The Highs & Lows of Being a Fashion Designer: Life Through Norma Kamali's Fashion Lens

Norma Kamali can be credited with many things: the rise of the high-leg sexy swimsuit, the sleeping bag coat, the high-heeled trainer, surviving five decades and counting in fashion, and giving one of the best thank-you speeches, notably star-studded, upon receiving her CFDA Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement award for landmark contributions to style in 2016.

Norma Kamali. Photo: Michael Waring / Courtesy of PR.

“It was much longer, but I edited it down,” says the legendary American designer, who was in London this Spring/Summer to preview her swimwear and ready-to-wear Autumn/Winter 2018 collections. To give you an idea of the calibre of folk we’re talking about, there was Madonna, Dianna Ross, Raquel Welch, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, Cher, Alice Cooper, and Rod Stewart (and, and, and…) among those who all got a shout out, and the list reads at 80 lines long.

“Through the years when you’re sobbing on your pillow, and then all of a sudden Elvis Presley is buying dresses for the women in his life – well, oh my god! Not only did I need the money, but wow that’s really something!” she recalls. And due to the incredible nature of that list, she is able to expand further. “Having John Lennon and Yoko Ono come in [to the store] was a very interesting coincidence – when something like that happens, it’s like the universe is saying, ‘don’t give up.’ Not because they’re celebrities, but because in their own right they contribute something and to acknowledge what you do is really such a great boost. They were. I thanked them.”

Norma Kamali Fall/Winter 2018 ready-to-wear collection. Photo: Courtesy of PR.

It’s stories like these that Norma Kamali is full of. She’s modest with them – because for each tale of jaw-dropping glory, she has another to share of hard times, despair, and sadness. It’s undeniable that she’s had quite the career. Even though, by her own admission, she’s spent a good chunk of it trying to hide under a rock.

“I think early on I made a decision that I didn’t need to be the most famous designer in the world; I didn’t need to be the richest,” she says. Though she notes it has become a viable business model of late. “Being a celebrity right now has an incredible value and you can be a hugely successful business person if you’re a celebrity.

There’s no way to criticise that because it works, but it’s all the individual.” It’s a depressing truth, one that tends to overlook the importance and necessity of talent. Kamali has never had to worry about not having that – only about being a little bit ahead of her time on occasion, or having too catchy an idea.

“I remember preparing for my wholesale meetings, one with Bloomingdale's. All the buyers had come up and I had a model in the swimsuits and I had worked on making everything great and I started showing them the line and they got up and left and didn’t say goodbye or anything. It turned out they thought it was just terrible. So, it was funny when I was in a business meeting ten years later and there was a woman who said, ‘I remember seeing your swimwear line when I was at Bloomingdale's.’ I said, ‘Oh, were you one of the women who walked out? Why did you walk out?’ She said: ‘Oh sweetie, we loved it; we thought you were very sweet, but we just couldn’t understand how you would sell a swimsuit like that. But we were wrong.’”

Norma Kamali Spring 2018 swimwear collection. Photo: Courtesy of PR.

It just goes to show (and FYI, the swimsuits in question were those now renowned thigh-high styles). But during her five-decade-long career, she’s never let it get her down down. Yes, she’s fretted about bills and worried about the rent. But she’s still standing. In no way is she retrospective. The brand just turning the big 5-0 has marked a new beginning, in fact. “The last thing I’m going to do is celebrate it, because that would be like saying my career is over. When I turned 50, I got rid of every original sample I ever made so you couldn’t even do a retrospective if you wanted to!”

It’s this positive, forward-facing and embracing approach to life that has surely aided her – and her designs, which are built with the wearer’s real life in mind. Are they comfortable? Do they feel good? Can you eat lunch in them? These might sound like obvious questions to ask when designing anything, but let’s face it – they’re not really.

“Having something you can have in your wardrobe for a long time is key, something you can wear a lot and it’s not going to fall apart – then you have more fun with your clothes. I like easy care, I like to travel and not think too much about where I might have to get it steamed,” she says. Which, again, is what comes through with her latest Autumn/Winter collection. She’s keen to stress it’s stretchy and machine washable – the noise of the machine she finds soothing. The idea is that it’s classic – but by her standards. Which doesn’t mean boring or conservative, instead pieces that can be put with each other in different ways over time in your wardrobe.

A self-confessed yoga fiend (in researching this piece I read an article in which she took the interviewer to a yoga class and gave them a good old workout – I think I would’ve actually been up for doing that!), it’s her own lifestyle and attitude that inform her designs, all clearly the result of her experience, too, but not weighed down by it.

