Norma Kamali Talks Trump, Challenges, and Generation Z

At her flagship yesterday, the designer opened up about moments that shaped her career—and hosted a bitchin’ vintage sale

Yesterday, women—and a few men—of all ages flocked to Norma Kamali’s New York City flagship store to hear the iconic 71-year-old designer, whose archival pieces were worn by TK and and Cipriana Quann in our recent photoshoot, open up about her storied career throughout the past five decades. “I’m at the point in my career where I understand that I have gathered tremendous information about fitness, health, beauty, [and] style that I want to share with every woman of every generation because when a woman feels good about herself, the power she has to change the world is phenomenal,” she told the crowd of lifelong fans. “And she’s invincible when she has that.” Kamali, who has also dedicated her life to being a wellness expert, touched on all the cornerstones that have led her to become the legend she is today, from designing a line for Walmart to how her unforgettable parachute dress came to be (hint: it involved Halston’s longtime design director Victor Hugo). And speaking of archival pieces, the raven-haired designer’s speech capped off with a massive, five-and-a-half-hour vintage sale, replete with more than 400 pieces of clothing at seriously marked-down prices—think jersey dresses, flare-legged jumpsuits, retro swimsuits, and, yes, a few sleeping bag coats—as well as select styles from Kamali’s personal vintage collection from the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ’40s. And while we definitely walked away with one or two (okay, three or four) pieces, it was her talk that really struck a chord with us. Below, the six most important anecdotes we learned about the designer’s illustrious past and the influences that shaped her. (Psst, if you’re yearning for more, you’re in luck: She’s currently working on a book, slated for release early next year.) 

On the origin of her iconic parachute dress: 

“I was very good friends with Victor Hugo, [who] was sort of the design director for Halston, and Halston’s store was a block away from mine. We had a second-floor store on Madison and Halston had his big store on the corner, and Victor was in the shop constantly. [He] was one of the most creative people that I’ve ever met in my life—an extraordinary painter [and] an extraordinary person. I was doing a swimsuit at the time that was one piece of fabric that you wrapped around your body. It was called a “diaper suit,” and all of a sudden I see the cover of Time magazine and “Halston’s Diaper Suit” was on [it], and I was like, Oh. Obviously, Victor was very concerned about what I would think, and he was like, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Norma. It’s my fault. I have to make it up to you.” He said, “This Saturday, Halston’s not going to be in town. I want you to come to his townhouse. I have  surprise for you.” And I said, “Victor, I don’t think so.” But I go to Halston’s townhouse, which was magnificent. Just extraordinary. Victor told me to sit on a big ottoman that was under a balcony, and he dropped a parachute on my head and said, “I know you’re going to do something with this. Make something for me.” I didn’t care about the cover of Time anymore. I was so excited about the parachute. So I made him a jumpsuit—of course—that he wore dancing every night, and I thank him because I have had so much fun doing things with parachutes.”

On almost opening shop inside Trump Tower:

“I [used to be in] a building across the street [from this one], and I was told that the building was coming down and I had to get out in a month. I was like, What? A month? What am I going to do? I’m looking out the window, tears are coming down, I’m thinking, I don’t know what I’m going to doWhere am I going to go in a month? I looked across the street and this building just had a big sign put up that said “for sale.” It had a huge fire in it. I called my lawyer [and] my accountant and I said, “I don’t know. Can we find out? It’s right here. Let’s see what’s going on.” Because it had the fire, I was able to really negotiate a good price for it, and I didn’t really own anything until then. So we did, and at the same time, Tump was building Trump Tower. This is like, ’82, and he contacted me just before I made the decision. He said, “I’m building this indoor mall just the way they have it in Hong Kong, and you really must come here and see me.” I was doing the sweats at the time, so everybody was in Norma Kamali and it was all over, so he wanted me in there to help draw other people. I went to see him and he had a magnificent Trump-like presentation for the building and what possibilities could happen there, and I said, “I don’t know. I’m used to having a window.” And he said, “Don’t worry. I won’t charge you anything for a year and it’ll be great.” And I said, “I need a sample room,” and he said, “I’ll give you the third floor across the street.” And then finally, I thought, I don’t know. It doesn’t feel right. But he promised to “make me a star.” [Laughs]

On the biggest obstacle she’s faced internally—and how she overcame it:

“There are so many. I could have 10 for each decade that would really knock you off your feet. But I think the personal obstacles have to do with personal growth, and when you are a mother, and I’m not, but I’m sort of a mother of the company, you have to…be strong and not show weakness if it makes the baby or the child insecure. Know when to show vulnerability. It’s managing my behavior so that I don’t throw off all the people who support me in what I do, and that’s really hard to do when you feel like crap and you’re like, I hate everybody. I’m not always successful, I have to admit. But trying really, really hard to manage that is really a contest that I am struggling with every day. And the other is balance—balancing my life, which is my identity, with having a personal life, which has to be my identity, too. That’s another big struggle. That’s super, super hard.”

