Lee's 'Fabulosity'

ByABC News
December 1, 2005, 11:35 AM

Dec. 2, 2005 — -- Kimora Lee Simmons is livin' large. Big homes. Big cars. Big bling. There are people who say Simmons is over the top. To them, Simmons says proudly, "I am."

Simmons' Baby Phat fashion line has exploded ever since she took the reins from her husband, Russell Simmons, who turned hip-hop into a household name and made a fortune doing it.

She's a very flashy mogul -- whose first tip for having it all is to think big, really big. She's got an inventory of designer shoes that would make Imelda Marcos jealous. And Simmons is happy to celebrate her success with excess. "Is it too much hair? Is it too much lip gloss? Is it too much diamonds? It can never be too much," she said.

But behind the rich-girl trappings is a shrewd businesswoman who uses her over-the-top life to promote her Baby Phat brand. And its impact on hip-hop culture has been huge.

Mimi Valdes, editor of Vibe magazine, which covers the urban music scene, said of Baby Phat, "Hip-hop [has a] sort of over-the-top obsession with bling and money and all those sorts of things. She is one of the few females who are really, really living the ultimate hip-hop lifestyle."

But Simmons comes from humble beginnings in the Midwest. Her father is African-American and her mother Japanese.

"I was raised by my mother, a working mother, in St. Louis. And at the time there weren't a lot of people that really looked like me, in terms of being interracial, biracial, mixed," she told "20/20" correspondent Deborah Roberts.Simmons said kids mocked with nicknames like "chinky giraffe," because of her unusual looks and her height.

To boost her daughter's confidence, Simmons' mother put her in modeling classes where her exotic look turned heads. By 13, she was off to Paris with Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld, who called her "the face of the 21st century." At age 17, Russell Simmons, 20 years her senior, fell for her at a fashion show and they married five years later.

She could have taken it easy at that point and lived the comfortable life of the wife of a wealthy man.But Simmons had other ideas.

"I got a few little manicures in there, and pedicures, along the way. But I think eventually, um, it gets tiring," she said.

Just months after the wedding, her new husband made a shocking business move. He sold his Def Jam record label for a reported $100 million to focus on what he believed was the future of hip-hop -- retail. He called his men's clothing line Phat Farm.

"The market needed authentic inspiration from hip-hop, and we called it the new American flava," he said.

Phat Farm was so successful, Simmons thought about expanding the line to women's clothing.

"One day I went ahead and I made a collection. The collection, I thought was good, and Kimora walked in the showroom and said, 'This is all a bunch of crap,'" he recalled.

So she took over and created affordable versions of everything she thought the Baby Phat lifestyle required: clothes, shoes, bags, lingerie, jewelry -- even a diamond-encrusted cell phone.

"The point is people are buying into over the top because people want to feel that way themselves," she said.

She became the face of the brand, and after the couple had two daughters, Ming Lee, 5, and Aoki Lee, 3, they were front and center too -- leading some to grumble that she had gone too far in flaunting her wealth.

But Simmons said it's part of her business strategy. "It's the whole philosophy really behind my brand. Baby Phat is an aspirational lifestyle brand."

"Consumers aspire for a certain thing, especially in hip-hop culture. So even if you can't have necessarily the same car that I have, the same house that I have, you can have certain principles and ideas about what I have for yourself, and I think that's why they're drawn to me," she explained.

And she is quite a draw. The 30-year-old held her last fashion show at New York's famed Radio City Music Hall -- a first.

Still, some say her clothes go beyond sexy to street walker. Simmons disagrees. "If I saw a woman walking the streets in that, I would say, 'Damn, girl, you look good. You got good fashion sense. And somebody ought to pay you a lot of money, tonight! For whatever you're doing. Because you look good!'"

In fact, Kimora's advice is, never listen to the critics. And that appears to be working for her. Last year, clothing conglomerate Kellwood bought Phat Farm and Baby Phat for a reported $140 million. Part of the deal was that Simmons would stay on as Baby Phat's creative director.

"I oversee everything from start to finish on the creative side. The image. How it should look. How it should feel. The persona," she explained.

This fall, Simmons teamed up with fragrance giant Coty to create "Goddess by Baby Phat." At the launch, women shelled out $90 for the scent in order to get Kimora's autograph.

What makes young women scrape together that kind of money for Simmons' products?

Simmons again says it's all about aspirations. "They really want to go home in the Phantom Rolls Royce too, but at this particular moment they cannot. So it satiates them to be able to have that fragrance. That's a piece of that world," she said.

"I'm not teaching the diamonds and the cars and the clothes as a value. I'm talking about ... business, I'm talking about self-confidence," she added.

That brings us to perhaps the main secret of Simmons' success: No matter how big you are -- there is always room to grow. Next year, Kimora comes out with her own line of cosmetics, a home collection, a more expensive clothing line and a how-to guide called "Fabulosity."

So, what's Simmons' goal for herself?

"I think it's my goal, as funny as this sounds, to be like Donatella Versace crossed with Martha Stewart. The Martha Stewart part of it is, sort of all things to everyone. But the Donatella Versace part of it is the over-the-top, the glamorous side of it. So it's sort of like I believe every woman's life should be chock full of glamour and fabulosity."

Generosity is another important part of Simmons' success. Simmons, who supports many charities, said, "The secret to acquiring wealth is to give it away and to share. I think the more that you give, the more that you get."