Kimora Lee was one of the first real identifiable Asian beauties in fashion. Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, and known as the “Chinky Giraffe”, Kimora’s good looks and good fortune brought her into the world of modeling. At 13, Kimora was awarded an exclusive modeling contract with Chanel.
Eventually, Kimora fell in love with and married Russell Simmons, and had Ming Lee, 9 and Aoki Lee, 6. Always one for fashion, when Russell stepped down as CEO of Phat Fashions LLC in September 2007, Kimora, who was already Creative Director of Baby Phat (which was a branch off Phat Farm Industries), was promoted to President and Creative Director of Phat Fashions.
In addition to that, Kimora Lee is a reality star, author, Barbie and is expecting baby number 3 with boyfriend Djimon Hounsou.
ASIANCE: With Korean ancestry from your mother’s side, do you feel that Korean culture is an important aspect of your life and your identity?
KLS: Absolutely, my mom is Korean-Japanese and she has always instilled the Asian culture in me. I am very connected to my roots because it’s important to have that be a part of your identity. I grew up eating Korean food, and still do to this day. Kimchi and bulgogi [Korean BBQ] are my favorite! As for my daughters, Ming Lee and Aoki, I want them to know that culture as well.
ASIANCE: How did you learn to deal with being different from the other children growing up in a mostly African American community?
KLS: I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and my community was either African American or White. So being part Asian and Black put me in the “weird” category. Not only that, but I had strange hair and was extremely tall compared to all the other kids. I began to embrace it when I began modeling for Karl Lagerfield at 13-years-old. Even though it was tough being teased for being different, it gave me strength to face adversity and turn it into a positive aspect in my life. I made it work for me and eventually came to celebrate the hardships.
ASIANCE: Working under Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld must have been such an incredible experience. But what effect did working in such a scrutinizing industry have on you at such a young age?
KLS: The fashion industry can be really cruel. But it gave me the opportunity to travel and see the world when I was just a teen. It taught me to respect other people and their cultures. From talking to other people in different countries, I developed a better understanding of life and of myself. As hard as it was to work in such a harsh industry, it has made me the woman that I am today.
ASIANCE: As President of Phat Fashions and your own lines, Baby Phat, KSL, and Fabulosity, you set such a great example for women everywhere who aspire to be a leader or entrepreneur. How do you manage all those aspects of your career and your personal life as well?
KLS: Well I was the Creative Director of Phat Fashions and recently became the President of the company. I’m excited about the position because I can further influence the direction of Phat Fashions and take it to the next level. But work comes after God and my family. Honestly, it is a big challenge to juggle work and my personal life, but I love what I do so much that fashion has become my life as well. I am very dedicated to my brand and to my two girls.
ASIANCE: In Korea, at least to some people, having a professional career means having to sacrifice the idea of raising a family. What are your thoughts on that?
KLS: You should never sacrifice the idea of raising a family for a career. I have a lot of successful friends who choose to wait because they are too busy with work. But I tell them that family is not something that you can push back. You can’t time it out perfectly. It is easy to become addicted to your career, but having a family is so fulfilling and will give a new meaning to life that your job could never provide. I believe that young people can have it all. As long as you have a good support system, it can be done.
ASIANCE: Do you design for the woman that you just described above?
KLS: Yes, I design for women who are fun and expressive with her choices. I want the clothes to make them feel sexy and confident, even when they may not feel that way at times. I create a coat of armor to help her tackle the world. It’s not about the diamond rings and the expensive shoes, as I wrote in my book Fabulosity, but about have a strong spirit and sense of self. I want women to feel like they can do anything. What we wear is a form of nonverbal communication and it helps us express ourselves.
ASIANCE: Do you feel that women are too often judged by their appearances and simply by what they are wearing and how they look?
KLS: Women are judged a lot by their appearances but they should embrace it. Every woman’s fashion choices allow her to elaborate on her personality and style. I’m not saying to get carried away with it though because we should all be well-equipped with an intelligent mental state underneath the clothes too.
Kimora gets Feng Shuied
ASIANCE: Where do you find your inspiration?
KLS: Art imitates life and life imitates art. A lot of the times, I find inspiration from people on the street. It’s funny because people will stop to tell me that I have inspired them to become an entrepreneur or to pursue fashion. But they don’t know that I’m inspired by them in return. Each person has overcome many obstacles in their life and their stories are unique and encouraging.
ASIANCE: What is a typical day like for you?
