Her 2016 CFDA Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award win sealed an indisputable heritage and cult status of supplying women (and some men) worldwide with pieces that fit her standard of timeless utility both in construction and style. With Women’s History Month coming to a close, we spoke to the feminist icon about her winding path to design glory, getting inspiration from London’s Swinging Sixties era and Studio 54, and having the courage to branch out on her own.
Well, I originally really wanted to be a painter, so I studied anatomy and I was very much into what the body can do with movement. Rudolf Nureyev, a very famous dancer, was popular at that period in my life. So the body was a natural kind of expression of that kind of physicality and the first category that was very big for me was swimwear obviously. A swimsuit is something you see 360 degrees like a sculpture, so it was a natural progression.
Take me behind your first initial steps. You studied illustration, went to FIT, graduated, and then you were travelling and going to London almost every weekend. What was it like, London in the 60s?
My first job interview was just such a negative experience and I thought “I don’t know if I like this fashion stuff.” It was around Madmen time, and girdles and stockings and the matching gloves and hats. I always looked like something was off and I didn’t fit it. So I thought “I think what I need to do is just travel.” So, I worked in the office of Northwest Orient Airlines and a couple of really good things happened as a result. I got to travel every weekend for $29 round trip to London and I worked in an office that had a lot of structure, and the airlines at the time were like Apple. It was very cutting edge to work at an airline and I was working behind a computer! This was the mid 60s and if you think about it computers weren’t a part of the mainstream conversation until the mid 90s. So, you have to understand, here I am sitting behind a computer that is telling me all about the plane, where it’s going, what’s going on on the plane, a wheel fell off, all kinds of stuff. That exposure was tremendous for me, it had a big impact on the way I thought about everything.
For four years I traveled back and forth every Thursday night to Monday morning I was in London. People thought I lived there. I literally was there when there was this blast of color, in a city that was rainy and everybody wore gray and brown. And it was like “what the hell is going on here?” That kept expanding every time I went to London, and because I was there so early in the process, I was lucky to be in it. So the lesson is if something’s not working, experiment…try. Especially the younger you are, the more opportunity there is to think that every experience is not going to be a failure.
I opened my business right away in 1967. I brought clothes back for friends first and then I would say by ‘67 I decided that I might as well bring things back and make some money so that I can buy more. I found a little shop, a basement store for $285 a month, which I don’t think you find anymore. **laughs** I went to the Salvation Army and I decorated it and painted it and I brought stuff back and by ‘69, a good part of what I had in the store were my designs. I think one of the first big hits I had were hot pants.
Did you have any design mentors or how did this first happen?
My mother could sew anything, she helped me at the beginning. Then I hired a few pattern makers who completely took advantage of me. I figured the only way they’re not going to take advantage is if I learn how to do this. If I said I liked something to my mother, she would make it and nothing was impossible to her, but everything was impossible to these other people. I was asking them to do things that they hadn’t seen before. I learned how to make patterns myself, and I really had to because it was my survival. Then I would explain how I wanted it. That started to change my success and I realized that I need to know how to do everything. I need to know how all of this works so that people working for me respect my requests and appreciate what I’m saying. It may not make sense to them because they don’t know that vision, but I have to prove that I have vision and that it can be done.
There’s a decision that everybody makes in their head on what their DNA is and what they’re about. My subconscious decision was I have a lot of ideas that people haven’t seen before. I need to make a commitment in my mind that that’s going to be my definition of the kind of world that I’m gonna be in. The history of the fashion industry is one that’s very volatile and it’s very dramatic in it ebbs and flows. So when I started, the idea of the designer brand did not exist. It wasn’t until the 70s that Women’s Wear Daily decided that Saint Laurent was a brand and that was something to aspire to. The late 70s were probably for the fashion industry and designers the high point for imagination and real innovation. There was a huge gay population in fashion that was incredibly influential when it came to design, ideas, and innovation. The store windows were outrageous. Things that were going on, the parties, everything had creativity vibration that was really extraordinary. And while there is amazing beautiful clothes being made, lots of great things, there is very little that is new. Everything that was happening in the 70s was really new. It hadn’t been done before, and so the vibration was great. Unfortunately the beginning of the 80s had a devastating effect on the fashion industry. AIDS was crippling, not only for the health of a lot of people, but also for the creativity that you could see everywhere.
It didn’t silence it, but it never reached that vibration again in the same way. It’s different and there’s certainly lots going on, but the energy and vibration of what was going on was just magical. I’m not one that looks back and says it was better than, because I think now even with the insanity that exists in our industry is the best time ever, but for that specific identification, that was a great time. Licensing became a very big part in how brands made money. I did very involved licensing; I gave not just my name, but I gave pattern sample collections, and I had quite a few of those for many many years and it really was the way I was able to run my business.
