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Norma Kamali Keeps on Innovating

The designer and Peter Guber, ceo of Mandalay Entertainment Group, discussed the power of storytelling, digital retailing and the future of fashion.

Norma Kamali and Peter Guber

Norma Kamali is a firm believer in the power of the Internet.

This story first appeared in the November 16, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

In a conversation with Peter Guber, chairman and chief executive officer of Mandalay Entertainment Group, they spoke about the power of storytelling, digital retailing and the future of fashion.

“I believe the Internet is profound in its growth, its power and its future,” said Kamali. To this end, she will launch a new collection called Kamali Kulture exclusively on sites such as Zappos.com and Amazon.com in February with styles that retail under $100. It will also be available on her own site, KamaliKulture.com, that goes live in January. Kamali’s three-year deal with Wal-Mart has ended, which was both an in-store and Internet venture.

Innovation has always been a key component of Kamali’s fashion philosophy, and she continues to move in new directions.

“Retail is not in a good place and needs to be rethought,” said the forward-thinking Kamali, who first came up with the Sleeping Bag Coat, a collection created from actual parachutes, and has had countless innovations in swimwear and activewear. The designer said she is looking for new space in Manhattan for a retail venture and may reconfigure her West 56th Street location. “I want to present a new idea and am looking for spaces now,” said Kamali, noting that she wants to create an environment where people can experience something and feel connected to her and her products. Without divulging details, she asked: Why should women come into her store, take off their clothes and try on swimwear in the middle of winter? “What is wrong with me? How can I ask a woman to do that? I think there are alternate concepts for that retail experience,” said Kamali.

Having designed high-end clothing under her OMO line, Kamali explained why she wanted to design a collection at the other end of the spectrum, for Wal-Mart, and what she learned from that experience.

“It was a great experience, and I met incredible suppliers,” said Kamali, who said she not only learned another language, but how to manufacture styles that could look extraordinary, fit well, last and have a great price point. She explained that her Wal-Mart clothing line was the retailer’s top online clothing brand. She also liked the experience of addressing women on a clothing budget and empowering women. “I really wanted that to be a part of me and my company,” said Kamali.

In fact, that’s the rationale behind her new collection. Kamali Kulture will include pants, jackets, suitings, jersey dressing, sleepwear and swimwear. “Staying in this price point under $100 is really a very important place for me to be in this point in my career,” said Kamali, who was dressed in Kamali Kulture. “The online retailers have been very responsive. I want to personalize the orders to have exclusive prints and colors.”

Guber asked Kamali whether she feels she’s cannibalizing her high-end business, and Kamali said she didn’t think so. She said her two lines aren’t similar. “The collection I do for my company, OMO, is quite different. It’s more fashion, and what I do for under $100 is more timeless. Women who have style can take pieces like this and have fun with them. Women who don’t know and don’t have a clue can put on the clothes and look great.” Kamali said the rule of exclusively wearing one brand or one price range is over. “We like to be smart. And I, like other women, like to say, ‘My outfit is under $100,’ ” she said.

Kamali recalled where her fascination with computers originated. After graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology, she wanted to be a painter because she thought the fashion industry was too superficial. Recognizing it would be difficult to make a living as a painter, she looked for alternatives. She loved to travel and got an office job at an airline, even though she didn’t know how to type. “It was the mid-Sixties, and there I was, sitting in front of a computer. That industry was such an innovator in communication. I was watching information pop up, I knew everything that was going on, with all the planes and all the trafficking, and I was very excited about it. Then fast-forward into the mid-Nineties, I heard you can have a Web site on the computer. I didn’t know anyone who had one, but I was going to have one. I was so excited and wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to communicate with my customer. I wanted to tell my story and tell it directly. I wanted my customer to know me and know why I had this point of view,” she said. Kamali launched her Web site in 1996 and created a “Try Before You Buy Service,” which allowed customers to decide in the privacy of their own homes and only pay for what they kept. Her staff offered support through vehicles like Skype. Kamali was also the first designer to create a virtual online store on eBay.

Guber asked what was so compelling about digital media that allowed her to tell her story.

“This medium changes every day. And I’m a change-aholic. I like to know what’s next. The fact that it’s changing all the time is exciting to me,” said Kamali.

She said she recently did a 3-D fashion show for the spring collection. “Social media is extraordinary. Wal-Mart didn’t do any advertising or promotion for the collection, but the bloggers put that line right at the top of the Wal-Mart brand list for clothing. They [bloggers] are so loyal and dedicated when they get behind something they believe in, and they tell it in a personal way,” said Kamali.

During the question-and-answer period, an audience member asked Kamali if she still designs. “I love designing. I love making patterns. I still make all my swimwear patterns, because I love it. I really want to feel connected to the craft. I’ve chosen to be a designer not owned by a big company, so I can do lots of different things. Keeping my hand on patterns and draping is very important. It makes me feel every single collection is my first collection,” she said.

Prior to his Q&A with Kamali, Guber offered his thoughts on making emotional connections with an audience. In addition to being a top entertainment executive, Guber is the author of the book, “Tell To Win: Connect, Persuade and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story,” a New York Times bestseller. Before co-founding Mandalay, Guber was chairman and chief executive officer of Sony Pictures Entertainment, as well as chairman and ceo of Polygram Entertainment, co-founder of Casablanca Records & Filmworks and president of Columbia Pictures. He has produced or executive-produced box office hits such as “Rain Man,” “The Color Purple,” “Midnight Express,” “Batman,” “Flashdance” and “The Kids Are All Right.” He also owns the Golden State Warriors NBA franchise.

Guber believes strongly in the power of storytelling, and explained that when information is bonded with emotion, it becomes much more memorable and actionable. He said that the world has had 40,000 years of oral tradition, which is in one’s DNA. “The last nanosecond is digital technology. You’re wired to tell each other stories. Engagement is crucial, and narrative gives meaning to our lives.”

For example, he spoke about the importance of being in the same room, face to face. “Nobody is going to hire someone over Skype unless they’re the village idiot….I want to see the passion in their eyes,” he said.

Guber explained that it’s imperative to engage online and off-line. He believes that one needs to motivate one’s audience with a story. “You have to get their attention before you get their intention….Authenticity is powerful. It shines through. It comes before you speak the first word. Why? You’re wired that way.”

If you’re trying to sell something or get a new client, Guber advised: “Look at that person at the other side of the table as an audience, not a customer. Don’t aim at their wallet, aim at their heart. Think of what audiences want. They want experiences. You don’t have to be a comedian or a showman. You just have to be breathing.” Further, he said, connections are crucial for communication. “Nobody wants to be a passenger anymore. They want to participate in the process. Leave room for them.”