Fifty Years of Norma Kamali—The Designer, The Woman, The Legend

TK and Cipriana Quann bring the designer’s archive to life

The word “icon” gets thrown around so flippantly these days, it’s essentially lost all significance. However, one woman who is indisputably deserving of the label is Norma Kamali. At 71, the designer, wellness expert, and winner of the CFDA’s 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award is still turning out blockbuster collections, shattering the glass ceiling, and inspiring a whole new generation of self-sufficient women.

After launching her line in 1967, Kamali became a favorite amongst celebrities (remember Farrah Fawcett’s red bathing suit? Yeah, that was Kamali) and the Studio 54 set. She was a pioneer of clever collaborations and licensing agreements, having worked with everyone from Wal-Mart to Everlast. She essentially invented sweatshirt dressing (or “athleisure,” as the kids still insist on calling it), managed to make parachutes worthy of a black-tie gala, and gave us the oft-copied Sleeping Bag Coat, which is still in production today. Her clothes have always been—and continue to be—as vibrant and authentic as the raven-haired designer herself, and every collection she’s produced tells a unique and personal story about her journey. 

Kamali, who, 20 years ago, sold off the bulk of her possessions—archive included—to pursue a more “minimal” existence, recently discovered a storage space filled with her early designs. Instead of hiding these vintage treasures in a dark warehouse, Kamali has decided to give the garments new life, and offer them for sale on her Website. What’s more is that Kamali lent us some of her most unforgettable pieces for an editorial shot by photographer PATRIK ANDERSSON, styled by KAROLINA BROCK, and starring twin sisters TK and CIPRIANA QUANN of Urban Bush Babes. TK, a blogger and musician, and Cipriana, a blogger and editor, have worked tirelessly to champion individuality and give women of all races, shapes, and sizes a voice. With that in mind, they perfectly embody the strong, dynamic, and fearless Norma Kamali woman. “They’re so beautiful,” Kamali said of the twins. “And the fact that they’re women of substance—not just style—makes them even more gorgeous.”

We invite you to browse nearly five decades of Norma Kamali in our photo shoot, above. And below, Kamali opens up about her illustrious career, the importance of independence, and what the future holds.

Katharine K. Zarrella: What was the first piece of clothing you designed?

Norma Kamali: It was a brown suede whipstitched skirt that I made myself by hand. Lots of love and excitement went into that skirt. Coincidentally, a few years ago, I was walking down the street and walking towards me about a block away was this girl in her early 20s wearing this amazing brown suede skirt. I loved the way it moved, and the detail looked really nice. As she got closer, I got a rush realizing that it was my skirt! For a moment I thought I would stop her to tell her how excited I was to see it on her. I didn’t, but I wondered how many women owned that skirt. It was made in 1967 and was now living on beyond my expectations.

KKZ: What is it about your clothes that makes them so timeless? Every look TK and Cipriana wore for the shoot looks like it could walk down a runway tomorrow. 

NK: Timeless means it survives trends and has a unique quality that makes it special and collectable. I collected and sold vintage clothing from the age of 16, and I studied what made certain styles timeless. In fact, I purposely designed a collection in the early ’70s with the intention of the collection becoming vintage Norma Kamali. I wanted the styles to survive 30 years—the same [age] of the vintage clothes I was wearing at the time. 

KKZ: When you relaunched your brand in 1978, you called it On My Own, or OMO. What is the origin of that name?

NK: I was married [to Mohammed Kamali] during the first 10 years of business. We got married at 19, and needless to say, it would have taken a lot to survive being in business together. I left for my own survival. I had 96 dollars and no idea how I would move on. 

When I went back into business on my own, I was told I could not use the name Kamali unless I included something with it. OMO seemed the natural solution. The interesting phenomenon was that, in the ’70s, women were speaking up and standing up for what they wanted, including their independence. When I went “OMO,” it was sort of symbolic to many women. I received so many letters and feedback saying how inspirational my move was, and that they [now felt they] could do the same.

KKZ: What is the best decision you’ve ever made?

NK: I think the best decision I’ve made through the years was to have total freedom to do whatever I want, whenever I want. I would never be the richest designer in the world or the most famous, but I certainly would have the most creative life. But that also meant that I had to know how to pay the rent.

KKZ: How would you say your aesthetic has evolved from your Studio 54 days to now?

