Nieces of hip hop mogul and lifestyle entrepreneur Russell Simmons and Rev Run’s daughters, Angela and Vanessa Simmons have carved their own path and created their own success as businesswomen with their sneaker line, Pastry.
Eniola and I spoke to Angela and Vanessa over cupcakes and tea (with Niran and DJB on deck to take pictures/drool at the girls), about fashion, business, and being more than just heiresses to hip hop royalty.
The Simmons family has been impacting popular culture for the last two decades, with Joseph ‘Rev Run’ Simmons being a part of one of hip hop’s first superstar groups, Run DMC, Russell Simmons being a pioneer in hip hop’s shift from being an inner-city music culture to being a global lifestyle, and his former wife Kimora Lee Simmons’ line Baby Phat making waves in fashion.
Surrounded by such muses, it’s easy to see how Angela and Vanessa would draw inspiration for their own success.
“We always were able to go around with them to different meetings and see how it really runs, and we really took a liking to doing this sort of thing.” Vanessa explained, “It’s definitely inspired me a whole lot, and it’s definitely something that I do because I enjoy it; I don’t do it because I feel like I have to, I do it because I want to and I feel it’s the same for Angela.”
An obvious casualty of hailing from a family like the Simmons is public perception. We ask the girls how they respond to the assumption that their success was handed to them.
“That’s the normal thing to hear at this point. But it’s getting kind of old.” Angela says with an easy shrug. “I think that it’s crazy that someone can sit there and think, ‘oh it’s been handed to them.’ Of course we have the last name, but its taken work to get where we’ve gotten and we’re still working towards our goals. I think it’s ridiculous to say that we’ve just been given everything without having any proof of that.
I think we had it a little bit easier because the context was right there, yes, but then we could have sat back and said ‘we don’t want to work, we just want live under what was already built’. We already have that ambition so we work and strive towards what we want to get done.”
Vanessa says, “I think that success can’t be given. It has to be something that an individual person wants to obtain. Success is not given.”
She adds, “We had enough context, we had a whole lot of great inspiration growing up – our family; they’ve led by example, and the only thing we could do is just kind of look and learn from there and try to make our own way. Success can’t be given; that’s ridiculous, no one can go ‘here!’
People always had opinions, before Runs House, before everything – people in school, growing up, [saying], ‘why does she walk like this, why does she do this.’ I didn’t ask for that type of attention but I guess it helps propel us in putting Pastry together and turning all of that negative attention into positivity.”
As well as their social status, the girls also found that their young age gave them even more to prove in the fashion industry. Citing that as their other biggest challenge, Vanessa explains, “There’s a lot of people who have been in this business for a very long time and are very good at what they do, and they’re kind of apprehensive and wondering what we can bring to the table. But I think what we bring to the table, besides our style factor, is that we’re out there and we are shopping with the consumer and we know what they want, because we ARE our. So what we bring to the table is fresh, new ideas, and talent, and a desire to want to grow, and a desire for our company to be successful and a desire for our company to be a big lifestyle brand.”
With these challenges in mind, Eniola asks the girls what their main tips are for other young, female entrepreneurs starting out.
“I think everybody’s recipe’s a little different, but the main thing is staying focused on your passion and sticking to what you love. There are so many steps in being successful that it just takes time. Stay true to yourself, because if you lose that you lose your brand. Sticking to your passion, following through, being organised, staying on top of your area, staying driven, staying inspired,” Angela advises.
Now role models themselves, we ask the girls to reflect on the people beyond their immediate family circle who inspired them growing up.
“Growing up I looked to Kimora [Lee Simmons] a lot because she was there,” Vanessa says. “I was only about 10 years old when I met her, she’s been around for so long. She’s so driven, she’s such a business savvy woman and she’s focused.”
Angela, who had dreams of becoming a fashion designer since she was nine years old, sought much of her inspiration in established label-makers. “I think most designers that start from the bottom and work their way up have interesting stories so [people] like Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford and Stella McCartney – I love her work ethic and what she comes from, and how her dad’s huge but she worked really hard to get what she wanted. And she still does, her company’s huge.”
Bringing the discussion back to Pastry, we’re keen to find out what Angela and Vanessa actually do in their company, and just how hands on they really are.
“I started out being really interested in the business side of things because I went to St Johns and I left with a degree in communications and business so I was really into marketing. I think marketing is so much fun, so I like getting involved with things like that.” Aside from naturally being the marketer of the two, Vanessa also enjoys the design aspect. “I definitely like [creating] different concepts for sneakers, or coming up with different designs that I think are moving forward in the fashion world as far as trends. I just always try to keep it innovative and fun. We have that opportunity with this brand, it’s all about girls being able to be themselves and have fun and be fabulous in a pair of trainers.”
After we all laugh at Vanessa’s very British use of the word ‘trainers’ rather than ‘sneakers’, Angela adds, “Running a company you have to know how to juggle everything. You end up doing a lot. Like, you can have a huge team but when you have a company you have to know how to do everything.”
“Very multifaceted.” Vanessa chips in.
“My favourite part of the business though, for me, is the design.” Angela says.
Both heavily involved in the design and concepts, the girls exercise creative control within Pastry’s team, which Angela cites as ‘quite intimate’.