In person, she dons a slick, thick bob; supersized someone-of-significance shades; and the tiniest figure. She wears her own clothes, is warm, and talks with the kind of wisdom and anecdotes you want to curl up with a cup of tea and listen to (ed’s note: I’m British, hence the beverage suggestion).

Initially, Kamali hated the fashion industry. It was somewhere between “Mad Men clothes and London,” so she went and got a job at an airline instead and wound up spending her weekends in the British capital (see, that’s a glamorous one of the tales), where she would see the city flourish, as it did back then, passing from the grey tweeds to match its dull skylines to the then-revolutionary colourful bohemia that was cultivating over on King’s Road in Chelsea in art stores, music, and fashion.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is unbelievable,’” she recalls. “The next weekend I came back and there were more [stores] and more of them. People were dressing in a way that I’d already adopted, that feeling in the individual spirit was very strong.” She felt at home. “Back in New York, people were either afraid of me or yelled at me because my skirts were up to here [gestures short]. All of a sudden, I’m wearing miniskirts with nothing on my legs.”

And, all of a sudden, everyone wanted a slice of the London she had on tap. So, for 285 dollars a month, “which was a lot for me,” she rented a little basement shop and sold the clothes she got from London. In turn, that led to her wanting to make her own things, things she hadn’t yet seen. “So that’s how it started. I owe London for sort of saying this is who you are, this is where you belong.”

Norma Kamali Fall/Winter 2018 ready-to-wear collection. Photo: Courtesy of PR.

She packed her bags many times with the idea to move to London, but never quite did. It’s still a favourite place – even though it’s changed somewhat. King’s Road, certainly, is now no longer what it once was.

But aside from her eclectic style, Kamali’s place in fashion is also one of swimsuit pioneer.

“When I first made swimsuits, there was no Lycra in swimwear. If you look at vintage suits, they were all cotton with elastic thread. So, when I started doing swimwear, I was using circus fabric.”

In the Seventies, it was her radical high-leg suit on the cover of Cosmopolitan worn by the then-just-discovered model Christie Brinkley that got her noticed. “All of a sudden people wanted to sell, so I launched into the swimwear business.” It was around this time the infamous “we loved it, but we just couldn’t understand how you could sell it” meeting happened. “But I was so naïve. I had no idea. Swimwear was so new,” reflects Kamali now.

“It’s probably much harder to make than any other product. It’s probably easier to make a wedding gown or a beaded dress. Swimwear has to fit a lot of bodies, it has to be comfortable, it has to hold up, the colour has to stay. Everything about it is just insanely complicated.” Describing the whole process as “basic training,” it’s that kind of tenacity that has held her in good spirits all this time. Even when, as the current landscape’s penchant for athleisure and puffer jackets has proved, her ideas can sometimes catch on a little too fruitfully.

“Having a sense of who you are and what is important is key. There are many times I will tell you that my clothes were copied and people had a bigger ad budget than I had and would get the recognition and make the money on it. And many nights I went to sleep crying because I didn’t know if I could pay the rent the next week. And I never talked about it or complained about it. There were times I thought I wouldn’t stay in business and how can I compete with people who are making money from my designs? And it’s not to complain, it’s to say that you make a decision that there aren’t going to be happy days if there are times when you question how important that is. So, I decided I had to stand by what was important to me.”

It’s quite the honest and refreshing outlook: to suck up that anger and let it settle in your stomach, be comfortable, and move on to a more liberating space and state of mind.

“I’ve seen other things that I’ve done, that I’m pretty sure I initiated, and think to myself that’s pretty great for me, personally. I have a lot of pride when that happens. I’m paying the rent now so I feel much better.” Brilliant, Norma, brilliant! “I can be more generous in spirit. But even when I was sobbing I just would never acknowledge that was happening. I was too proud and now I look at it and say, ‘that’s amazing.’ I’m happy. I have another idea, let’s see if you can catch this one.”

Norma Kamali Spring 2018 swimwear collection. Photo: Courtesy of PR.

And among those is her avid support to empower women, be it from the point of view of a waistband not chaffing you or preventing you from eating dessert to being able to shop smart and not aimlessly. “What is beautiful is a woman who feels most comfortable in her own skin. So, if eating foods that are good facilitate that, then that’s what I want to inform; if working out keeps you fit and feeling good about the power of your body, then that’s good information too. To understand the importance of sleep. Your attitude is going to make you look great.” It certainly does for Norma. There simply is no way she’s the age she’s meant to be (she was 70 in 2016). “This is about serving yourself,” she instructs.  

Life can be hard enough, but lucky for us Norma Kamali, more than a designer and akin to a lifestyle guru, is there to lend a helping hand.