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NEW YORK — Norma Kamali is dealing with her past, almost four decades of it, in a radical way: She’s put it on the market.
Five thousand items — those celebrated silk jersey jumpsuits, high-heeled sneakers, parachute ballgown skirts, the many, many silhouettes Kamali has created since 1968 — go on sale Monday at the Resurrection shops in New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo, and Colette in Paris.
“All of it must go,” said Kamali, standing in her 10,000-square-foot Valhalla at 11 West 56th Street here, which has housed her store and studio since 1982.
Each of the five floors was saturated in white gloss last year to usher in Norma Kamali Wellness, aka Bar XV, a line of topical and edible, mostly olive oil-based products that is her newest business interest. The “XV” stands for extra-virgin.
But the new paint wasn’t enough to keep her there. A “for sale” sign appeared in the building’s window last summer. Her other real estate also went on the block: Three high-rise apartments in the Riverdale section of the Bronx sold in mid-October, and she is lingering in her Midtown apartment until it has a new owner.
“At this point I feel like even the buildings are holding me back,” said Kamali, 59. “Downtown is drawing me now.”
Her plan is to open “satellites,” 400- to 700-square-foot spaces in key cities “that can be different things throughout the day,” Kamali noted. They will exhibit select clothes, the Bar XV line and other products. Without dressing rooms, there will be “no picking up after anyone anymore.” The idea is patterned after her six-year-old “Shop Like a Celebrity” membership service, in which clothes and accessories are delivered to a client’s home on spec, and she has up to 48 hours to decide to buy or return them. A Web site, too, is in the works.
“For me, being inventive is more fun than just chasing the next season’s trend,” the designer said. “It becomes a case of, ‘How many things am I going to do over again? How many fashion shows can you do without wanting to kill yourself?’”
Today, Kamali believes consumers want something else in this era of big-box shopping. “People don’t shop for the experience of just browsing around any more. No one has time for that,” she continued. But she isn’t about to declare the demise of retail. Instead, she pointed out, “The experience has to change.”
These are unusual steps in a new century when too many designers are mining fashion history for direction. Some even comb eBay, Hollywood costume warehouses and vintage shops to restore incomplete archives for reissues.
Over the years, several Kamali items made their way to the Resurrection stores, and sometimes the personal collection of co-owner Katy Rodriguez. So on a whim last March, Rodriguez called Kamali to find out what she was planning to do with her archives. A couple of meetings later, a deal was struck to exclusively sell Kamali’s dead stock from 1968 through 1995.
“Norma has always been so visionary, so modern. Most designers get lost in the shuffle through their careers, but Norma keeps going, finding new ways of doing things,” said Rodriguez, who with her retail partner, Mark Haddawy, has been meticulously inventorying and pricing the contents of more than 100 boxes shipped to their Los Angeles headquarters since June.
Despite the archives, Kamali has never been fixed much on the past. Although she earned a degree in illustration from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, fashion didn’t really appeal to her until she took a trip to London at the height of its Mod madness. She returned home and, in 1968, opened her first shop with her futuristic finds.
This indefatigable native New Yorker would become one of the first fashion designers to try retailing on the Internet with her fall 1996 collection; that year she also designed costumes for Tharp!, Twyla Tharp’s new dance company.
It has been 11 years since Kamali last participated in New York’s Fashion Week. Since then, she has scaled back her business considerably — “intentionally,” she said. Including licensees, it is now a $10 million annual concern.
The current purging and restructuring prepares her for another round of expansion. The XV collection sells at boutique hotels such as the Delano in Miami, the Mondrian in West Los Angeles and MGM’s stable, and Kamali is pursuing even more partnerships. Her clothes and accessories continue to sell in department stores in Japan through her licensee Nextage, and her handbags and optical and sun eyewear are also licensed, through Princess Toroya and Nassau Vision, respectively.
She declined to break down the categories, but noted clothes account for the largest slice of sales.
For Kamali, the key is doing it her own way. “There’s so much new technology now. Why can’t we do something a little bit more creative?” So she is collaborating with Japanese researchers on fabric technologies that infuse vitamins or moisturize when worn next to the skin.
