When I pull up to Alder Manor, the beautiful but abandoned mansion in Yonkers, NY, my Uber driver is just as curious as I am. “Is this an old boarding school?” he asks. “Does someone live here?” I tell him no, that I was actually here for a photoshoot. “And, you’re sure this is the place?” he says, concerned.
The day before Ming and Aoki Lee Simmons’s publicist had invited me to visit the set of the next Baby Phat ad campaign shoot, telling me that it would be a long drive, especially with the afternoon traffic (it took almost two hours — I napped), but they rented a mansion and it'd be worth it. I didn’t need convincing: I grew up fawning over extravagant Baby Phat campaigns. There was the one that starred Kimora as president of the United States, walking out of a replica Air Force One branded with the Baby Phat logo, her first daughters (Ming and Aoki) in tow. Another Morrocan-inspired one starred Aoki sitting on a camel, Ming looking through a gold telescope, and Kimora lounging on a chaise being waited on hand and foot. Needless to say I expected fabulosity. The mansion was grand (72 rooms and 22 acres), there were kittens wearing diamond necklaces (an ode to the brand’s cat logo), and I was later told that there would be a photoshoot with a blue Lamborghini. I was not disappointed.
While I was very much impressed by the grandiosity of it all, when I finally sat down with Ming and Aoki, getting their hair and makeup done (they were going for neon eyeshadow and silky straight extensions), they seem unfazed — at home, even. The girls knew exactly what to do on set: They’ve been in the spotlight since they were toddlers as the children of hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and model, designer, and entrepreneur Kimora Lee Simmons (she left the shoot up to the girls day-of as she was in Europe), not only modelling in Baby Phat campaigns, but walking the runway show finales hand-in-hand with their mother, being the faces of the brand’s short-lived kids collection Baby Phat Girlz, and making hilarious cameos on Kimora’s reality television show Life in the Fab Lane (which ran on E! from 2007–2011), where they got lessons in French (they both speak fluently now) and French cuisine and designed their own “Kiddie Couture” line.
“When we were children, the world that my mom brought us into, it wasn't a choice,” says Ming. “We did a lot of things that not a lot of other kids were doing. I would be like, ‘I can't go to this school thing because I have to go with my mom to a photo shoot.’”
On International Women’s Day in March, Kimora announced that she would be bringing back Baby Phat, which shutdown in 2011, with the help of her daughters, telling People, “it’s going to be an ode to the past but then they will pick it up where we left off.” In June, the brand dropped a surprise collection with Forever 21 that sold out in one day. And later this week, Baby Phat will launch its direct-to-consumer line, which Ming and Aoki describe to me as “full of throwbacks” but “sleeker.” According to the girls, the brand’s classic sweatsuit and denim are coming back. You should also expect sparkles, crop tops, neon and reflective fabrics, thigh high stiletto boots, and the softest velour zip-up that I’ve ever felt (I was lucky enough to try it on last month on the set of their Teen Vogue shoot). It’s a fitting time for Baby Phat to make a comeback as young people are clamoring for all things nostalgia: baby tees, bike shorts, tie-dye, velour, butterfly hair clips — the list goes on.
At the time of its launch nearly 20 years ago, Baby Phat was something of an anomaly. Kimora was the first to carve out a space for women in the high-end streetwear realm. Never apologizing for her over-the-top nature or her vision, she blessed millions of women and girls with bomber jackets, baby tees, and velour sweatsuits (Baby Phat also had a signature fragrance). While the private jets and mansions weren’t accessible to everyone, the idea that luxury doesn’t have to look a certain way is something that still resonates. As Ming put it: “Baby Phat was one of the first lifestyle brands, before lifestyle brands were a thing. That idea that everyone deserves (and can have!) luxury is what we’re all about.”
Ming and Aoki both post throwback photos on Instagram of their mom, who’s accomplishments they seem in awe of. But it’s clear that they also remember their part in Baby Phat a bit differently, cringingly telling me about the “awful” time they were on a billboard near their school.
“On the drive to school all the kids would see it, and they would make fun of us. They would go, ‘Why are you up there?’ or ‘Oh, you look funny.’ It wasn't the best thing to ever happen, but I think that it definitely opened our eyes to this whole world where you could be really creative and be who you wanted to be,” says Ming.
Aoki agrees. “It definitely made us bolder because whether you slump your shoulders and hide in the back or you stand tall and smile, you're going to be on the billboard anyway. So you might as well own it, smile big, and just go for it because whether you like it or not, you are in the public eye.”
