Exclusive Interview with Norma Kamali

By Katherine Kingsley and Cynthia Fareed

Over the past four decades, legendary fashion designer Norma Kamali has bestowed upon the world such creations as the shoulder pad, the sleeping-bag coat and the skirt that can be worn in 30 different ways. At her flagship store on Madison Avenue, Kamali, now 60, talked to Sway about her humble beginnings in the industry, her post-9/11 ďWellnessĒ collection, and a certain admiration for the artist known as Prince.

ďYou can trace what I am specifically about in every piece of clothing Iíve ever done; no matter how different things get, thereís a thread of truth. I look at all the clothes Iíve designed, and I donít look like anybody else through the years. Three years ago I thought of doing this Wellness collection, which is what you see here in the store. It actually came about after 9/11 when I thought long and hard about whether or not being a designer was important enough in a time when things were so difficult. Then I realized that making people feel good is part of what a designer does, and that is really what should be happening right now, because weíre stressed on every level."

ďThis is one of the collections that Iím expanding and building and that I believe in a great deal. I think itís got the potential to expand into the home, so that you can create your own spa in the way you live, whether itís the lighting, or the scent that you create in a space, or how your bed works for you, or the towels you use to dry yourself. That, to me, is really the future of how to make people feel good: fashion will re-emerge, I think, serving us more than it does now."

ďMy background is really kind of diverse in that my motherís family was from Lebanon and my father was a trader. My mother grew up in Puerto Rico, so there was this Latin culture in the house, and the Lebanese culture too. All of that influences everything about you.Ē

ďIt sounds kind of hokey, but when I think about it, the key force behind my designs is my mother, really. She died a year ago. I thought everybodyís mother was like her but I soon found out that they werenít. She could make the most extraordinary costumes, she could do embroidery, knit, crochet, cook. All of those things and more. So I learned at an early age that anything is possible, because of everything she did. I thought that was life."

ďMy original goal was to be a painter. I studied anatomy and did life drawing for many, many years, even in my high school. We had ballet dancers come in and we did life drawing. I had Michelangelo up on my wall, and Nuryev. Anything that had to do with the body was really important to me. I wanted to be an artist, but my mother said, ĎYou know what? Paying rent is going to be very important,í so I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology and figured I would work something out. In the early 60ís I really hated fashion. I didnít connect at all to the matching hat and handbag. As much as I love Jackie Kennedy, it was not the way I wanted to dress. I didnít know why, I just always looked like a slob. At FIT everybody had their little bags and I was just like, ĎOh my god get me out of this place.í"

ďWhen I left I tried to get some jobs, but I didnít find what I wanted to do. I ended up at an airline office, and every weekend for 4 years I was in London for $29 round trip, from 1964 to the end of the 60s. What better time to be in London? Nothing was matching, everything was new, everything was just what youíd never seen before, so you could do whatever you wanted."

ďI started to realize that swimwear was my thing, because I was so aware of the body, how it moves. Iíve done wedding gowns, evening gowns, shoes, accessories -- but swimwear is the most difficult product that Iíve ever made. You have to make a piece of clothing thatís treated the worst out of anything anybody has. Itís put into chlorine water, salt water. Itís put wet into a little baggie and maybe left there for days and expected to look great the next time you put it on. You have to make that little piece of whatever fit a lot of people and try to make a lot of people with a lot of different bodies look good."

ďIíve had an opportunity to dress a lot of people through my career. Up until the point of me doing my first commercial line, I was doing every rock groupís clothes. I was like, very underground, very cult. People thought that I must have been stoned every day of my life because of the clothes I was making. The one person that I always wanted to dress, at the time he was very popular, was Prince, but I knew he always did his own clothes. Two weeks ago Katie Rodriguez from Resurrection, who has all my vintage, told me Prince came in and bought a whole bunch of things. The funny thing is, he bought part of a collection that I had once been thinking about for him. So it was very trippy. It was really, really trippy."

ďShoulder pads resulted from a funny combination of things. I wasnít thinking about womenís empowerment at the time; it was just a coincidence of design that the 70s represented this emergence of women in the workplace. I was intrigued with all the classic movies. That square-shouldered, small waist, small hip look really was the right next step, because in the 60s there was all that flower-power, and there needed to be structure after everything being soft. I thought that structure needed to be the hard edges of shoulders and suits, so I made shoulder pads.Ē

ďOn My Own started around then. Iíd been in business with my ex-husband - my husband at the time, and I had this kind of emotional dependence on what the man should do; I thought men knew everything about business. But we grew in different ways and his lifestyle turned out to be very different from mine. Finally, with $96 to my name, I left everything that I had created with him - my patterns, fabrics, everything - in order to start my own thing. It was the scariest time of my life, but I found what I loved to do and I was starting to establish myself."

ďPeople began to know who Norma Kamali was, and I must say I wasnít quite comfortable with being that out there. I like the joy of designing but I donít feel comfortable with too much publicity. Hearing that youíre a genius is kind of sick, right? How can you be a genius when youíre just designing clothes? I mean, itís not a cancer cure. Iím sorry, itís clothing. Itís clothing. Weíve got to get real here. I think that there are people throughout history, when we look back at fashion and design in context with the arts, who have done some incredible things; I think that there are designers who have done significant things to elevate women, to bring women forward, and to allow women, and men, to express themselves through what theyíre wearing. But itís still not curing cancer. It makes people feel good, thatís a great thing and I enjoy it, and I think we should talk about it and give credit, too. But genius? Thatís a big word, thatís heavy. Thatís for very special situations, and it may not be fashion.Ē