You know, I think this is probably something that is exactly the same now. I got married when I was 19, which was so smart *laughs* and to make it even smarter, my husband and I were in business together. I held on for ten years and then finally it was just extremely difficult to continue. I left the business that I built with him and decided that my only survival would be if I did something on my own – the only hitch was I had $97. Not only was it drugs and everything else that made it impossible for me to stay, because I would have, but I just knew that the sales girl that he was screwing and that I had fired a number of times, just should not be asking me to design her ideas and make clothes for her. I was just not able to continue that.
When I left I started to think “what am I going to do?” I thought nobody is going to know who I am, the company was Kamali, it wasn’t Norma Kamali. I started to reach out to everybody I knew, which wasn’t a lot of people. I just found an abundance of support and help. They thought I was talented, I didn’t even think they knew I existed. I borrowed some money, I opened, and I put some money aside and I paid everybody off. Every week, a little bit at a time. Then within two years I signed a license agreement that was huge, then I signed another and another. I was not only on my feet, but I also had a global reputation and was really fortunate that people were open to help me. I didn’t think anybody knew I was alive, nevermind knew what I was doing. Then I had to understand that it isn’t necessarily men know how to run a business, and I realized that my ex-husband wasn’t really that great at running a business. It was my expectation of him and what he could do, but assuming because he’s the guy that he should do it. So I had to learn about finances and I had to learn what that meant. I had to read these contracts and these things were just so uninteresting to me. But I had to really study it like it was a course and try to understand and then try to be creative in that space.
I was on a camping trip, it was freezing cold, and at the time I had this hippy dippy boyfriend. If you were going to go to the bathroom, you go in the woods so in the middle of the night, I would take my sleeping bag and walk out a little bit and I remember being really chilly cold and thinking, “oh my god, this would be a really good coat. When I go back I’m going to make it a coat.” As soon as I came back, I took my sleeping bag and I folded it and I cut every square inch and made the coat. I didn’t waste the collar, I didn’t waste anything. The pattern we use today is the same pattern for the sleeping bag coat that I used then.
Through the years I’ve used different materials, as things change and get better and better. But the one thing that remained the same is that the filler is not feathers, it’s a fiberfill. NASA in the early 70s developed a concept where you have this fiberfill for warmth. You make two coats, sew them together, and in between those two coats there’s an air pocket. The heat from your body and the cold from outside goes into that air pocket and they both exchange and neutralize and that’s what keeps you warm. It’s a simple concept, but it really works. Each coat is really two coats, they’re reversible, which gives it even longer life, one year you wear on one side, the other on the other. I’ve had mine for over 15 years.
Light and warm. What I did was, I started to buy a whole bunch of sleeping bags and I realized that the sleeping bags that were the warmest and the lightest used this principle. The first couple of years of me doing sleeping bag coats were buying sleeping bags and cutting up the coats and then they started to get more elegant and sophisticated. And then 9/11 happened. That year it was a very muggy, dampish September, and we usually start shipping our sleeping bag coats in October every year. And as soon as that first week, I closed the company because nobody could function, nothing was working. Then I got messages, one after another and it was people asking for the sleeping bag coat. I realized people are sleeping at the airport, people were sleeping at hotel lobbies. They’re stuck, and there’s something about the cocooning effect of the sleeping bag coat. I called everybody back to work and any fabric that we could find, we just started cutting it and making coats. So that whole 9/11 period had the most unique coats out of any times that I had been making the coats because it was whatever we had on hand, and people didn’t care. Embroidery? Do it! Striped cotton? Do it! It wasn’t so much just about being warm, because you didn’t need to be warm then, you just needed to be in your blanket.
Is that part of your philosophy, that nothing is wasted, it all has a purpose and it all has a place?
Yes, I think one of the things I thought about when I wanted to be a painter but there was a part of it that I felt uncomfortable with because it was just going to hang on a wall. You couldn’t sleep in it, you couldn’t wear it, it’s just this precious thing that you look at and then what? The idea of having something that you own that can affect how you feel, can help you function in your everyday life, and that can be a part of your life for a number of years. That to me, is when you hit the jackpot. If you can do that and this person wants to wear it for 15 or more years, that’s great! But it has to live up to the promise, it has to hold up, it has to look good, it has to be easy to clean, it has to do all of those things. I really learned from making swimsuits, which are the hardest thing in the world to make. You can make a gala embroidered red carpet dress anytime before you make a swimsuit.
You also have to remember, fabric with rubber in it, only started to become available in the mid to late 70s. Prior to that they were just made for girdles, and even swimsuits had no stretch in it. They would take elastic and sew up the elastic with the fabric in it so it would stretch. So clearly there was an evolution of fabric changing and it took awhile before they figured out how to incorporate the cotton into the fabric to get it to stretch.
First of all this little thing has to fit a lot of people. It’s this little fitted thing that has to fit and move, not come off and not get damaged by the sun, or chlorine water or anything else. It has to do so much, and be responsible for every body flaw that any woman has. I was frightened to death because that was one of the first wholesale categories I did and I thought “I don’t know how people stay in business doing this.” I mean they also have such a short selling period. It was the hardest thing, but it also taught me a lot.
