Features: Conversation With...


Norma Kamali

Above: the designer wears a Squaredycat 7173. Photos by Margaret Gibbons

Although New York City-born Norma Kamali loves designing, she didn’t
start out to be a fashion designer. “I was always interested in clothes,”  she says. “My mother designed incredible costumes for small theater groups and also made my clothes. We continually argued because I had definite opinions of how my clothes should look. But what I really wanted to be was a painter. However, my mother constantly reminded me of such practical matters as paying the rent.”

So Kamali tried to find a way to apply her interests to a career. She attended the Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.) in New York and received a BFA degree in fashion illustration. She then worked briefly as an illustrator, but didn’t find it rewarding. “Michelangelo was my ideal. Drawing eyebrows on people for fashion illustrations didn’t appeal to me. If I took a job related to the arts, it had to be the right job. I didn’t want to become disillusioned about something I truly love.”

As a result, Kamali—temporarily putting her dreams on hold—began working for Northwest Orient Airlines in its New York office and took advantage of discounted ($29) tickets for weekend trips to London. “I loved the excitement of London at that time (the ’60s). It was just emerging as a center of the cultural and fashion universe,” she notes.

She liked British fashions so much she opened a basement store, the Kamali Shop, in 1968 to sell some of her discoveries. Not content with the products she imported, Kamali began designing herself. Her first designs featured elaborate appliqu├ęs, lizard and leather patches, snakeskins and T-shirts with rhinestone studs.

It’s this combination of retail and design that Kamali feels was important in getting her established. “I started out as a retailer/fashion designer—and that’s what I still do. I like retailing as much as designing. Many designers don’t know how to sell. If you can’t sell your ideas, you are at a decided disadvantage,” she explains. “I truly admire designers, such as Calvin Klein, who know how to market and present clothes at a time when there are so few special products out there.”

Fortunately, although—or perhaps because Kamali often works against the norm—she has been able to sell her ideas. She is widely credited by fashion industry sources as the designer behind hot pants, sweatshirt dressing, over-stuffed sleeping bag coats and parachute fabrics—she created jumpsuits from the same lightweight, durable silk used to make actual parachutes. And when her high-cut bathing suit design worn by Christie Brinkley appeared in 1977 on a Cosmopolitan magazine cover, her swimwear business was launched.

Kamali has added her name to many other product lines, including couture, active sportswear, hosiery, footwear, handbags, fragrance, skin-care products and cosmetics, and, of course, eyewear. An avid eyewear collector since the ’60s when she began acquiring interesting styles on her trips to London, she has had eyewear licenses since 1992 and in 2000 signed with Avalon Eyewear, a member of Nassau Vision Group.

Her retail business has also expanded well beyond her basement shop. In 1983, she opened OMO (On My Own) Norma Kamali on West 56th Street in New York. The building, which contains her flagship retail store, design studio, showroom and administrative offices, won a Distinguished Architecture Award in 1986 from the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

In addition, she has won many awards including the 2002 entrepreneur award by The Fashion Group and was also inducted, along with seven other designers, into New York City’s 2002 Fashion Walk. A plaque in her honor has been laid in the sidewalk on Seventh Avenue.

Functionality has always been a key to Kamali’s design philosophy. “I have studied anatomy extensively and every product I design must connect to the human form aesthetically and practically as well as stand on its own—whether its shoes that help us run better or swimwear or outerwear that protects us and helps us survive in our environment.”

This concept applies to her eyewear designs. “Eyewear as an accessory is as intimate and personal as jewelry, but because it’s part of the face, the design is extremely serious.” And whether it helps the wearer see better or, in the case of sunwear, protects the eyes and skin from harmful UV rays, it also has a strong functional aspect, Kamali emphasizes. She believes eyewear will continue to evolve in its technical innovations and as a fashion accessory. “I think we will eventually have eyewear that corrects vision as we’re wearing it. Ultimately, technology will resolve our vision problems, but eyewear will not go away. It can then become truly a fun, fashion accessory,” she says.

With her eyewear as with her other fashions, she tries to root the designs in the values and emotions of real women. She feels women have a strong advantage designing for other women. “We understand each other’s insecurities and phobias. We know what makes women stand straighter, feel more confident. We understand what makes other women feel attractive. That’s a real female thing,” the designer notes.

Current projects include a new store in New York’s SoHo section, selling beauty products based on homeophatic treatments. “We will have feel-good, ‘Grandma-style’ products for the entire family: Mom, Dad, dogs and cats,” Kamali says. She also has created a state-of-the art design room in Washington Irving High School in New York (her alma mater), where she teaches the school’s first fashion design class. Additionally, she has signed a license with Scholastic to write a book on “How To Be a Designer” for students of fashion. 

 Whatever she’s doing, Kamali enjoys her work. “I like making things happen everyday. It’s a great privilege to have a career you really enjoy,” she says. “I used to think being a fashion designer was superficial, but then people tell me what great memories they have of wearing my designs. I like that. There’s something very healing about good memories.” And as reinforcement, just as this interview was ending, a woman entered the store and thanked Kamali for all her designs. The long-time Kamali customer, a grief councilor, said wearing the designer’s clothes helped bring comfort into an often extremely sad environment.
“I think we will eventually
have eyewear that corrects vision
as we’re wearing it. Ultimately,  technology will resolve our vision
problems, but eyewear will not go away.
It can then become
truly a fun, fashion accessory.”

Norma Kamali wears Catwalk 7523.