Norma Kamali

When Norma Kamali addresses the democratization of fashion — as she did in her presentation — she can truthfully say she is putting her money where her mouth is.

This story first appeared in the October 15, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Always at the forefront of fashion, Kamali has three collections: a designer one, a line she sells through eBay at prices up to $250, and one sold at Wal-Mart with every piece under $35.

See a video highlight of Norma Kamali discussing technology >>

But the designer of the iconic sleeping bag coat, high-heeled sneaker and the silk parachute collection is taking democracy beyond just a price point. She sees it as a by-product of the technology revolution that makes fashion — haute or not — accessible to anyone anywhere in the world, and in multiple facets.

“Last year, we all were greatly affected by a turn in the economy, but we have also, in the fashion industry, been greatly affected by this brilliant machine [the iPhone] that rules our lives,” Kamali said. “Now everybody is in the front row of a fashion show. It’s not just an elite few who can see things right away. You can just go like this” — pointing her iPhone in the air — “and send it out on YouTube.”

Kamali recalled how computers played a key role in her life practically since the start of her career. After graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in fashion illustration in 1964, she was looking to travel and decided to work at Northwest Orient Airlines, where she booked tours for clients. For four years, the job allowed her to travel to and from “Swinging London.”

“It was the most inspirational time, the most exciting time, and my job at the airline, by the way, required me to learn how to use a computer,” she said. “Airlines actually were the first to use computers commercially….There I was, on a Univac computer at Northwest Orient Airlines, and I really saw this amazing thing happen. This information was flowing — and I am not a tech person and have never been one — but I was aware of the fact that something really incredible was happening with the speed of information.”

Fast forward three decades to the mid-Nineties, and Kamali jumped at the chance of creating her own Web site at a time when few people even knew about the Web.

“I learned a lot about how to connect with my customer and how to use the Internet to try to communicate with her,” Kamali said. “One of the best things I have learned was that I could provide information for my customer. Wherever she lived, she could hear my voice directly, and wouldn’t have to get it through a buyer or someone else, and get an interpretation of who Norma Kamali was.”

Today, Kamali has an iPhone application, a Facebook page and regularly tweets. She also incorporates other technological advances into her business, from posting new designs for instant feedback to a “Try Before You Buy” concept that allows shoppers to try clothes for 48 hours before committing to them, a time during which a personal shopper could communicate with her via e-mail or a telephone call.

The concept evolved just as the economy was heading south.

“We noticed that the business in the retail stores slowed down, and the business online started to increase,” Kamali noted. “One day, one of our ‘Try before you buy’ customers was trying on a swimsuit at home. She was using her 48 hours to decide. She then told one of our personal shoppers that the reason she decided to buy it was because she Skyped her friend in Mexico and her other friend in Maine, and they both gave her a thumbs-up, and her friend was going to also get a swimsuit. I heard the story and thought, ‘Hello, we are Skyping our clients.’”

Kamali and her personal shoppers can now work directly with customers via Skype. In addition, Kamali launched an iPhone app during New York Fashion Week last month that lets consumers shop from her three collections, among other things.

“I am an app-oholic,” she said. “Since the Sixties, when all of this innovation that was more incredible than anything, I never felt that anything as powerful, anything as revolutionary had happened, and not just in fashion. Ladies and gentlemen, I swear, this [iPhone] is it. This is the beginning. And I don’t just mean the iPhone, I mean all that this implies, all of the communication we can have with each other.”

Kamali also collaborated with Roiworld on a new game that allows women to create an avatar and put together a closet filled with pieces from her Wal-Mart collection — then click on the outfits and actually buy them at walmart.com.

“The more we explore alternate means of communicating with consumers who are not going to shop as a sport anymore, at least for a long time, the more we can learn about how she is going to want to purchase things,” Kamali said.

“I couldn’t be happier where we are going with all of this technology,” she added.