You know, it’s an interesting thing. There are a lot of celebrities that have reached out to us through the years. Because I’m a woman, and there really aren’t that many women designers in our industry, I always saw it as a huge advantage because I’m aware of what women are going through, I’m aware of what is happening in a woman’s life, what’s expected of her, how she should feel, what makes her feel strong. So I always use myself, my friends, other women I know as a barometer for what women are feeling and need at this point. And that really has been my muse. What happens later when models or celebrities are wearing the clothes, it then starts to turn into a story. But my initial thought is, what’s modern? What’s gonna make her feel right?
RIGHT: INTERVIEW MAY 2015 by PATRICK DEMARCHELIER
Touching on your approach to fitness and wellness, was it always important to you?
So fitness as a concept, really came boldly after Studio 54 in the 80s when there was a combination of power suits and this athleisure kind of dressing where you were wearing sweatshirts to the office. If you look at it chronologically, before that, going out dancing was the fitness. After Studio 54 and AIDS, health became very big part of the conversation. A lot of the thought was to build your immune system and have a diet that was very clean, so not only did that start the conversation on food but also working out. The wave of working out came at the same time that I did this collection out of sweatshirt fabric; I was doing swimwear cover ups, and I thought should I do them out of sweatshirts, and then I got carried away and before I knew it I had evening gowns made out of sweatshirts **laughs** From that collection I signed my first agreement and this became a movement and it really started the concept of athleisure and active as a lifestyle.
It’s still not! **laughs** It’s a process, you know. I was fortunate enough to work in Japan for many years with a license agreement. Japan is very good with technology and textiles and through them I was able to develop one of our fabrics now. It’s the finest denier yarn – it’s like polyester, drapes like silk, and it’s strong as steel. It takes so long to knit a yard of it, that there’s very limited production of it worldwide. Thank goodness we own a good part of that production each year, because fabric like that is a treasure, and if you own something in it, it will last you a lifetime. There are people who still say “I bought your swimsuit 25 years ago!” and I’m like “God damn that fabric! Get another one! Go to normakamali.com and get another color!” **laughs**
The truth is that there’s a lot of technology now in tech clothes and you’re right, I tend to be drawn to those more. In the past I was obsessed with embroideries, which is gorgeous and very red carpet but when I look back at that, it just looks so old fashioned to me. To me what’s more exciting is the evolution of textiles and the function of how can a t-shirt read your heartbeat and tell you information? To me that is huge!
I wonder, from your experience, how do you as a woman try to design to make a woman feel comfortable in her sensuality and in herself? I find that it can also be a feminist mindset to say “No, I don’t want to run away from my sensuality, I don’t want to run away from my sexuality, I am a woman!”
I think the perfect example of this, when a woman looks objectified by the clothes she’s wearing, or the choice of clothes she’s wearing then she’s empowered. So, if you think about the Olympics, and you think about the volleyball players, and they’re wearing next to nothing. They’re exposed all over the place, but I never think that they’re objectified, not for a second. They’re the most empowered women in the world. It’s not what you’re wearing, the bottom line is it’s how you’re expressing yourself. If there’s a powerful woman wearing a dress with a little thing here and little thing there, and has so dignity, the dress is not really saying who she is. If she’s shows signs of weakness, then that dress says too much and it’s too over the top. I think really it’s not the clothes, it’s “who is that woman?”
What do you want your legacy to be. What do you feel like you stand for and what do you do to take it forward for as long as you decide to design?
My job has always been from day 1, to make women feel good. As every year goes by, it’s not just the dress, it’s also information. Whatever it is, the more information that I can share, the more that I can pass along, that will make you feel more efficient, will help you look at life in a healthy way, that will empower you, that will make you feel invincible, so that you can reach your potential, and change the world. I don’t have any kids, I spent all of the years that women were chasing around and giving themselves to kids, I was really looking at the things that are good for women.
There are so many things that millennials have and can contribute, especially with ideas and a new way of looking at things. The idea of shortcutting is fantastic! But not everything works if you shortcut it. There is something about the process of going from start to finish, long hand. It doesn’t have to be with everything but by doing that, the benefit to help your dream and your potential, is just unbelievable.
For sure. I mean I don’t know what it means to be like “oh this is what I’m supposed to be like at 25 or 35 or 50.” But I’m sure at the end of it you’re like, when you look back at it in retrospect, there’s no difference between 27 and whatever, it’s just all of the things that happened, all of your life experiences, but the way you look at things is still the same.
But there are like layers. You do change, I am definitely a completely different person than the person who went out on her own, and started a company. Or the person before that. I mean, I hardly spoke. I was just quiet and introverted. But each decade sort of reconfigures who you are. Your cell turnover changes too. There’s a physical change, emotional change, but I think there’s a spiritual change that is minute. And that the core of who you are basically was formed early on, but it’s just there and the modifications are around it. But it’s definitely an interesting time for women, and for the evolution of women. And in a lot of ways there’s nothing holding any body back anymore, so the opportunity is just extraordinary.
RIGHT: COSMOPOLITAN JUNE 1977 Christie Brinkley by FRANCESCO SCAVULLLO