NK: Studio 54 was a perfect fit for my clothing. Dance, Dance, Dance! Colored fabrics with Lycra—a very new invention for fabrics that was perfect for movement. It is decades later, but there is a thread of authenticity in each decade of my work that is about movement.

KKZ: Freedom and motion are so important to your designs. How did these qualities become so integral to your aesthetic?

NK: I spent quite a few years drawing and studying anatomy. Michelangelo was my inspiration, and Rudolf Nureyev was the embodiment of the human form. He, of course, was a dancer, and the study of the body moving and in action was my favorite. Therefore, swimwear and clothes for dance and performers seemed an inevitable direction for my interests. I love working out and I believe clothing should feel good in motion and should be enhanced when viewed in motion. 

KKZ: A lot of the looks we shot had some serious shoulder pads. How did you begin using them?

NK: I remember I was wearing vintage shoulder pads and loved the look. At the same time, I designed the Sweats collection. This was 1978-1979. It was the first time casual clothing made of sweats became the look of the girl on the street—sneakers, sweats, the whole casual feel. Here is where I added shoulder pads with Velcro. The shoulder pads fit the time because this was the dawn of the ’80s—the power suit and the power woman was emerging for the very first time. The shoulder pads helped create that image. They also gave the impression of lengthening the torso and narrowing the hips. This is why this was a decade-long influence, and of course has reemerged several times since then.

KKZ: Has the way in which you think about design changed throughout the course of your career?

NK: I’ve been a fashion designer since 1967, so it’s my total identity. And, over the last five years, I’ve been thinking about who I want to be. I don’t feel like a fashion designer anymore. I feel like a designer always—clothes are my DNA, so that doesn’t ever change. But the idea of what I can contribute now, after all these years of experience, and the value of what I contribute is much broader and bigger. The clothing part of it really needs to be distilled and brought back to square one. I have a big selection of clothes that I designed 30 to 40 years ago that are still selling. So I thought to myself, Why don’t I look at that and understand why that is? In a time when we don’t know what fashion is, what style is, why don’t I take clothes that have survived the test of time and put them together and see what that means? 

KKZ: I read in the New York Times that there is a great deal of fashion lore surrounding your life and career. How do you feel about that?

NK: I think this comes from the fact that decades of women have been connecting to me physically and viscerally by wearing my clothing. I know from many conversations I have with women that their personal experience with my clothing helps define their impression of who I am. I have no complaints—I actually like that.

KKZ: What did you set out to do when you first launched your line? Do you feel you’ve achieved it?

NK: I eased my way into the business. I was working at an airline in the ’60s and brought back clothing from London for my friends. I was bringing so much back that I decided to open a store and sell them. My first store was in the basement of a brownstone. The rent was $285 per month. I decorated it with stuff from the Salvation Army. Pretty soon, I started making things I wasn’t seeing around in London, and certainly not in New York. That was the beginning. I was addicted to it from day one. In six months, I had a full page in Diana Vreeland’s Bazaar and then in Vogue soon after. It was an incredible motivator for me to carry on.

KKZ: When did you truly come to understand your style, both personally and as a designer? 

NK: I went to FIT, and when I went, it was Mad Men time—seriously Mad Men time. I was wearing a girdle with stockings and garter belts because that’s what everybody did. And you had the matching bag and hat and shoes. Everybody at FIT looked like this. I could never quite get it together– I just never connected with the Mad Men thing. So I thought, I don’t see myself in this industry at all. And then I graduated, and I went to work at the airline so I could travel. On my first trip to London [in the mid-‘60s] I saw this stuff. I was like, Woah, wait a minute, this is very exciting. Look at all this color, and the clothes people were wearing – nothing’s matching, and it’s all over the place. And it’s a mess, and it’s creatively a mess. It’s not perfect. And I thought, Ah! That’s me! That’s who I am! That was really the biggest turning point, when I realized that it’s about being creative in how you dress, not being so structured and constrained. The idea of not wearing a bra or underwear – I can tell you right now, I still haven’t gotten over it. The freedom of not having stockings with a girdle. Can you imagine wearing a girdle everyday? It just was unbelievable. So the day I saw that this was the beginning of the spirit of everything I’ve done ever since.

KKZ: What was it like going through your archive? Will it be hard to part with some of these pieces?

NK: I am personally always looking forward. There is nothing you can do to turn things back. We have to change, and people who don’t want to change are not going to survive. Over 20 years ago, I sold all of my possessions and decided on a minimal life. To my huge surprise, we recently uncovered more vintage in a storage facility that I believed had archive books, not clothing. I love letting go of the past and letting others create a new life for what I did years ago.

