthropist to be his most important one. “The basis for everything we do is about giving,” he said. “All the receiving we get is a result of giving.”
The result was Phat Farm Atman — which means “spirit of man” in ancient Sanskrit. “Now it has a purpose,” he said. “I’m not saying fragrances are frivolous, just that I think this adds to the levels of value, relevance and substance.”
While Kimora Lee Simmons’ fragrances, Baby Phat Goddess and Goddess Gold, are unapologetically over the top, Russell Simmons was determined to bring a spiritual side to his scent. “They said spiritual fragrances wouldn’t sell, but those were the ones I liked,” said Simmons, after a vegan lunch — “nothing that could run from you,” as he described it — at the new Jivamukti Yoga Studio here. “And [Atman] is a tough name, but it tested very well among consumers. I wanted to invest in something we could use to help people, and if it has half the success of Goddess [Kimora Lee Simmons’ blockbuster first fragrance], I’ll be able to help a lot of people.”
It’s been 12 years since Simmons founded Phat Farm LLC. It was acquired by Kellwood in February 2004 for $140 million in cash. “It’s like the American dream,” Simmons said of Phat Farm, adding that while the initial consumers bought big logos, the line has now “crossed over” to a number of demographic categories. “It’s still inspired totally by hip-hop,” he said, adding that top sellers include a T-shirt with a simple logo and argyle sweaters with moderate logo crests. “We’ve become what we talked about — and we celebrate that. Our brand is resilient. It has grown every year for 15 years. That’s the overall brand, Phat Farm, as well as Baby Phat. The urban brands have not been as great over the last three to four years. But we’re seeing this little crest represent what it was always meant to represent: the American dream, the idea that these brands were not only made for or limited to [certain ethnic groups].”
Dennis Keogh, senior vice president of marketing for Coty Prestige, calls Simmons “a genius at marketing.”
“Russell has been a major contributor to hip-hop culture — which has been the biggest cultural and sociological shift since the Fifties,” said Keogh. “Russell has made hip-hop culture mainstream. We are confident that Atman will bring in a consumer who is not currently shopping in department stores.”
About 25 percent of Simmons’ share will support Keep a Child Alive, which provides anti-retroviral treatments to children and their families with HIV/AIDS in Africa. The remaining 75 percent of his share will be used to support a variety of charities supporting human rights, health, arts, education and economic empowerment, Simmons said, noting that most of the charities are organizations with which he’s been involved for many years.
The scent, an aromatic fougere, was created by Jean Claude Delville of Firmenich. Its top notes are of icy bergamot and fresh aquatics; its heart is of caraway, lavender and sage, and its drydown is of sandalwood, musk and suede. The bottle is a heavy glass, slightly curved rectangle, topped by a silver and fake-suede brown cap.
Eaux de toilette in two sizes —1.7 oz. for $45 and 3.4 oz. for $55 — will be joined by a 4.2-oz. aftershave balm, $34, and a 2.6-oz. deodorant, $15. The collection will be launched in September.
Advertising, which will break in October men’s interest, music, lifestyle and fashion magazines, was shot by David Sims at New York’s Milk Studios. It features a heroic shot of the bottle, with a notation at the bottom of the page that all of Simmons’ personal proceeds will be donated to charity. Thumbnail-size portraits of Russell and Kimora Lee Simmons accompany the announcement. TV advertising on Black Entertainment Television will run at launch and at Christmas, and radio ads are planned for hip-hop stations during those times.
Neither Simmons nor Coty executives would comment on projected sales or advertising spending, but industry sources estimated that Atman would do at least $12 million to $15 million in its first year at retail on counter, and that about $3 million to $5 million would be spent on advertising and promotion. It will be available in about 2,200 department stores in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico, and will bow globally in 2007.
Simmons has a slew of upcoming projects on his schedule, including six new TV shows — “The Mike Epps Show” for HBO, and an in-production pilot for a talk show on HBO featuring Kimora Lee Simmons, among them — and an eponymous jewelry line. “We’re also doing smart film projects, including a film on promoting, which I happen to be in,” said Simmons. Another project in production, “Lockdown USA,” is a documentary about New York’s draconian Rockefeller drug laws. It already has one famous fan: Media mogul Oprah Winfrey is planning to feature it on her show, said Simmons. “That’s big, because it will make people talk more about the drug laws,” he said.
Simmons is also expanding his philanthropic efforts through his jewelry line, working with DeBeers in a project aimed at creating factories in Africa that will set up schools for the workers. “We want DeBeers to be investors in where the diamonds come from,” he said, “so Simmons Jewelry could be a very important company [in that respect]. And DeBeers has been very open to that. All the dialogue has been good, and we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to do this. There’s no point in selling diamonds unless you can help the people who are picking the diamonds.” He’s also building a media company —”We’ve got to pay the bills,” he said with a laugh. “You can’t help the poor if you’re one of them.” He credits the success of his various projects with “great people — I surround myself with a great team,” he said. “That makes it very easy.”
But despite a packed schedule, Simmons vows to be 100 percent behind the promotional efforts for Atman. “I will be available at all times [to promote this fragrance],” said Simmons, proffering his cell phone number before heading off to a gallery opening in Brooklyn. “I want the media to take the ball and run with it. I hope we can raise consciousness.”