Norma Kamali

“Because I didn’t have anything to fall back on, I had to figure out how to make it work,” said Norma Kamali, speaking at FIT’s Hue Live! event Tuesday night about her 53-year career.

“And it wasn’t easy for sure. It took 14 years before anybody outside of the underground, cult-y group of people knew who I was and what I was doing. It took a long time to get to a certain point because I decided to be independent,” said Kamali.

The designer, who graduated from FIT in 1965 with a degree in illustration, was interviewed virtually by Alex Joseph, managing editor of Hue, FIT’s magazine. Topics ranged from fashion shows and gender-fluid clothing to Farrah Fawcett, the pandemic, and an offshore manufacturing proposition.

In the past, Kamali has said she never wanted to be the richest or most famous designer.

“You have to make a decision about what’s important to you. Living a creative life was for sure very important to me,” said the 74-year-old designer, who’s best known for her sleeping bag coat, parachute collection, body-conscious clothes and daring swimwear. She understood that may not mean she’d make a lot of money or be the most famous designer. She never cared about that.

Rather, she said, “It’s what drives you and what you feel you can live with in your soul, that’s really important.”

Having grown up in Manhattan with an aspiration to become a painter, Kamali said her family wasn’t rich, “not even almost rich, very far from it.”

“So I knew I had to get a scholarship if I wanted to go further with my studies,” said Kamali. She got a painting scholarship and also got a scholarship to FIT and decided she’d study illustration. “I really did not want anything to do with fashion,” she said.

Norma Kamali on the screen during Tuesday’s event.  courtesy shot.

She spoke about her work being anti-fashion and trend-resistant. “I did the sleeping bag coat in the early Seventies and never stopped selling it,” she said. Some of her swimsuits are as popular today as they were when she started, and have even gotten more popular. “People like the fact that I’m off the track and they feel a connection to it,” she said. She believes you just have to be yourself, against all odds. “Staying authentic is a really important thing to do,” said Kamali.

Kamali said she’s not a big fan of fashion shows these days.

“I love technology. There’s so much we can do with technology,” said Kamali, such as new ways to film fashion shows. “Communication can be quite intimate in a global way, Even more than our phones, texting and Facebook, it can bring groups of people together,” she said. She believes technology will evolve even more, especially since people can’t travel now and won’t be traveling for awhile, and fashion shows are hugely expensive. “If it’s not sustainable, why are we doing it?” she said.

Kamali was asked to predict how fashion might change as a result of the global pandemic.

“For me, everybody has to find their way. It’s a personal, global experience,” she said. She has always dabbled in smart clothing and is expanding upon that. “I’m probably not going to focus on anything throwaway.  It has to have longevity and function,” she said. She will also evaluate whether she needs all the space she has and does she need a retail store?

Kamali would like to see more manufacturing closer to home and proposed that companies start producing in Puerto Rico. “Puerto Rico has the most incredible people and the island has been beaten down and ravaged,” she said. Her dream is to see companies partner with the U.S. government and start setting up manufacturing on the island, and then ultimately housing, hospitals, schools, gardens, sports and communities could develop around that.

These days, Kamali said she’s not a big fan of masks “that scream danger,” and instead has been selling them on her web site as turbans that slide down as a mask, “and are not as depressing.”

The conversation then turned to Farrah Fawcett, who wore a Kamali swimsuit “in the most famous poster.” It turns out Fawcett had bought and posed in the one-piece red swimsuit that Kamali couldn’t stand. When the Smithsonian asked Kamali for that particular suit, she asked if she could supply a version of it, but they insisted on the original.

Discussing her interest in making gender-fluid clothes, Kamali did a quick trip down memory lane to the days of Mick Jagger wearing clothes that were enticing, provocative and seductive, and blurring masculine/feminine. She noted that AIDS shot down that spirit and she was living in the West Village and had lots of friends who died of AIDS. “In the last few years, this [gender-fluid] spirit has come up again,” she said.

She’s a firm believer that fashion tells the story of the times in which one lives. “We’re all wanting to feel comfortable, we’re wanting to feel protected, we’re wanting to feel safe. That’s a reflection of what’s going on right now,” she said.

One of the participants at home asked how Kamali learns about the customer experience. “It’s asking a lot of questions, listening to people, communicating with people, watching and looking and observing. What are people doing? People are working out, people care about their bodies. Everyone’s thinking about being healthy now.” Kamali said she loves working out and living a healthy lifestyle. “I’m very inclined to make clothes that move with the body. I studied anatomy…the human form was very important to me, so I translated that to the kind of clothes I make.”

In response to a question on what advice she’d give to a designer starting out who moved here when the pandemic was just beginning, she said, “You have to use the moment as your inspiration, and it should not be your fear. It’s good to be frightened, it gets the adrenaline flowing. You’ve come at an opportune moment, when the worst thing that can happen has happened, and maybe the best thing that can happen will happen, if you have the guts, and you’re not going to eat a lot and can live on somebody’s sofa. If you’re ready to go through an experience, and if you’re young, you can do it…You’re going to have to figure out what people are going to wear, through the pandemic and after a pandemic. How’s that for a challenge?”

Asked to describe when designing for ease and comfort first entered her mind, Kamali said she was at FIT when women were wearing silk stockings and girdles. “What came next was an expression of freedom, and I’m not going to wear any underwear,” she said. “The freedom of having the ability to not be constricted opened up tons of possibilities,” said Kamali. “Fabric that had stretch, knits with Lycra, started in the Seventies.”  She said she would use girdle fabric to make pedal pushers. “Eventually the fabrics evolved to create more comfortable clothing. The attitude in the late Sixties and Seventies was relaxed and free. People never wore skirts above their knee, and I was making HotPants as short as you can imagine, and you wore boots with them, and patchwork, and all kinds of different things like that, which were very new.”

Determined for companies to make stretchy fabrics, she recalled ordering a cotton Lycra, stripe, in the Seventies and it was the first cotton Lycra. “It took something like 1,500 yards to get a few hundred you could actually use. They would look at me and say, ‘Norma we don’t want to do this.’ And I said, ‘please.’ It had a hard start and it was a very expensive process to get the machines to stop breaking the yarn. But in time, the prices came down. It took time, and now practically everything has some sort of give to it so we can be comfortable,” said Kamali.

As for whether she’d consider offering her vintage pieces, such as her gray fleece sweats, again, she said she’s doing fleece now, and the fabric is even more evolved. She explained the reason she launched the gray fleece collection in the Seventies was that she would climb over the fences at night to swim in the city pools and would put on a gray sweatshirt when she got out of the water. She started doing cover-ups in gray sweatshirt fabrics. “I did everything I could think of in gray sweatshirt,” she said, including a coat and skirt. She knew there was something special about the pieces, but was afraid she would be knocked off. She got in touch with Women’s Wear Daily and asked for someone to help her. They introduced her to Sidney Kimmel, who owned Jones Apparel.

“In two weeks we had a deal. He produced the collection and distributed it,” she said. There were lines out of department stores because people had never seen anything like that. “The pendulum had swung from shiny, glittery to this sober [gray]…people were thinking about healthy, it was the early Eighties. It was the right moment in time for that, and it really opened the door for people wearing sweatshirts to work and on the streets.”




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