There is also a TV project in the discussion phase. The plan is to couple her knowledge of style with her current obsessions with technology and wellness. Kamali views her role as that of producer — maybe, she said with a shrug, even more. She certainly has the charisma to pull off the role of host and appears to be about 15 years younger than her age.
But the designer admitted she prefers to be behind the lens. It’s a role she embraced in the mid-Seventies, when she pioneered presenting a collection on Super-8 in lieu of the runway. The VHS reel of her 1984 “Fall Fantasy” show garnered several awards, including one from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
She has never halted production of her iconic, NASA-influenced sleeping-bag coat — first made in 1975 and available this season in acid yellow, snow white and black — or those jet set-ready jersey designs like the shirred dresses, pin-up bikinis and convertible separates, many introduced in 1974 but still looking fresh.
Young designers from Los Angeles to London have been churning out versions of these classics in recent seasons, not out of nostalgia, but with an eye to contemporary sensibilities. As for the young imitators, “I’m totally happy about it,” she said, sounding genuinely flattered. “It’s weird, right?”
Odd, too, she conceded, is keeping archives all these years. After all, it runs counter to her philosophy of always looking ahead. “I don’t know what I was thinking, but somebody told me in 1968 that I should keep samples from all of my collections and I did,” she recalled. “I mean, no human being needs this much stuff.”
Over the years, Kamali has sent for choice pieces from the thousands held in a warehouse space in New Jersey to sell at her Manhattan store.
“She’s really covered it all: futuristic, Western, bridal, even kid’s stuff,’’ said Rodriguez, standing between crammed racks of clothes being checked in at the Melrose Avenue Resurrection store in Los Angeles. “There are ideas here she pioneered.”
Among the choice, never-worn pieces are the full-length nylon “butterfly” dresses from the mid-Seventies, priced at $650; a pair of Eighties-era, black suede wedge ankle boots edged in shearling, tagged at $450, and, from the early Seventies, a parachute ballskirt for $4,500 and a gold wire mesh jumpsuit for $2,800.
“She merged vintage and street, high and low culture influences in her work,” observed Rodriguez, who met Kamali in New York six years ago. “It’s a rare chance that the public can get to see a designer’s body of work like this. There’s not another American designer like Norma.”
Kamali has cleaned house before. She did so in 1977 when her 10-year marriage ended; a year later, she added the OMO — for “On My Own” — to her label.
A decade ago, the designer returned from India and sold her town house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which she spent years restoring and furnishing. “I just thought, ‘This place and these things are gorgeous, but they are stopping me creatively,’” Kamali said. She now takes that view of her properties.
This time, her desire to overhaul her life was sparked by 9/11, and influenced by the death of her mother, Stella Galib, in September 2003. Then, last summer, Kamali lost her three beloved dachshunds, all to old age and within two weeks. “I just realized these were markers for me in a lot of ways,” she said. “You look at your life and you look at what you’re doing. I mean, I really appreciate the fact that people tell me that my clothes have served as markers in their own life in some way. But making clothes is not the same as doing something to make someone feel good.”
The homeopathic XV Wellness collection is satisfying that desire. Kamali had a small cosmetics line years ago, and her distinctive signature fragrance continues to sell, now in an updated bottle in line with the XV packaging.
There are dozens of glass flasks filled with oils and tonics, cleansers and scents, salts and creams, made of olives or pure herbs. There are taffy-like confections of honey and olive oil, sodas infused with jasmine, and a brew-ready tea of olive leaves and lavender sprigs, along with biscuits with rose buds.
Then there are the 90-minute classes of tai chi, restorative yoga, Pilates and Kamali’s obsession — Gyrokinesis, an integration of exercises and disciplines created by Juliu Horvath — that fill the top floor of her 56th Street building three nights a week.
Another of her youth serums is her 12-year relationship with the New York City public school system as a mentor, fund-raiser and teacher, particularly at her alma mater, Washington Irving High School in Manhattan and where, in 2001, she created a state-of-the-art design lab.
Despite the losses she has endured in recent years, Kamali said, “This is an incredible time to be alive. I tell these young aspiring designers, you don’t need to limit yourself to fashion, you can be a creator of so many things. My energy right now is about doing what I have never done before. That’s the exciting part about making this transition.”