Style…Redefining fashion from ‘ghettofabulous’ to ‘fabulosity’

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(Part four of a four-part series)

The shelf life of the average urban streetwear brands is surprisingly short. By year seven, ironically a number that symbolizes completion, most hip-hop-inspired fashion lines have fizzled and become yesterday’s news as a young and fickle consumer market has moved on in search of the next big thing.

But Baby Phat has defied the odds, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. While no one knows whether the privately held company is the most profitable urban streetwear brand, it is arguably the most widely recognized, the most ubiquitous, and the most influential.

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FAMILY—Kimora Simmons with daughters Ming Lee and Aoki Lee after the Baby Phat show.

Some of Baby Phat’s longevity can be credited to design teams that gradually transitioned the women’s sportswear from throw-away hootchie gear to fashion that reflects more taste and sophistication than when it started yet is still young and fresh. Baby Phat’s maturity from looks totally reflecting an “urban youth mindset” in its early years to an aesthetic that appeals to aging original devotees while continuing to attract younger fans has not escaped industry observers. And much of the credit for that must go to the line’s irrepressible chief creative officer, Kimora Lee Simmons.

“Whether it’s for JC Penney or specialty stores, she knows her customer and continues to give her girls what they want with a fashion edge,” said Tom Julian, a New York-based market analyst.

Some see Baby Phat as a prime example of how urban streetwear has morphed, influencing and being influenced by the larger fashion scene.

“Urban streetwear continues to evolve and broaden its impact,” noted David Wolfe, a creative director with the Doneger Group, a global trend analyzer and forecaster. “While some designers—and their customers—are stuck in a style rut, others are exploring other style genres and taking on board new influences that are less street-inspired and more traditional, but with a spin, of course.”

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FOR WOMEN—A fall ’09 Baby Phat ensemble previewed at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

Such creative improvisation, which continually creates something new out of a fluid status quo, is the nature of both fashion and the Black experience. Add a measure of tenacity and it’s easy to see how Baby Phat and the irrepressible Simmons are at the top of the game.

Simmons, 34, grew up in a lower middle-class St. Louis suburb. She was raised by a single Japanese-American mother and estranged from her African-American father. As she entered adolescence, some peers teased her because of her unusual height and features. Her mother responded by introducing her to modeling.

It was a solution that changed the teenager’s life. Kimora began professionally modeling in 1989 at the age of 13, signing an exclusive contract with Chanel. Soon after her 14th birthday on May 4, she was on a plane to Paris, where the storied luxury brand’s designer Karl Lagerfeld promptly made her his muse and began to groom her.

She was 17 and finishing high school when she met 35-year-old Russell Simmons, who founded the hugely successful Def Jam Records in 1984 and Phat Farm menswear fashion brand in 1992. They married in 1998. The following year, he created Baby Phat as a spin-off of Phat Farm and gave his young, inexperienced wife creative control.

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FOR MEN—A look from the spring 2010 KLS Collection for men, Baby Phat line.

The unabashedly over-the-top diva jumped in with both feet. Although controversial and abrasive, she showed sharp instinct and business acumen as the creative director and president. Her fabulousness quickly redefined the meaning of ghettofabulous, coining the word “fabulosity” as an alternative to unapologetic ostentation.

By its third year, Baby Phat’s annual revenue had grown to $70 million. Much of the Guttenberg, N.J.-based company’s steady growth after that was due to smart diversification: cosmetics, perfumes, handbags, footwear, eyewear, cell phones, costume and diamond jewelry lines—including crystal pieces in partnership with Hello Kitty—apparel and accessories for little girls, and menswear as part of the KLS Collection launched in 2007.

There was also her 2006 book, predictably titled “Fabulosity,” and her “Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane” reality series on the Style and E! Entertainment networks that began in 2007. The show has given the world an up-close view of the sometimes vulgar, often loud, and always provocative force of nature.

Since her divorce last year, she has continued to run the company. With the tenacity of a pit bull, the 6-foot-tall mogul and her towering brand have survived various ups and downs.

There was last year’s drama over UniRush Financial’s Baby Phat Prepaid Visa RushCards, stored-value cards created by the Simmonses that promised “the convenience of a credit card without the debt” to people who would have trouble getting credit under normal circumstances. Hundreds of cardholders who experienced trouble accessing their funds and felt that the company was unresponsive for too long took their complaints public, resulting in embarrassing publicity for the brand.

This past July, mere weeks before New York Fashion Week, news outlets reported that clothing manufacturer Kellwood Co. —to whom Russell Simmons had sold Phat Farm and Baby Phat for $142 million in 2004—was on the verge of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Bond debts of $140 million were coming due, a default appeared imminent, and one of the creditors was unwilling to grant an extension.

But in the ninth hour, the parties announced that they had agreed on a deferment that would give Kellwood until 2014 to ante up. Thus, the company averted a crisis that could have been ruinous for the brands, which reportedly generate a combined $200 million annually.

Then in September, rumors circulated during fashion week that Baby Phat was on the ropes and reeling from the same recessionary factors that have forced many companies in the fashion industry out of business.

The rumors seemed to gain traction at the Sept.15 spring preview of the Baby Phat and KLS Collection lines at the Roseland Ballroom in Midtown Manhattan. Baby Phat has a reputation for serving up the mother of all swag bags with items such as passport holders, card cases, cosmetics, jewelry and even “safe sex” packets of condoms and flavored lubricants.

So when guests arrived at the venue to find a lone bottle of Fiji water on each seat, tongues started wagging. Sure, many designers had eliminated guest gifts as the economy worsened. But since Kimora is all about keeping up appearances and her show often boasts an A-list front row to rival Marc Jacobs, more than a few visibly dismayed guests speculated about why Baby Phat loot had sunk so low so fast.

In the emerging economy that many economic experts predict will be a jobless recovery, few things will look the same tomorrow as they did yesterday. Fashion is not exempt.

But in the short term, at least, things appear to be fairly solid for Baby Phat. The Kellwood situation is stabilized and the Baby Phat customer still shows a willingness to sacrifice whatever she must in order to have that chartreuse leather bag, those strappy metallic stilettos, the big earrings with the stylized pussycat logo.

And Kimora, who rules the empire with a pink iron fist, shows no sign of fatigue. She recently gave birth to a son by boyfriend and actor Djimon Honsou and is riding high after her “Moroccan Kiss” collection received generally positive reviews in September.

Like any force of nature, she shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“Lost in the brash and flashy image projected by Kimora Lee Simmons is this: Baby Phat as a brand is a fashion force to be reckoned with,” said Karyn D. Collins, editor of the Dishing on fashion blog and a New Jersey-based journalist who has covered Baby Phat shows at New York Fashion Week for 13 seasons.

“Baby Phat’s presence in the urban market is impressively dominant,” Collins added. “You cannot ride a subway train in New York City without spotting a young woman in a Baby Phat jacket, jeans or top or carrying a Baby Phat bag. At a time when many labels have lost direction or made ill-advised attempts to expand beyond their core customer, Baby Phat has remained true to its base and the label’s customers have rewarded the brand accordingly.”

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