On designing a collection for Walmart:

“I can’t tell you how much I loved it. First of all, I was in a business meeting about something completely different, and there were some men in the meeting that I got along with really well—we were in the same mindset about quality and price. And then one of the guys went to Walmart about six months later, and he called me and said, “You have got to come here.” I said, “You’re nuts. What are you, crazy?” He said, “No, no, no, Norma. You have to come here just for the experience. Have a conversation with the people here.” So I went, and they were talking about doing designer clothes for Walmart. I said, “Oh, you know, I’m sorry. I’m thrilled. I’m just overwhelmed. Sam Walton to me is a hero—an American hero and an American story—but I think you’re off-base. That’s not what Walmart should be.” And I tore out a picture of a white shirt dress from the [New YorkTimes, and I just said, “This is what you should be doing. You should be doing classic, basic, timeless, so that women who don’t have a lot of money look great. They look quality.” I do a lot of stuff at public schools, and when I see parents [who] won’t come in for parent-teacher [conferences] because they’re embarrassed by their clothes, it breaks your heart. Or teachers that look a mess and they should look fantastic. Everybody’s looking at money and budget. I thought, I would love to do something for Walmart for those people. They should have great clothes by a designer. We did such big business in the store [and] online. We were their top brand for clothing, but I felt as much as I wanted to continue with them because it was such a great learning experience for me, I felt if I stayed with Walmart, then everybody would say, “Norma Kamali Walmart” and I would lose my identity. I even asked them if I could do it under another name, because I wanted to. But for my brand, I just could do three years. It just wouldn’t be right. But I do think a store like Walmart is so important for society [and] for the country.”

On nontraditional merchandising—and keeping up with the times:

“When I first opened [my] building, I had video monitors…I had all of these monitors showing the collection sitting on top of mannequin heads and hanging from wires, and that was a little early. People weren’t quite ready. I went back to that in the ’90s. And then I had mannequins everywhere, and my dream then was not to have a piece of clothing hanging on a rack on a hanger because what is attractive about that? What is that giving someone to do this? The whole process of it—it always looked messy. The first and second floor [here] are like a gallery. It really behoves us to be more about service, more about feeling—getting into the experience by coming to the space and then not having to try it on here. Try ‘em on at home. Get to know the size, and then forget it! You know what you want. You come in to see what’s going on, but don’t try on clothes here. It’s crazy. We’re trying to help people transition with that. Now, this generation, of course they’re not going to do that. They’re gong to buy it online. I can’t remember the last time I bought anything in a store. And that’s my business! We’re all in this big, fantastic transition. The ‘60s were a revolutionary time where out of grey came this color, bras came off, we just freed ourselves. But this revolution is beyond that by megawatts. This is such an exciting time, and I am so thrilled to be a part of it. I love it. I think…between the millennial generation and Generation Z, who I’m totally in love with—I think they are the superstars of the future and we have to be so grateful that they’re coming after the genius of the millennials who create the chaos the Gen Zs are going to come in and make it work [and] make it right—what’s about to happen and what’s happening now is so extraordinary, and we’re all so lucky to be a part of it. And if you’re not participating in this, you have to or you’re going to miss out.”

On why she loves what she does:

“There was a very famous woman in Russia [who] came to New York. Everybody tried to get her to come see the collection [but] we had ours shown in Europe, so I never reached out to this woman. I hardly knew her, and she decided when she came to New York she had to see me. It was very, very important, and all of the distributors I had were like, “Oh my god, this woman wants to see you.” So I said, “Alright.” [When] she came, she started the conversation by saying that she’s been a customer for her entire life and that she met her husband in something she was wearing of mine and then she wore something of mine when she got married. And then when she found out she had cancer, she was the one that bought the 35 turbans that [made us wonder] why this person bought 35 turbans. And then [when] she remarried, she met her husband wearing the Bill swimsuit in Capri or something, and so she wanted to come and thank me for being a marker in her life. You can understand how impactful this is for somebody like me, who is just living my dream. It’s not an easy dream every day, but it is living my dream. I hear stories like that that only fill me and make me feel totally joyous about what I’m doing.”

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