Talk about aging gracefully. And energetically.
Norma Kamali weighed in on subjects ranging from globalization to diet Thursday and the designer, an early adapter who was among the first to sell on the Internet and boast of a collection at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., showed no signs of losing either her vision or her passion.
Speaking to members of the Black Retail Action Group Wednesday night at Macy’s Herald Square in New York, Kamali drew cheers immediately when she talked about the country’s need to invest in U.S. workers.
“I hope President Obama does everything he can to influence and inspire to get production happening in this country again,” she said. “China makes us look like we are walking backwards. The world is kicking the s–t out of us.”
Since her entrée into the fashion world in the Sixties, Kamali, born in 1945, has been all about transformation. And she remains so today.
“When the environment changes, you must reinvent yourself,” she said. “Everything is global. There’s much more of everything; more designers, more magazines. You’d better be different and special.”
Kamali’s idea of differentiation is more than a shortened hemline. It’s understanding the economy and how to use technology to promote business. BRAG said she was selected as its guest speaker because she exemplifies the organization’s message of innovative, inspirational leadership.
Standing out in an era where anyone with access to the Internet can start a blog, create a Facebook profile and ruminate about the meaning of life on Twitter is “easy,” she said. As someone who’s done all of the above, Kamali believes technology allows you to “tell your story. When people know your story, they invest in you and may actually buy from you.”
Kamali developed her company’s Web site in the Nineties when few brands even dared to venture out into the uncharted waters of e-branding, much less e-commerce.
In 1968, she opened her first shop on New York’s East Side, selling cutting-edge mod clothes from popular British designers. Soon after she began designing her own product, drawing inspiration from silk parachutes and the Seventies punk scene—even sleeping bags. “I had a really eccentric mother who made anything out of everything, and I thought that was normal,” she said, shrugging as if her own creativity is a genetic predisposition. “I really can’t help it, I have to do it.” Over time her aesthetic changed, as did her awareness of how to market her brand. Today, she puts together targeted promotions and informational e-mails to her consumers.“Rachel Zoe did a Tweet on our turbans, and we did a blast,” she said. “They started selling immediately.”Kamali’s focus on the Internet is closely tied to the economic downturn, too. The designer noted that her online business took off during the recession, partially due to the fact that consumers were “comparison shopping.”
“You have to like business. You have to be a survival person,” Kamali said. “If you grew up in New York, being a survival person is in your DNA.”
The designer wore a gray, single-breasted boyfriend blazer and matching shorts from her Wal-Mart collection and pointed out they retail for a combined price of $35. She penned a three-year licensing deal with the retail giant in 2007.
“Wal-Mart is very connected to the economy in this country,” she said, explaining that the firm’s average shopper is cash-strapped and many are out of work. “Wal-Mart is their savior.”
Her collection, which is more trendy basics than cutting edge, is a testament to Wal-Mart’s understanding of its identity and core customer, she said, noting that her upcoming line includes plus-sizes and a sleepwear collection.
Even though she found working with Wal-Mart a “fantastic experience,” Kamali said she is “ready to move on” to something new and won’t be re-signing with the retailer. Wal-Mart declined to comment on the relationship.
Wellness is Kamali’s newest obsession.
The designer kicked off her “Conversations” series at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan on Thursday. Playing the role of emcee, Kamali chatted with health, beauty and wellness experts, including environmentalist, author and organic farmer Horst Rechelbacher; choreographer and author Twyla Tharp; spiritual counselor and acupuncturist Abdi Assadi, and vegan and raw food icon Chef Matteo. The live conversation followed the showing of one-on-one video chats with each of the panelists which will air (in longer format) on Kamali’s new channel on Hulu.com and normakamali.com
“After 9/11, I started to look at things to find solutions to stress,” Kamali told WWD. With her growing interest in these areas, she hasn’t let her fascination with fashion wane. “I love fashion. You can’t look good in what you’re wearing if you’re not healthy and fit,” she said. “The air, the water and the food we eat is very different than when I was born.” Many of the nutrients and organic products that Rechelbacher — who founded Aveda Corp. and sold it to the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. — is now producing under the Intelligent Nutrients label, as well as Kamali’s own olive-based products, are available at her wellness cafe on West 56th Street in New York. Kamali, who has banished processed foods from her diet, believes that the toxins that people have added to products are a challenge to one’s well-being.
Future Webisodes will be on “pets and our relationships with them, astrology and fashion, of course,” she told the packed house.