Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Her Favorite Things

This month, the fashion magazines are blessedly thick with ads—page after page of hot, naughty models in various states of intimacy and undress. (Kate Moss alone models knickers for Dior and appears in black stockings and garters for Opium perfume and a skimpy bathing suit for Missoni, in the jungle.) But there are only so many stories to tell in any naked city, especially ones involving sex and foliage. In this sophisticated and edgy subculture, no one cares about flashing a bejeweled boob. In fashion advertising, it has to be really transgressive to get noticed.

What’s left?

Years back, Guess hinted at oral sex in an ad, and two years ago Gucci showed a model’s pubic hair (in a branded G shape). Candie’s has been reduced to putting Jenny McCarthy on the toilet for the second time—and it’s less memorable than the first.

So I give major props to Kimora Lee Simmons, because her ad in this month’s Elle stopped me dead in my tracks. She’s the creative director for Baby Phat, the cleverly named women’s and kids’ division of Phat Farm, the clothing company founded by her husband, Russell Simmons.

Fearlessly tackling the last taboo, this decadent Baby Phat ad rocks the final frontier: featuring your Latina maid, in her beige and white uniform, in your family tableau.

It’s an interesting picture. On the one hand, it recalls the Clampetts in front of their house with the various maids and butlers and Jethro and Miss Jane Hathaway (itself a parody of photographs of great English country estates.) On the other, more fine-art-photography side, it evokes this season’s ad for The Sopranos, with some bodies underground and family members staring straight at the camera, in various levels of disconnectedness.

Here, the housekeeper stands in the left margin, next to a pillar, holding a deflated giraffe toy and wearing a semi-hostile expression, as Kimora flanks the other pillar, in skin-tight head-to-toe Baby Phat denim and gold. Her two adorable daughters (the older one has exactly her mom’s look of determination) are on the marble in the middle.

Another spread in Vogue shows Kimora sitting open-legged on her dining-room table, with one daughter falling asleep and the other sitting in a booster seat. Under an enormous crystal chandelier that could have hung in the czar’s palace, she shows off her gold table settings, which originally belonged to the late designer Gianni Versace. Showing the highest form of flattery toward the flatwear, she sits on it.

There are six ads in all, all shot at her actual 49,000-square-foot, 20-bathroom mansion in Saddle River, N.J., decorated in gold, silk, marble and animal prints, where she employs five maids, four assistants (one is in charge of her closet full-time), two live-in nannies, a chef and two drivers.

It’s true that Kimora Lee Simmons is the embodiment and the heart and soul of her brand, and that the urban “girls” who wear the brand want to see her in her natural habitat. These are not stupid ads—it makes total sense on a limited budget to feature the gorgeous Kimora herself. At 6-feet-4 in her towering Manolos, she’s over-the-top, in-your-face and ghetto-fabulous enough for any 12 designers. So why not work it? Plus, hip-hop culture is completely brazen about money and status symbols—it’s all about the bling.

But here’s the rub—a bit of hip-hop hypocrisy. Russell Simmons regularly lectures everybody on social values and justice and corporate America’s ignorance and insensitivity. I don’t have any argument there. But he also tends to fume publicly if anyone describes his wife as a tad materialistic. (She also gave an enthusiastic tour of her house to MTV’s Cribs.)

“Every other week it’s the same thing, and I’m upset about it, and she’s upset about it,” Simmons told the New York Daily News. “Does anyone care about Donatella Versace’s extravagance or Karl Lagerfeld’s? This is all because Kimora is an African American Asian woman. It’s as if they think she’s undeserving.”

Au contraire, Russell is a marketing genius who practically invented hip-hop, and Kimora started as a runway model at 13. They damn well deserve every hard-earned cent.

But back to what he said. Donatella Versace is a caricature who, for good reason, is regularly massacred on Saturday Night Live. Moreover, to compare an American designer with a Versace is not the point. Europeans have a history of royalty, of class-riddled society, of aristocrats with great fortunes and great histories of cruelty and corruption along with the gold and the yachts. Whereas America is all about the anti-imperial, having democratic roots and at least selling the idea of equality to everyone. Americans also have a history of making fun of rich, overbearing, ostentatious white people. Leona Helmsley is the only female brand I ever remember being photographed with uniformed “staff” in an ad. As I recall, they were cowering.

Then there’s Simmons’ pal, Donald Trump. Until The Apprentice, where he gets to show a more likeable (if still endlessly self-promoting) side, he came off as an unbearably high-handed, humorless blowhard who is extremely self-deluded about his hair.

So in America, we get to make fun of Elvis-like ostentation. Kimora is a supermodel who is beautiful and obviously creative, talented and exuberant. But there’s nothing inclusive about using your maid (who may or may not be a woman of color), in her starched uniform, as a prop in your ad, while you preside over your empire in your jeans. It could easily be seen as arrogant and insensitive. Definitely not phat or def or cool.