Russell Simmons, head of clothing company Phat Farm, likes to keep his business close to home when he can. His driver, Kenny Lee, is a childhood friend. Several employees came to him through personal recommendations, a few from his old neighborhood. One, Myorr Janha, vice-president for marketing, started out as an intern. And now Simmons is working with his wife, Kimora Lee, and his younger brother, Joey, who was the star rapper Run of the group Run-DMC.
Simmons was living large in the mid-1990s. Then he discovered yoga and met 17-year-old model Lee, and both began to take hold of him. He gave up drinking and smoking, quit eating meat, and gave up fur, too (much to Lee's dismay). Lee, born to a Japanese-American mother and African-American father in St. Louis, started modeling when she was 12, became the haute courtier Karl Lagerfeld's muse when she was just 13, and had been on the runways in Europe ever since. Today, she's an exuberantly confident woman who proudly announces that she's one of Louis Vuitton's biggest customers and will soon have a diamond named after her.
Simmons courted her for five years, breaching fashion-show etiquette by standing up and applauding every time she appeared on the runway. They married on the Caribbean island of St. Bart's in 1998. Russell's brother, Reverend Run by then, officiated at the ceremony and when it came to their vows, ad-libbed: "Do you take this man for richer or richer.... He couldn't have gotten her if he was poor."
The turn of the century proved to be an important turning point for Phat Farm. Simmons became more serious in purpose and decided to expand into women's clothes and athletic wear. For each of these he had ready partners: his new wife and his brother.
At first, Simmons tried to design the Baby Phat women's line on his own. "I came in on the first meeting and told him it all had to go," says Lee. "It was terrible, all baggy. So he said, as he often does, 'Well, just handle it.'"
And so she did. "I wanted the companies to parallel each other in the way we do," she says. "He's the classic guy: khakis and golf sweaters. I'm young, sassy, and sexy. I want it short and tight. We're partners because we're married, but that's where it ends. I have my own creative direction for women."
Baby Phat today also includes a girls' line (two daughters, three-year-old Ming Lee and one-year-old Aoki Lee, are the models) and is sold in department stores around the country. It will soon branch out into lingerie. What Lee wants, though, is for you to have Baby Phat pillows, paint, "everything you need to make your life fabulous."
She is, Simmons says, very much like he used to be: fiery, obstinate, fiercely competitive with those around her. In this case, that would be with him. Lee was thrilled when her Motorola (MOT ) phone sold out before his. When he came out with an energy soda, she wanted a bottled coffee. When Simmons advised her not to bother learning how to sing, she hired a voice coach, recorded a song, and will be giving it away to Baby Phat customers over the holidays. And at their annual Art for Life benefit, held at their home in East Hampton each July and which this year raised $1.1 million, she tried to outbid him for a one-year lease on a Volvo SUV.
Simmons' relationship with his other business partner, Reverend Run, couldn't be more different. Last year, the two brothers decided to launch Run Athletics, a clothing and sneaker line that's in stores now. Reverend Run became a half-owner and took on the title of president of Phat Farm Footwear. "But Russell is the boss, let me get that correct," he says. "I am under authority."
It has been a fitting reprise for the man who once sang about his Adidas. As Run says: "One of my blessings is that I can sell sneakers." A percentage of the company's profits, he's not sure how much, go to efforts to educate people about the issue of reparations for African Americans. And since one of the Run-DMC trio, Jam Master Jay, was shot and killed last year, Run now has plenty of time to travel around the country with Simmons talking to kids about how to start a business.
Run's turn to religion came after what he calls a day of extreme consumption while on tour with Run-DMC. He was in the hotel tub, eating French toast, smoking dope, and getting his hair cut while waiting for his Rolls Royce. "I was sitting there with syrup and ashes in the tub and realized there had to be more to life than this." He soon founded Zoë Ministries Community Congregation. He would say the church found him: "I did God so well that they made me a deacon, then a minister, then a father."
Now, Run walks around in a collar and Hermes shoes, drives a Bentley with Rev. Won vanity plates, and wears a $30,000 Grimoldi diamond watch that he took right off the wrist of the company's chief executive, Antonio Piredda, at a party. "Giving up everything is not going to bring you closer to God," the Reverend says. "When you give, you keep receiving. My company is all about the assist. My life is all about giving."
By Susan Berfield in New York