It was Friday, and the grand opening of the J.C. Penney flagship in the Manhattan Mall. If things seemed a little cramped it was because the ceremony was supposed to be across the street, at Greeley Square Park, but early morning rains put a damper on those arrangements. Only a soggy stage and Kimora Lee Simmons' luxury trailer parked along the curb gave any hint of the original plans. The festivities were quickly moved to the lobby of the mall, where male and female and child models walked down a red runway, stopping long enough to pose for the photographers standing cheek-by-jowl on risers. It was hard to see what was going on, but I knew the "oohs" and "aahs" were for the children. "Woo hoo, woo whoo," some women in front of me hollered when a hunky guy in a beige pin-striped suit sauntered out, as if this were Chippendales.
"We're definitely not your mother's J.C. Penney," said Myron E. "Mike" Ullman 3rd, chairman and chief executive officer. "We're coming to the fashion capital of the world. Coming across on the island is a big opportunity for us and a big opportunity for our customers." He added, "We have the best brands," and ticked off names such as Levi's, Allen B., Nicole by Nicole Miller, I (Heart) Ronson, Bisou Bisou, Fabulosity, Joe, American Living and Sephora.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a grand entrance, descending on an escalator with Simmons, which amplified the disparity in their height -- his is 5-foot-6-inches; hers is 6-foot in stockings. "I was the 2008 US Weekly nominee for most stylish New Yorker," Bloomberg bragged. "Unfortunately, I was not asked to model. I didn't meet the age requirement." After plugging his Times Square pedestrian island initiative, Bloomberg introduced Simmons, saying. "It's not possible for her to get any better looking."
With that, a couple dozen children from the Children's Aid Society followed Simmons and Bloomberg to the junior's department, where they were treated to a back-to-school shopping spree.
I asked Simmons' public relations woman if I could speak with the model-cum-designer. Chasing after Bloomberg and Simmons and the paparazzi trailing in their wake, I found myself pushed within inches of the back wall of the store. Two Simmons staffers were sitting on a bench below me, oblivious to the tumult. "I need more clothes," Simmons said to an assistant.
It was the perfect photo op -- Simmons and the mayor helping the kids choose outfits. In keeping with the school theme, Penney's made a $150,000 donation to benefit after-school initiatives in the city. There was only one problem with the shot: The paparazzi were having trouble getting the mayor and Simmons in the same frame. "That's all, folks," said a mayoral assistant.
Ullman sidled up to Simmons as flashbulbs went off. "Everyone say 'Fabulosity,'" Simmons shouted, like a rock star. "Everybody say, 'Children's Aid Society.'" She turned her attention back to the job of putting looks together and shouted to Ullman, "We'll go to dinner." Since Simmons seemed busy, I walked over to the I (Heart) Ronson boutique. Looking like the perfect I (Heart) Ronson model, which she is, there was Charlotte Ronson with her publicist, wearing one of her vintage-inspired, washed-out floral print dresses under a distressed leather jacket. She seemed down-to-earth and hardworking, which shouldn't have come as a surprise. It's just friends Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie project a decidedly fluffier image. Ronson said she likes the new Penney's flagship because "it's a lot newer and updated. It has the vibe." For fall, she plans to work with faux leathers and suedes. "You can kind of do anything with J.C. Penney," she said.
A Penney's publicist tapped me on the shoulder and said Simmons wanted to speak with me and was waiting in her trailer. She escorted me out into the light and across Broadway, where members of Simmons' entourage were variously talking on cell phones and checking their BlackBerrys. "I grew up on Penney's in St. Louis," Simmons said. "I have three kids," she said. "In this economy, I'm concerned about our spending. The new luxury is affordability. Fabulosity is being able to buy an outfit for under $100."
Simmons, who was wearing a dress with an orange bodice and royal blue skirt, Alexis Bittar Lucite earrings, made clear that hers is not a collection in name only, but one she has a distinctive hand in designing. "A-list stars ask me, 'Kimora, how did you do that?'" she said. "This is fashion. This is a very important business."