“We feel comfortable with doing something creative and going back and forth, and being like ‘oh, we hate this.’ We’re honest with people. Especially in a company where it’s your name, it’s what you’re putting out, it’s a representation of you so it’s kind of important it stays true to how you started the company.” Vanessa says.
Staying current in just as important as staying true to the brand in fashion, a task which the girls recognise isn’t easy.
“ You got to stay up with all the trends, which is why it’s really important to have somebody that’s constantly doing that. I can’t sit here and lie and say that everyday I’m looking for trends. We have somebody great at that who finds all these trends, and is constantly designing and coming up with new ideas,” Angela says. “But it’s very important, as you can fall really behind. You got to know what’s going on, you got to be ahead of the curve, you got to put your own spin on things, you can’t just carbon copy what’s already out there.”
“That is not cool, that’s a big faux pas in fashion.” Vanessa chimes in.
Pastry’s recent expansion has seen the sneaker brand collaborating with a number of different brands and artists. Sixteen year old pop songbird Jessica Jarrell serves as the main brand ambassador, and London’s very own grime emcee Mz Bratt is also working with the girls.
However, it is the collaborations with Hello Kitty and Mattel which will have the biggest corporate impact on the Pastry brand.
“Pastry came such a long way from the first four pairs of sneakers that we designed. This Hello Kitty [collaboration] is particularly exciting because I’m a big fan of Hello Kitty. I used to have all the stuff growing up, all the school supplies – I was Hello Kitty groupie. I’m such a fan of the brand so it’s such an honour to collaborate with them. And we’ve been honoured to collaborate with Mattel and Barbie, which is really exciting because the Barbies are dressed head-to-toe in Pastry gear. So it’s slowly starting to happen where we’re collaborating with more and more companies that I’d never have imagined, and as a little girl I enjoyed.” Vanessa says.
Frequent visitors to London, the girls are continually expanding their business in the city. Aside from their forthcoming collaboration with Mz Bratt, Pastry shoes are now being stocked in a plethora sports and urban shops since they first landed in UK Footlockers in 2009. We ask if they would think about opening a store in the city.
“Well, we haven’t quite got our first store yet, but definitely, opening a store out here would be a good place to start.” Angela says easily, while Vanessa muses on the idea.
“A big, nice, flagship store…” Vanessa grins.
“You guys show us a lot of love and support.” Angela says.
“… I think a store would be great…” Vanessa‘s smile grows wider.
“It’d be fun.” Angela agrees.
Vanessa continues her store planning, “…Just pink, and cool, and cupcakes…we need to get a pastry section or something. Maybe set up something near Topshop. Because when I come here I definitely need to have access to Topshop right away.”
This leads into a major gushing session over Oxford Street’s flagship Topshop between the girls. While Topshop is undoubtedly Angela and Vanessa’s favourite high street shop in London, they also cite Selfridges, Harrods, Office and River Island as favourites.
“And I like how the stores here have completely different things that you wouldn’t find over in the US. Like the Urban Outfitters, or the H&M, it’s completely different.” Vanessa says.
The girls’ knowledge of London style extends beyond the high street, as we attempt to recommend some of the city’s cool fashion spots, such as Brick Lane and Camden Market, but Angela appeared to have already found them all, with her even being privy to streetwear brands such as Trapstar.
“I’ve been here so many times, four times this year alone, that now I’m like ‘Heathrow feels like LAX!’” Angela laughs.
With style as different as their separate personalities, we ask the girls to explain their individual looks.
“I like timeless pieces, pieces that I can use forever and I always like adding a little something trendy or edgy to it. But I’m pretty classic, chic, timeless stuff.” Vanessa says.
“My style is…different. I think fashion is confidence and you kind of wear it on your sleeve. It goes with however you feel, and if you feel like you can pull it off then you can pull it off. The day you feel like a jerk everybody thinks you are.” Angela says.
“Style is just about being comfortable with who you are, and expressing yourself.” Vanessa adds.
“I wear confidence. I change it up, I’m rocker, I’m chic, I’m this, I’m that, I’m all over the place. I’m all over the map with my clothes. Fashion is fun.” Says Angela.
“Fashion is fun, style is kind of personal – what you bring to fashion. That’s style,” is Vanessa‘s afterthought.
After spending half an hour with the girls, who are clearly as different as chalk and cheese, yet share a natural camaraderie and closeness, we ask as our final question, “So…sisters working together…?”
Before we finish the question Vanessa says, “We get this all the time.”
“It can [get complex]! You got to know how to turn it off and on! When it’s work time and when it’s family time.” Angela says.
“It’s ridiculous [at times] because we can have a big sister fight in the hotel when we’re away for work, and then we’ll have to reign it in and get along. Which is probably for the best.” Vanessa muses.
Angela agrees, “Yeah, it works out cool because when you work with somebody that you’ve grown up with your whole life and you’re blood, it’s just easier. I’m not about to lie to her, I can say, ‘I didn’t like that!’ instead of being gentle.”
“Yeah, it’s easier to tell her.” Vanessa nods.
Angela laughs, “I’ll be like, ‘it’s UGLY!’ It’s easy, it’s easy.”