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The Mix Master

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"But it's hard to talk about Russell," Hinds adds, "without assuming he knows what he's doing."

What Simmons seems to be doing is preparing for the next moment, his moment. "I don't want the money . . . I want the money," he explains. "If you want to push bigger buttons, you have to get inside the building."

Simmons is bouncing up to the Def Jam offices on Varick Street on a cold March afternoon. He's wearing a maroon Phat Farm fake fur with a hood today, which gives him a royal look. "If you can't buy a Bentley, buy a Phat Farm golf vest" is something he likes to say these days.

Simmons -- or Russell, as everyone calls him up here -- has been focusing most of his efforts of late on turning Phat Farm into hip-hop's Gap. He's entered into a licensing deal with Nate Kestenman, the New Jersey financier who made Turbo Sportswear, and is rumored to be negotiating a $100 million backing deal with Arnie Simon, the man who brought Calvin Klein from "zero to $500 million in three years," according to one fashion-industry insider.

"In the last year, we've made deals for bags, boots, leather, lingerie, underwear," Russell says rapidly, traveling through the Def Jam corridors. ("What up, big dawg?" his young employees say.) "We're gonna do suits! Sharkskin," Russell says proudly. "You should see them. The fabrics are sick."

It does strike some people as puzzling that Russell, promoter of Redman and Slick Rick, seems to have become obsessed with such things as "fleece!" And some even wonder whether it's the best place for his energies. "I always told Russell to stick to the record business," says David Geffen, another friend. "I'd take the record business over fashion any day. But I would never bet against him; Russell's been right about a whole lot of things."

"T-shirts," Russell claims, "are gonna make me richer than records ever did."

Phat Farm did $17 million in sales in 1998, which he plans to more than triple this year by widening his distribution into higher-end department-store chains. "Tommy," whom Russell once told there was big money in hip-hop fashion (and whom he gave street cred by introducing him to rappers and black supermodels), is now introducing Russell to people like the buyers at Macy's. "I figured you just made the clothes and showed them to Anna Wintour," Russell says.

"I think it's a genius idea," says Hilfiger of Russell's line, which is a funky kind of reinterpretation of preppiness. ("What Russell really wants to be," says Andre, "is the hip-hop Ralph Lauren.") In fact, last year Hilfiger tried to get his friend Russell to fold his interests into his company -- perhaps to stave off the competition -- but the deal never happened. While preoccupied by his record business, Russell has watched Hilfiger build an $850 million company selling street styles to the hip-hop generation. You have to wonder whether at some level it rankles him to see another white designer capitalizing on black-influenced fashion.

All Russell will say is "Tommy is great!"

Up in his office, Lyor Cohen, Def Jam's president and COO, is looking very upset. The head of another label has been trying to raid some of his artists that day -- which lately, with the success of the company, and hip-hop in general, has become a troublesome theme.


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