Kimora Lee was a fashion person before she was a celebrity. “I was discovered by Karl Lagerfeld,” she says. “My first major job was walking the Chanel runway. That was haute couture, the best introduction to fashion anyone could have.” By the time Lee retired from modeling in the early ’00s, she was married to Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons and designing the women’s line Baby Phat, a pink-and-sparkly spin-off of her husband’s popular Phat Farm brand, which helped define “urban fashion” in the 1990s. Along the way, though, Lee became more than just the wife of a mogul—more, even, than just a designer. She became a full-fledged celebrity, writing a hit self-help book—Fabulosity: What It Is and How to Get It—in 2006 and starring in the now-defunct Style Network’s Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane. She has spent more than half of her 40 years in the spotlight.
Lee and Simmons divorced in 2009, and just a year later, she parted ways with Kellwood, the company that now owns Baby Phat. A stint running shoe-subscription concept JustFab followed. But Lee wanted more. Newly remarried and with a baby on the way, the designer launched ready-to-wear line KLS in late 2014. (She and husband Tim Leissner welcomed son Wolfe Lee in April 2015.) On the celebrity-fashion-brand spectrum, the collection is less Kardashian Kollection and more Victoria Beckham. “KLS is representing clearly where I am in my life,” says Lee of the made-in-America range of $975 notched-lapel jackets, $1,550 curve-hugging power dresses and $1,100 plunging-neckline jumpsuits. “I’m a little more grown up. A little more, I hope, sophisticated.”
Going the upscale route is a tactic that has worked well for some other celebrities-turned–fashion designers, and Lee hopes to follow suit. Beckham, who launched her namesake collection in 2009, has earned accolades for her vision of understated chic, while Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen have transformed American sportswear with their award-winning collection The Row, established in 2007. The success of Beckham and the Olsens, though, has little to do with their celebrity, and everything to do with being determined—and, of course, well funded.
For those celebrities who make it as high-end designers, “this is their job—it’s the only thing they do,” explains Teri Agins, author of Hijacking the Runway: How Celebrities Are Stealing the Spotlight from Fashion Designers. “It’s not some sideline business.” Lee’s main gig has been fashion for more than 15 years. The trouble comes when fashion is not everything. Consider Katie Holmes and design partner/stylist Jeanne Yang, whose collection Holmes & Yang debuted in 2009 and was stocked at Barneys New York, but petered out in 2014 just five years after its inception so that Holmes could concentrate on acting again.
The most successful of these brands also fill a white space. Beckham mastered the form-fitting shift, while the Olsens created the perfect blazer. Lee, for her part, wants to appeal to working mothers with peplum-waist blouses and sleek high-waist trousers. “This collection is catering to the businesswoman version of myself,” she says.
But most important, they deliver fantastic goods. “Product is king,” Agins says. “Celebrity lines come and go, and they go if the product is not that great.” Poor execution seems to have driven the failure of the Kardashian Kollection, which Sears discontinued in the spring of 2015. Beyoncé’s House of Deréon line suffered a similar fate (although the superstar is set to design once again, collaborating with Topshop on an athletic-streetwear collection that will hit stores this fall). Lee hopes to differentiate KLS by keeping things local: The entire design process takes place in the USA. “The fabrication, the quality, the construction, the fit,” she says. “Everything about it is a little bit higher level.”
And yet none of it, she insists, is about being famous already. Lee doesn’t put herself in the same category as her fellow celebrity designers since she came up in fashion—and not, say, as an actress or musician. “In the beginning, the reason for me being famous was fashion,” Lee says. “I created a line, and created then some kind of fan base.” Still, very much like her boldfaced peers, she’s betting on those fans to buy her clothes, which are currently available through KLS’s e-commerce site and its first physical store, a “jewel box” on Beverly Drive that Lee helped design to feel like a Parisian apartment. After all, she says, “They trust my voice as a connoisseur of fine things.”