For a moment here and there, I remember things about the styles, but mostly about the construction and the fabric. I am free of possessions and like that freedom, so letting go is healthier for me. It keeps me looking forward. 

KKZ: You make so many incredible pieces that last forever, but the price point is never astronomical, especially compared to what so many top fashion houses are charging for their clothes these days. Why is that important to you?

NK: There will always be a variety of choices, which is great. And there will always be people who feel like they need to spend a lot of money for their own sense of who they are. But it makes me sad sometimes to see women who have obviously spent all the money they can on everything they’re wearing, and you think to yourself, There’s something really wrong. There’s something not healthy about why she’s doing this versus someone who has style, who’s the opposite, who’s filled with confidence, who’s filled with, “This is who I am, and I’m expressing myself.” So that person [who’s spending a lot of money] is truly a victim.

KKZ: Fashion victim…

NK: A victim of the circumstances of fashion. She will pay anything to feel good about herself or she will have somebody help her pay, which is even worse. She has objectified herself to a point to be with someone who will pay for her feeling good about herself at any price. Compare that to someone who’s clever and can see something that is so exciting to them, and when they put it on, it’s just going to make them feel great. That’s the fun of it. That’s the fun of timeless clothes. That’s the fun of things that are accessible, that aren’t precious, that you can put on everyday and wear it in a different way.

KKZ: Is there anything that you splurge on?

NK: I like shoes. I buy too many shoes. But the truth is, I do wear them forever. I mean, I’m wearing vintage shoes today. These are really, really, really old—they’re probably from the ’40s. I’ve had them for a very long time. 

KKZ: You have been an inspiration for generations of women. What message would you like to send to the women of today?

NK: When a woman feels good about herself, she is invincible.

KKZ: Health and fitness have become a big part of what you do. How did you become so passionate about taking care of yourself and working out? 

NK: I don’t have kids. I purposely didn’t have kids. I didn’t think I could do it. Other people can, but I only met men who were idiots, my entire life, so god forbid that they were the father of my child. So, I said, for whatever reason, I cannot create some aberration of a human being with somebody who I know I don’t want to be the father of my child. Why I allowed them to be my boyfriends is another issue. Anyway, all of the time I would have been chasing a kid around or two or three, I spent on fitness, health—things that women should want to know about. If you feel good about your body and you feel good about how you feel, your hair is shiny, your skin is good, your eyes are shining, you’re healthy. That beauty is so profound because it’s also the core of self-esteem, of who you are. If you feel good about yourself, you can do anything. Anything. Wearing piles of makeup isn’t going to make you feel better.

KKZ: It makes you feel worse. 

NK: But also it makes you feel like you’re hiding something. What are you hiding? It’s just like wearing Spanx and things that hold you in inside. It’s like, I’m not good enough, I have to do this to feel better. 

KKZ: Was there ever a point in your life when you weren’t health-conscious?

NK: Yeah. I smoked for about four years. I didn’t even want to smoke, I just started smoking—everybody was smoking. And I ate bacon cheeseburgers. But what was happening is I was feeling so shitty, and I didn’t understand why. I was always very active and physical. If I wasn’t working out, I was swimming or doing a lot of sports. I have a lot of energy—I have to do it. But there are pictures of me with red lips, red nails, smoking a cigarette with a bacon cheeseburger, all at the same time. And then having grape bubble gum for dessert. And whenever I would have a drink, I would go into a coma, and I didn’t realize that sulfur was really not good for me. Everybody was drinking and feeling good, and I wanted to, like, die because I felt so bad. So I started to ask questions, learn a little bit more about it, and then I realized what I was putting in my body was really making me feel sick. I started to understand that I had to listen to my body.

KKZ: What’s next for you? 

NK: I’m now focusing on fitness, health, beauty, style, and entrepreneurship. What we eat and how we live a modern lifestyle is key to my message going forward. I’m writing a book about this for women and doing a skin line in the next year to offer more to women and share the information I have gathered through the years.

Photographer: Patrik Andersson 
Stylist: Karolina Brock 
Creative Director and Producer: James Neiley
Models: TK Quann (IMG), Cipriana Quann (IMG)
Makeup Artist: Tim Mackay 
Stylist Assistants: Damoy Mckenzie, Jackiline Arredondo 

Special thanks to BFA Studio

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