KLS: I hardly sleep! I wake up at 6:30am with my girls and send them off to school. Then I’m off to meetings and photo shoots, and more meetings! I work through the night and am always on my Blackberry. With such hectic days, it’s really hard to take time to relax and meditate for even 20 minutes because I have so many things that need to be done.
ASIANCE: It seems like you already do it all, but do you have any other projects that you would like to take on? What is the next step for you?
KLS: I would like to do more in the world of television and film production. I am the executive producer of my own show, Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane, and it’s a lot of fun. I’m currently working on my fifth fragrance that is coming out in spring. And even though I’m still pretty young, I want to write a memoir because I have been through so much and want to share it with others.
ASIANCE: How long does it take to plan for New York Fashion Week? Do you enjoy all the work and commotion surrounding it?
KLS: It is beyond hectic but I love it. I was at my office until 11:30pm last night, but my staff works so hard and I am so blessed to work with bright and intelligent people who love what they do as well. I show two collections during New York Fashion Week, and I put it behind me when it’s over. I have to constantly shift toward the next season and go on to new colors, fabrics, and trends. My designs are always evolving. I deliver new designs for my lines every month, so I can never be stuck in the past.
ASIANCE: If you weren’t working in fashion, what else would you be doing?
KLS: I really want to go to law school or medical school. My friends and family call me their resident doctor because I can usually tell them what’s wrong with their health and the symptoms that they have. It may sound funny but I just know these things.
ASIANCE: What obstacles have you overcome to get to where you are today?
KLS: I am the only multi-ethnic woman with my own fashion empire. Running my own business takes a lot of work and that says a lot about my entrepreneurialship. I have lost my loved ones, gone through a divorce 3 years ago that I never thought I would recover from, and am raising 2 girls as a single mother. Even with all the obstacles in my life, I appreciate what God has given me. I do the best that I can and try to share that with my family and other people.
ASIANCE: Climbing to the top must not have been easy for you. Do you believe that women are still battling many inequalities and that it is more difficult for women to succeed in this world?
KLS: People often think that just because I’m beautiful, that I’m not smart so they don’t take me seriously. And some men think that they can do my job better than I can. So yes, it is more difficult for women to succeed, but I do believe that times are also changing. I was very inspired when Hillary Clinton ran for President, and now she is the Secretary of State. This just proves that women are very dynamic. Now is the time for women to do it all. It might take more effort, but we can prove that.
ASIANCE: Even though Hillary Clinton didn’t win the elections, did you ever think that you would witness in your lifetime, the son of an African man become President of the United States?
KLS: I knew that it was coming, but I never knew that it would be now. I am so glad that our country has made that stride. Overall, it’s time for change and I’m happy that my daughters are now a part of this history. Barack Obama becoming President sends a wonderful message to the world that we can transcend the color issue.
ASIANCE: Are politics a big part of your life?
KLS: I fought for Barack Obama and I am mindful of politics but it is not a big part of my life. I pay attention to what is going on in the world, and that is the very least that people can do. Be informed and educated.
ASIANCE: In what ways do you give back to the community and help others who are struggling?
KLS: I was recently in Mexico City working with programs that give out toys to orphans and help improve the schools there. It’s so important to spread the education, wealth, and time to others who need it. I’m involved in several organizations that provide young children in Africa with healthcare and ones that help in the AIDS effort.
ASIANCE: What if people do not have the means to travel to other countries to volunteer? What do you think a person can do on a smaller scale to help those in need?
KLS: You don’t have to travel to Africa or donate lots of money. Start by adopting an animal from a shelter or donating clothes and toys to shelters. Especially in this bad economy, people need your time and your efforts. Volunteer at the hospital or work with young children. Even more basic than that, smile at strangers on the street because that can truly make a difference in their day. It’s very important for people to know that!
ASIANCE: Looking back, is there anything in your life that you would change? Have you done all the things that you have wanted to do?
KLS: I would never change a thing about myself. Every individual’s struggles are unique, whether with family, health, financial, or anything else. Our struggles are a part of us. And my life is just beginning! I still have many dreams and aspirations. I look forward to the future and celebrating what is ahead of me.
Catherine Yan is currently living in Los Angeles with hopes of leading a bustling bi-coastal lifestyle between California and New York some time in the near future. As an enthusiast of all things pertaining to art, Catherine is always in search of her latest inspirations as well as obsessions. Watch, see, read, and hear about them on Twitter @CatherineYan.
Kimora Lee photos by Dani Brubaker