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NEW YORK — Over the past four decades, Norma Kamali has never been shy about thinking outside the proverbial box, coming up with ideas that seem well ahead of her time.
Her newest ventures serve to underscore that mentality. Kamali just launched a marketing and retail strategy that incorporates social networking sites and other Web innovations into her business. She is using Skype technology, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, soon, Hulu to enhance the brand experience.
“I do better when I am challenged,” she said, referencing the current economic climate. “I was forced to think about something I wouldn’t have necessarily thought about before otherwise.”
For the past few years, Kamali offered a “Try Before You Buy” plan on her Web site, normakamalicollection.com, which allows shoppers to try merchandise without paying for it up-front. They can order the pieces, and if they don’t return them within 48 hours, Kamali charges their credit card fully, having obtained the card details to cover the FedEx charges. The strategy has proven successful for the designer.
Recently, a Washington, D.C., customer wrote her that she tried the method to buy a swimsuit, and in the 48-hour time span, showed it to her two best friends, in Vermont and in Mexico, via Skype, the software that allows free calls and video-chat over the Internet. The chat inspired the Vermont friend to buy a swimsuit too.
Intrigued by the story, Kamali instantly sought to incorporate Skype into her business. “Now we say if you don’t know what size you are, we can Skype and help you,” she said. “This is how the door opened.”
With many of the specialty stores struggling or going out of business, she thought she would use Skype with “Try Before You Buy” and help customers plan their own selling events.
“We offer them collections they can choose from, and we can send them for 48 hours,” Kamali said, adding they can invite friends, or family, take the orders in the comfort of their home, for instance, and don’t have to lay out the money up-front. Where possible, Kamali could even be introducing the party personally via Skype.
The hosts need to take an online training course for certification, and Kamali and her merchandise team will put together special “Try Before You Buy” party kits with sample collections. Party guests can order them, and get them through Kamali directly. The pieces in the program range from $95 to about $1,500, with the core prices between $250 and $500. They include swimsuits, dresses, pants and tops, jackets and sleeping bag coats.
“The clothes are made in the U.S., so we’re able to turn really fast,” Kamali said. “We also know what the best-selling styles and groupings are and have certain projections.”
Should the hosts exceed $10,000 in sales, their status becomes comparable with that of a retailer, and they earn themselves the 50 percent markup. Below that, the hosts can accrue free clothes based on the amount sold, or pass a 25 percent discount along to the attendees.
“It’s a different way of approaching the business,” Kamali said.
“It’s familiar and honest,” she added. “You can get a discount out of it, and spend time with your friends.”
Kamali didn’t disclose projections for the initiative, but said she hopes it will make up for the lost business at the retail level.
Kamali has been busy on other Web-based initiatives too. Last week, she started to Twitter under the user name NKCollection, and her first tweet was on Etta James, who is a friend and whom she saw perform at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill last week.
She also launched a YouTube channel, which she plans to use for style guides, employee Webisodes, and other video footage about her, including a clip explaining how to wear the all-in-one design from her collection for Wal-Mart. She also created a Facebook page under “Norma Kamali Collection.” Kamali plans to add a button on online video network Hulu soon to provide video content under the site’s Food and Leisure channel.
Kamali famously started her professional path at Northwest Orient Airlines, where, in the Sixties, she booked tours for clients, working on a computer in one of the few industries that had them at the time, “So this is almost going back,” she said, smiling.