By James J. Spina
Photographed by Stephen Sullivan
Looking for a Kamali background check? Your best bet for that would easily be
. Abundant accomplishments. Visionary vistas.
And yet this is not simply the story of another iconic designer shellacking her name on product in a formulaic fusion of lifestyle and fashion.
It’s about so much more.
From Walmart to Wellness, Norma Kamali has long had her finger on the pulse of what it takes to be one with style. She absolutely gets it. And has for—well, forever.
We’re here at her NYC store on 57th Street to let her take (and talk) us through the evolution of her new Timeless Sunglass Collection from Avalon. But first... a trip down memory lane.
“Jimmy?” (Yes, that would be me—Jimmy.) “I need to borrow your jeans.” The scene is early 1980s. Japan. I am standing with Kamali backstage at the prestigious Tokyo Best Five fashion show. She, along with other famous designers including Valentino and Sonia Rykiel, had been invited by W magazine and Japan’s fashion icon, Hanae Mori, to participate in a unique fashion presentation. The format was simple but impressive: Daily runway shows to intrigue the Asian press and consumers anxious to embrace a new universe of style.
Though the other designers all opted for the expected drone of disco and catwalk parades of bony runway models, Kamali turned the event upside down by casting real people from the streets of Tokyo for a seemingly haphazard—but cutting-edge—performance of life-IN-style.
Some of the (real people) models were exercising, others dancing, a pregnant woman shopped the stage with toddlers in tow, and there, off to the side, John B. Fairchild, the formidable publisher of W, sat reading a newspaper aloud for the narrative of the show. And he was wearing my jeans. (Yes, that would be me—Jimmy.)
It’s a nifty story for many reasons, but above all else, it defines Norma and the fashion ideal/lifestyle she has created. Her vision of the always suited-and-buttoned-up Fairchild, the man I worked for at the time, as an out-of-character, dressed down participant in a fashion show was nothing short of revolutionary. She quite literally turned the tables on the man who was more comfortable with front row seats than a spot stage left. Convincing him to do this in front of TV cameras, print media, consumers and fashion industry powerhouses was monumental. But it’s just another day in the life of Norma, innovator and instigator.
Fast forward triple-decade speed to the present. One look around and it’s clear that Kamali still has a vision. Her 57th Street store is a sliver of serene white nooks and crannies, all filled with signature items. From her legendary swimsuits and iconic sleeping bags to her new sunwear collection, every item is earmarked by her inspirational, outside-the-box approach; her mission to provide the kind of style and fashion that makes women look and feeeel great.
Case in point: A new wave of shades called The Norma Kamali Timeless Sunglass Collection from Avalon. This mix of select styles is uniquely targeted to both women and men. “When you aim for timeless you get looks and shapes that are good for everyone—even you, Jimmy,” she says with a sly smile.
Kamali has set up her own mini optical shop of sorts in an entrance alcove to her store. “Here,” she commands me. “Put these on. I think they could be totally you.”
As she slides ROUND in tortoise onto my face, and then slips an identical pair onto her own, she looks around the store for a customer who might look good in her SQUARE CAT EYE in black.
“Hi hon. You’d look good in these, especially with what you are wearing. Are you finding everything you need?” she asks a woman who could just as easily be a friend as a customer. Classic Kamali—front and center on the sales floor, hanging with her cult, sharing in their united culture.
“With this collection I really wanted to be able to wear all the styles,” she says. “And I can. SQUARE CAT EYE in plastic is my favorite, but I wanted each one to cover a different aspect of a person’s personality.”
She reaches for MOVIE STAR, a large square shape. “They are all named for exactly what they are,” she explains. “ROUND, the one you are wearing, is a little bit flat on the top [it’s a P3 shape]. Right now it comes in black, tortoise, and silver or gold metal. Makes it easy, right?”
In addition to being basic in shape and clear in name, the frames are all developed in a quality that enables easy and simple Rx-ability.
“Sunglasses for my generation need to be able to correct your reading vision, if necessary,” she says. “I’m pretty well-known for my bathing suits, so I wanted to make sure when someone is wearing a Kamali bathing suit and reading by the pool they can have on a Kamali sunglass too, complete with their reading Rx.”
As she’s making her Rx point Norma keeps slipping ROUND in tortoise back onto my face. I am tempted to put the shades in my pocket—interviewer as potential shoplifter?— I refrain.
“I keep trying to stay with the same shape for myself in order to make the point that glasses really can define your personality. But... I love stepping into a new role to have some fun.” Kamali says this while trying on ROUND in metal, a wired P3 with a brow bar. “This one’s really not right for my nose. Same thing with CLASSIC SQUARE. But it’s too much fun not to try out new looks.”
MOVIE STAR does overpower Norma’s face. It’s a face that seems to get more delicate and child-like each year. And the CAT EYE does make her look old—somewhere around 35. As I do the math, I realize that would have made her about five during our Tokyo days. Point is: She’s not aging like the rest of us. And she’s got the ideas to prove it.
Her store is filled with ultra-modern merchandising innovations, such as 2D quick response codes that allow shoppers to instantly scan product info and visuals right into their phones. Her online retail presence has been in constant young-turk mode through venues like Spiegel, Walmart and her own Wellness brand for a number of years.
“The only way you can expose yourself to that extent online is with products that are timeless,” says Kamali. “I know it sounds like a cliché but check out my swimsuits from when I began and compare them to now, and the look is the look. Change it up too much and it gets old fast.”
That said, nothing here seems old. Far from it, in fact. Including Kamali’s genuine smile and effortless flirtations. Matter of fact, I’m pretty sure that’s how she conned me out of my worn out Levi’s all those years ago.
Pulling me back to the moment, Kamali is ready to move on. “I really hope we’re done. I’m starving!” And with that, she grabs lunch from the shelves of the in-store Wellness Café and just as quickly and easily as we began, she is gone. Scampering off, no doubt, to another idea. ■