Nowadays, Ming, 19, and Aoki, 17, are exploring what the spotlight could look like on their own terms. They both have huge Instagram followings (Ming has 1.1 million and Aoki has 546,000 followers), but they are decidedly different about what they share, their individual personalities shining through.
On Instagram, Aoki shares book recommendations (which, this summer, included André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name and Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad), family vacation photos, prom photos, and short stories and poetry she writes on an app called Watt. Earlier this year she called out a racist classmate for calling her (and other black classmates) the N-word. Her bio reads: “Harvard ‘23, Writer, Activist” with the MLK quote: “Everybody can be great because anyone can serve.” Aoki wants to be president one day. She’s already running for undergraduate council at Harvard University, where she just started as a freshman late last month, majoring in economics and classics.
Ming’s Instagram is filled with hilarious captions (like a photo of her in Balenciaga dad sneakers with the caption: “My mom hates these shoes”), and lots and lots of selfies. She posts photos from her work as a part-time model (this year she collaborated on a swimsuit with Nessy Swimwear and last year she was on the cover of Galore), influencer ads (she’s had partnerships with Verizon and Lexus), and selfies with her lashes always intact. She also writes heartfelt odes to her little sister, like a series of Legally Blonde clips to congratulate Aoki on her acceptance to Harvard, or, most recently, a post for Aoki’s 17th birthday. “8/16/2002 the day I thought you ruined my life,” the post read. “I was so good at being an only child, I literally got everything I wanted and I never had to share. But as soon as mom put you in my arms I loved you so much….” Her Instagram bio reads: “(insert whatever inspiration quote my sister has in bio).”
Ming wants to be a fashion designer, telling me that growing up she developed a love for fashion by looking at (and sometimes stealing) the clothes in her mother’s closet. “Just being in her closet is literally the heart of fashion,” she says. Ming is majoring in fashion and business at New York University and is already designing clothes for the new Baby Phat collections, going to the office in NYC to work after classes. She's considering law school to learn more about running a company, a recommendation from her mom.
“Baby Phat was one of the first lifestyle brands, before lifestyle brands were a thing. That idea that everyone deserves (and can have!) luxury is what we’re all about.”
Together, Ming and Aoki have a hilariously infectious energy and back-and-forth banter that makes anyone who doesn’t have a sister want one and anyone who does want to give theirs a phone call. The two, who grew up in Los Angeles, are happy that they are now both on the east coast for school. When I ask them about their relationship dynamic and what they go to each other for advice on, Ming tells me that Aoki, who is obsessed with classics and translates Latin and Greek for fun, helped her once with a class on Plato. Aoki says that Ming often dresses her.
“I don't dress you. You just steal from my closet and it makes me really upset,” says Ming, rolling her eyes. “She's my involuntary stylist, I've hired her without her knowing about it,” says Aoki.
“Sometimes when I'm home [in LA] I'll be laying in bed, and she'll just be like, ‘What do I wear?’ And I'm like, ‘I have this, that would go great with this.’ And then she'll wear it,” says Ming.
“She's extremely helpful. I do offer to lend her my cargo pants. She doesn't usually want them, but I have them. That's an option for you. These are archeology clothes, but I have them for you,” says Aoki, laughing.
Now, working at Baby Phat, Ming and Aoki’s different personalities are reflected in their roles. They both collaborate on the ideas for the brand with their mother asking what they, themselves want to wear. If there are disagreements Kimora let’s them work it out amongst themselves.
“It definitely made us bolder because whether you slump your shoulders and hide in the back or you stand tall and smile, you're going to be on the billboard anyway. So you might as well own it, smile big, and just go for it because whether you like it or not, you are in the public eye.”
But Ming has more of a handle on the design process. She always has a notepad to jot ideas down, and tells me that their mood boards had “metallic accents, some chunky chains, and oversized hoodie dresses paired with contrasting accessories like a thigh high stiletto boot.” Reflecting on her work, she says, “Every step and every new piece brings me back to the conclusion that this is what I want to be doing.”
Aoki, on the other hand, is focused on the budget (she tells me she’s always texting and calling Ming to talk about finances) and making the brand as sustainable as possible. “Selling Baby Phat direct-to-consumer through our website plays a big part in the sustainability conversation,” she says. “It cuts out a lot of inventory issues and waste created from traditional retail.”
“My mom leaves it up to us, not to say that she doesn't do anything, but I think she knows that we got it,” says Ming. “If there's ever a dispute, she doesn't get into it. She's like, ‘I think you're old enough to figure it out,’ so we'd work with each other a lot, and bounce ideas off of each other. And, usually it ends up being a blend.”
Photographed by Heather Hazzan
Styling: Michelle Li
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue