July 01, 2002 12:00 PM

In their personal lives business titan Russell Simmons and his wife, former cover girl Kimora Lee Simmons, seem to be of two minds about nearly everything. They have separate refrigerators (he’s a vegan, she loves meat), divergent schedules (he’s up at 5 a.m. for yoga; she never works out) and polar parenting styles. He’s teaching their daughter Ming, 2, to meditate, while she wants to be sure Ming learns the importance of “matching her Dolce & Gabbana pants with her Dolce & Gabbana shoes.”

That Mars vs. Venus approach also applies to Phat Fashions, their $225 million clothing company. “We’re very competitive,” says Kimora. “It makes us try harder.”

And it’s made them very successful: In May the firm marked its 10th anniversary. It started out as Phat Farm, the mid-price men’s sportswear line that boasts a Hamptons/hip-hop look, including baggy argyle sweaters and jeans made from shiny denim. A favorite of Eminem and Kobe Bryant, the label has grown to include fragrances and footwear. In 1999 it gave birth to Baby Phat, the women’s line that Kimora designs, attracting singers like Alicia Keys and Pink to clothes classified as “bodylicious” ($24 hip-hugger shorts) and “fast girls” ($36 stretch tube tops). “It’s street and very sexy,” says designer Tommy Hilfiger, “the new American classic.”

One that’s expanding via stores like Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, as well as more than 3,000 clothing shops and two Phat Farm boutiques (in New York City and Montreal). In May, Kimora launched a Baby Phat jewelry line and will soon branch into cosmetics.

Crossing boundaries and blending cultures is something both Russell, 44, and Kimora, 27 and expecting their second child in October, know a lot about. Her striking looks, which have landed her on the cover of European Vogue, come from her Japanese-American mother and African-American father. Russell’s role as founder and CEO of Rush Communications—which oversees a music label (Def Jam Recordings) and a movie production company (Def Pictures), among other holdings—has earned the couple entree into the Establishment. They dine with Peter Jennings and count Donald Trump and Kennedy cousin Bobby Shriver among their friends.

At the same time Russell has held on to his street credibility. “We call him the godfather of hip hop,” says Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. “He’s who I wanted to grow up and be like.”

Russell wasn’t always role model material. The second of three sons raised in Queens, N.Y., by Daniel, 78, a retired college professor, and Evelyn, a recreation director for the New York City Parks Department who died in 1994, Russell grew up two blocks from a notorious drug hangout. Despite seeing his older brother Danny get hooked on heroin, Russell started dealing drugs at 13; three years later, as he recounts in his autobiography, Life and Def, he shot at and nearly killed a punk who had robbed him.

Fortunate to escape jail time despite two arrests (he got probation), Russell enrolled at Manhattan’s City College in 1975, just as rap was emerging. He befriended a number of party promoters and began booking shows for artists like Kurtis Blow. In 1983, having dropped out of college and launched younger brother Joey (now 37 and an ordained Baptist minister) as “Run” in the legendary rap act Run-DMC, Russell founded Def Jam, which today represents Jay-Z and Foxy Brown. A personal connection also inspired his 1992 creation of Phat Fashions. “Russell got into fashion,” says Danny Simmons, 48, sober since the 1970s and a successful visual artist, “because of his interest in models.”

In Kimora he got more than a trophy wife. Raised in St. Louis by Joanne Kyoko Syng, 50, a district manager for the Social Security Administration (Kimora is estranged from her father, who never married her mother), the future catwalk star hit 5’8″ by age 10 and became the object of schoolyard taunts. “People called me the chinky giraffe,” she recalls.

To help her insecure daughter develop confidence, Syng enrolled her in a modeling workshop when she was 11. At 13, she hit the Paris runways, becoming the face of Chanel under designer Karl Lagerfeld. “Everything people thought was weird about me before,” Kimora says, “was now good.”

In November ’92, during New York City’s Fashion Week, Kimora met Russell. She was 17 and finishing high school; he was 35 and a self-admitted “dog”—as in hound dog—around women. “I was skeptical,” says model Tyra Banks, Kimora’s close friend. “But she turned the man about town into a loving husband and papa.”

And while they’re no Ozzie and Harriet, Kimora, at least, feels a kinship with another TV couple. Sitting in the living room of their 50,000-sq.-ft. house perched on four acres in Saddle River, N.J., and serviced by a butler, nanny, live-in maid and full-time chef, she turns to Russell and says, “You are like Ozzy Osbourne.”

“What are you talking about?” he responds.

“You could be Ozzy,” she insists.

Russell disagrees: “It’d be boring if they taped us. My life is boring.”

Now there’s something everyone will disagree with him about.

Galina Espinoza

Bob Meadows in Saddle River

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