The call came in from somewhere out on the rain-slick New Jersey Turnpike. Could they please hold the curtain at tonight’s benefit performance of The Owl and the Pussycat at Manhattan’s City Center? Pleasepleasepleasepleasepleeeeease?
Kimora Lee Simmons, the dynamo director of Baby Phat fashions, was in the backseat of her extra-long platinum Bentley, running half an hour late. Did it mean anything to anyone that she was the chairwoman, yes, the chairwoman of the event?
“There are rules for these things. Unions! The show will start on time,” somebody had to tell her. Ralph and Ricky Lauren were in the house. So were Diane Von Furstenberg, Oscar de la Renta, and Zac Posen, the 23-year-old who had crafted Kimora’s one-of-a-kind ombré-red gown with all that loopy swish that looked like a conch. It was the kind of dress that somehow managed to grab onto everything in its path.
Kimora’s husband, Russell Simmons, arrived at the theater in his white Ford Excursion. The co-founder of Def Jam Records and the affable godfather of hip-hop, Russell, who had recently sold his Phat Fashions clothing company for $140 million, joined the ladies with fur wraps inside as they awaited Vogue editor André Leon Talley’s turn onstage with the Martha Graham dance troupe. Russell looked beatific in a soft-pink Phat Farm suit.
As the performance got under way, Kimora sneaked in through a side entrance; she and Russell held hands, and he grinned when she whispered that the woman wearing the metal tree onstage was striking yoga’s Warrior One pose.
After the show, there was a dinner dance at the Plaza, where Russell and Kimora were seated with Anna Wintour. But Kimora was distracted. There was something for sale in the silent auction outside, and by God, she wanted to go home with it.
UNPRECEDENTED FANTASY OPPORTUNITY TO HAVE MR. BLAHNIK NAME A SHOE IN YOUR HONOR, the sign said.
Kimora slipped out to the vestibule to keep an eye on the prize. “Did no one hear me on the microphone? I said, ‘No one go mess with the Manolo Blahniks! I’m the chairwoman!’ ” she joked with the society babes. Kimora got on a cell phone with a Minneapolis doctor whose wife was there fishing for a birthday present. “You’re making me look bad,” Kimora said to him in that jingling, cash-money voice. “Tell your wife I will give you a pair of mine. Let’s just collaborate.” The doctor caved, and somebody chided Kimora for her furtive price-fixing. But there was other competition. Kimora found herself toe-to-toe with Suzanne Levine, the podiatrist celebrated for tending to the ailments of the high-high-heeled. “I don’t know why Manolo Blahnik would want to name a shoe after a podiatrist, but whatever,” someone in the crowd whispered.
“It’s my livelihood,” Levine kept saying.
Kimora Lee was a more obvious Cinderella for the slipper. Born out of wedlock, this woman-child from the Midwest had willed herself onto the runways of Europe as a model and was now the high-living other half of the city’s most fascinating power couple. In just a few weeks, she would tower over Times Square on a billboard, wearing nothing but her brand-new Diva sneakers, some shiny diamond ankle shackles, and a yee-haw of a smile—a several-storied poster girl for naked ambition.
A lawyer shouted that he was the lawyer for Dr. Suzanne Levine, so nobody should try anything funny. “I want you to make sure no one does this to me, Jack,” said Kimora to her lawyer and manager, Jack McCue. But the hands on her diamond-flecked watch touched twelve, and Russell dragged Kimora back to her car. (“If it had been just me, we could have had an all-girls night at Butter!” she said, with a little helium laugh.) The shoe was hers, or so she thought. But then Levine bid a final $20,000 on a piece of folded paper, and after a protracted cellular exchange with McCue from the car, Kimora decided she had enough Manolos at home to play with.
The gossip columnists sunk their canines into the incident. That scarlet Kabbalah string on Kimora’s wrist, the one “blessed by the matriarch Rachel—she’s long dead, like in a tomb somewhere,” had again failed to protect her.
“You gotta get tough,” Russell told his wife. She had gone to such trouble—for him!—to measure up as an urban fashion icon, a woman who, in her own words, could “inspire young women to aspire.” But to the New York tabloids, Kimora Lee Simmons is an irresistible pincushion.
“Why is everyone worrying about what she spends?” says Russell. “They should be worried about what Roberto Cavalli spends, too. What Ralph Lauren spends, too. How many cars does Tommy Hilfiger have, by the way?”
“If you are successful, people want to see it,” says Talley. “They want to share in the dream.” Especially people of struggle, as Russell Simmons tactfully calls them. It’s one reason rap lyrics sometimes read like shopping lists.
Long ago, Kimora Lee realized that if she couldn’t be the most popular girl in school, it might be fun to be the girl everybody talks about. “Be happy if people are talking about you,” her father used to say. Only now she’s not so sure. The self-styled World’s Biggest Collector of Louis Vuitton is trying not to brag these days, but it’s hard: There’s just so much to show off. “I am a fly bitch!” the 29-year-old says, sounding slightly exasperated.
“I have this vision of kimora being the greatest brand in the world,” says Russell, 46, who, like his wife, speaks in Trumpian superlatives. “There’s no woman better. Nobody should put on a Franck Muller diamond-platinum watch before Kimora. You have some girl who’s a rapper who came from the block? It ain’t the same as Kimora.”
Russell started Baby Phat in 1999, the year after he married Kimora. His Phat Farm men’s line had seemingly caught cold, and Russell recognized his bride’s potential as a champion of the multiethnic woman, an image that could sell a new line of women’s and children’s clothing to teenagers and clued-in young mommies. Under the ex-model’s supervision, Baby Phat fashion shows were like rock concerts, promoting the entire Phat family. Runway collections were created shotgun in three weeks: Editors chuckled at the visible safety pins and the fur stoles camouflaging hurried finishing on spring 2004’s Josephine Baker showgirls, but none of that stuff was ever meant for Macy’s. The big business is that kitten on your butt, those $59 jeans, the T-shirts, the copycat Vuitton-like bags, graffiti’d with the BP logo.
The Times Square billboard will be one of the first sightings of Kimora Lee: The Brand. The newly formed Simmons Jewelry Company is inventing a Kimora-cut diamond. Talks are ratcheting up to get Kimora her own Baby Phat Barbie, a line of M.A.C cosmetics, a Coty perfume.
Seventy-five percent of people who buy hip-hop records are nonblack, and Russell likes to think that everything urban can trend similarly. Nelly and Eve and Beyoncé Knowles and Sean “Puffy” Combs all want game in the women’s category: Urban-apparel sales were up to $6 billion last year, and with the January sale of Phat Fashions to the clothing conglomerate Kellwood—he continues to run it—there’s a lot more gas in Russell’s tank.