The Enduring Impact of Baby Phat

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Few brands are as culturally and aesthetically synonymous with a time period as Baby Phat is to the early 2000s. No department store, paparazzi photo, or middle school cafeteria could escape the all-ruling sparkle of Baby Phat’s bedazzled feline logo, whether it was peeking out from beneath a fur-lined puffer or gleaming from the zipper of a bubblegum pink tracksuit. Under model, former Chanel muse, and designer Kimora Lee Simmons, Baby Phat’s rise to pop cultural consciousness was meteoric. With unapologetic femininity and an unwavering manicured finger on the pulse of emerging hip hop, Simmons disrupted the streetwear genre and redefined what it meant to be a woman within it. On Simmons’ 45th birthday, CR gives the multihyphenate designer her (long overdue) credit as a trailblazer of women’s streetwear.

In 1992, Russell Simmons, co-founder of the hit-factory Def Jam Recordings, founded his clothing brand Phat Fashions in the hopes of merging hip hop culture with accessible streetwear. Upon its launch in 1999, Baby Phat was conceived as nothing more than Phat Fashions T-shirts in women’s sizes. Simmons’ then-wife Kimora Lee took one look at the supposed female counterpart, quipped “I would never wear this,” and stepped in as Baby Phat’s head designer.

The marketing-savvy Simmons quickly passed branded baby tees among her celebrity friends, from Naomi Campbell to Christy Turlington, all bedazzled with the now-iconic cat logo inspired by the designer’s own pet. Although Simmons’ PR smarts are not to be underestimated, Baby Phat’s emergence coincided perfectly with the introduction of hip hop into mainstream pop culture. By swiftly aligning the brand with hip hop heroines like Aaliyah and Lil’ Kim, Simmons simultaneously established the Baby Phat Girl identity and put her blossoming brand squarely in view of the rapidly growing hip hop bandwagon. Baby Phat made its New York Fashion Week debut in 2000, with nearly every It girl and rising star in the front row.

From her very first baby tee, Simmons crafted the women’s streetwear genre as something other than minorly tweaked versions of the era’s ultra-baggy men’s looks. From the cropped and fur-trimmed puffer jackets to the pastel velour tracksuits (launched two years before Juicy Couture introduced its own), everything that walked the Baby Phat runway was tailored, shrunken, and fitted. Even the brand’s impossibly low-slung jeans boasted added stretch that hugged curves, while men continued to reach for carpenter jeans twice their size. Baby Phat clothing, although derived from the masculine arena of streetwear, paid unprecedented homage to the feminine form. And the feminine form paid them right back—between 2001 and 2002, Baby Phat’s revenue skyrocketed from million to 5 million.

Baby Phat’s streetwear-focused and hip hop-inspired designs candidly celebrated Black culture—resulting in its belittling (and racist) pigeonhole as an “urban” brand by fashion’s elite—while also emulating the look and lifestyle of luxury. This paradox was propelled by the unrelenting extravagance of Simmons herself (the model-turned-designer also starred in a reality show titled Life in the Fab Lane, which revealed that the interior of her .9 million mansion was coated almost entirely in gold), every ounce of which was nearly tangible in her brand’s rhinestone-encrusted inventory. From the 2003 Baby Phat prepaid VISA card, to the 2004 Motorola flip phone quilted with 0.4-carat diamonds, Baby Phat and its endless string of licensing agreements embodied aspirational fashion at its finest.

Simmons identified the Baby Phat girl early, and she identified her well. While streetwear emerged from a combination of global subcultures, from Harlem rappers to Tokyo skaters, the women of those communities were largely ignored. The Baby Phat customer, at her core, was a streetwear enthusiast who just didn’t want the watered-down scraps of what male celebrities wore. Through its clothing, imagery, and unprecedented real estate within the collective consciousness, Baby Phat infused the male-dominated streetwear culture with unapologetic sexiness and flagrant femininity. More than that, Baby Phat was not simply a brand, it was a luxurious lifestyle, fueled by every gold-plated chain, rapper endorsement, and swipe of a cat-branded VISA. Simmons brought streetwear to a gender that didn’t have it before—and, through her model castings and close ties to the hip hop elite, brought representation to communities within that gender that had long been ignored.

Beyond the era-defining tracksuits, Baby Phat was a pioneer in the fusion of fashion, celebrity, and music. The over-the-top runway shows were pop-cultural spectacles in and of themselves, a rotating who’s-who with everyone from Brittany Murphy to Queen Latifah mingling in the front row. The hip hop and fashion worlds happily clashed within Simmons’ fashion week tent, while many of the decade’s most iconic sartorial moments (like Cam’ron in that baby pink outfit) occurred right outside. Even the runway itself was stocked with stars—Simmons’ dedication to size inclusivity and diversity included catwalk cameos by her own friends, including Lil’ Kim.

Stripped of the clothes and massive following, simply the fact that Baby Phat had a woman (let alone a woman of color) at the helm was mold-breaking. When Russell Simmons sold Phat Fashions for 0 million in 2004, Kimora Lee stayed put as creative director. Two years later, she became president, making her one of the first Black women to lead a billion-dollar company. Always a central character of her own campaigns and editorials, Simmons proved that a woman can be powerful and business-savvy without losing an ounce of sex appeal. Even today, a woman-led streetwear brand with even one-half of Baby Phat’s wingspan is an unfortunate rarity.

Simmons was ousted from Baby Phat in 2010, ending her track record of outrageously pricey campaigns with dwindling profits. The brand slowly fell from the public eye before disappearing completely sometime in the early 2010s—any digital footprint of Phat Fashions and Baby Phat ceased to exist.

However, on International Women’s Day 2019, Simmons announced a relaunch of her cherished label after tracking down and re-purchasing the Baby Phat license. Despite nearly ten years in the sartorial shadows, Baby Phat reemerged with the same “by women, for women” credo, as Simmons remains firmly on top with the Gen-Z guidance of her two teenage daughters. The resurgence played perfectly into the nostalgia-fueled fashion cycle, whose current stop—for better or for worse—is somewhere between 1999 and 2005. After a teaser capsule collection with Forever 21 sold out in 24 hours, Baby Phat’s first official drop stocked all the velour and vinyl that made the brand a household name.

Despite its hiatus, Baby Phat remains one of the most recognizable fashion disruptors to define an entire era of pop culture. Kimora Lee Simmons stocked her front row with hip hop stars before social media existed, enlisted models of all sizes before heroin chic had left the mainstream runways, and fitted streetwear silhouettes for female customers before other brands even considered women’s sizing. Today, streetwear rests comfortably in the upper echelons through designers like Virgil Abloh, Alexander Wang, and Rihanna (who, last year, purchased the entire Baby Phat archive from New York vintage collector Gabriel Held). But this timeline would undoubtedly be different without Kimora Lee Simmons, her unapologetically feminine brand, or her diamond-encrusted flip phone.

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