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Norma Kamali: Fashion Icon

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Fashion designer Norma Kamali, here and below.

By Jessica Michault

In the second half of the 20th century, perhaps no two designers had more impact on the way women dressed than Yves Saint Laurent and Norma Kamali. While even a fashion novice knows the Saint Laurent name, Kamali, who has been referred to as the Greta Garbo of the industry, has remained relatively under the global fashion radar. And yet, to this day, her innovative ideas, female-friendly designs and fabric exploration continue to impact the industry as a whole, as well as shape the work of up-and-coming fashion designers.

It was not long before Kamali, an ageless beauty with a sleek and slender frame, was a Studio 54 regular and her designs were being worn by trendsetting friends. One of her minimalistic red bathing suits became instantly iconic when Farrah Fawcett, a regular customer, pulled it out of her bag and posed in it for her legendary 1976 poster. It’s a suit that can be pointed to as an ancestor of the unpretentious swimwear designs currently being created by Tomas Maier.

Kamali, who will turn 70 this year, started her love affair with fashion back in 1965 when she used a job working in the office of an airline company to score discounted plane tickets. She traveled almost every weekend for the next four years to London and experienced the fashion revolution that was the swinging ’60s firsthand. “My dream of being a painter switched to fashion the minute I stepped foot in London,” says Kamali of that time. “I brought back clothes each week from London and sold them to friends; then I opened a store. Within a few months, I was making styles and selling my own clothes through a small shop I opened in 1967.”

Much of Kamali’s success has come out of her ability to spot sartorial necessities that are not being addressed in the market. One of her biggest and most lasting triumphs, the sleeping bag coat, came about thanks to one of man’s most basic necessities. “I was camping in the ’70s with my hippie-dippie boyfriend. One cold night, as I contemplated a visit into the woods, I brought my sleeping bag with me,” reveals Kamali. “Then I came back and made a coat out of the sleeping bag.”

It has been one of her best-sellers ever since and arguably ignited the whole puffer outerwear movement that is still going strong today—a development that brands such as Moncler, Canada Goose and Parajumper, who got their starts designing outerwear, have taken full advantage of.

Kamali was also an early advocate of using parachute silk in her work. Some of those designs now reside in the permanent exhibit of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Library. Since then, designers like John Galliano and Alexander McQueen went on to use the material to great effect in their haute couture work during their days at Christian Dior and Givenchy, respectively.

The current fascination with luxury activewear and designer sweatshirts can also be traced back to Kamali. She was the first designer to craft skirts and tops in terrycloth. and send them down the catwalk. “I was doing cover-ups for my swim collection, and when I started to design them, I thought about what I wear after a swim and that is a gray terry sweatshirt,” explains Kamali. “At the time, the only place you would find a sweatshirt would be at an Army Navy store or a college shop. I ordered gray terry and created a cocoon to start as a cover-up, but before I knew it, I made dresses, pants, jackets and even gowns in gray terry.”

This casual approach to dressing has become more than a trend, but rather a way of life in the United States. The ease and comfort of the designs and fabric connected with Americans on an instinctual level. The appreciation of an informal sportswear aesthetic has only increased over the years, and brands like Alexander Wang, Proenza Schouler and Kenzo have harnessed its power with paradigm-shifting sartorial results.

But Kamali isn’t proud of all of her claims to fashion fame. She is also credited in the 1980s with adding shoulder pads to women’s suiting. “Sooo embarrassing!” says Kamali. “I look at what I have done through the years and some styles are still selling today, not only on my line but on many other collections, because they were timeless. The shoulder pads were a statement about women and power. The power suit was the outfit of choice in the ‘80s for women intent on making a career an option they chose… in a man’s world. Yikes, they exploded on everyone’s shoulders, and I will take some of the blame.”

Guilty or not, the structure of those shoulder pads has influenced generations of designers, including Olivier Rousteing at Balmain, Jean Paul Gaultier, Raf Simons and Jeremy Scott, to name a few.

But Kamali’s visionary risk-taking has not been limited to the clothing she designs. Back in the early 1980s, she was creating short films of her work, foreshadowing the industry’s current love affair with mini fashion films designed to go viral online. Speaking of which, the designer was also one of the first of her ilk to launch a website. “No one was online, but I was obsessed,” says Kamali, who points to her time working on a UNIVAC computer at her job at the airline as having first opened her eyes to the possibilities of the virtual universe.

Today, Kamali, who credits her longevity to perseverance, reinvention and the failures she has learned from, still likes to get to the office by 6 a.m. to sketch in the quiet early-morning hours. She is forever on the lookout for designs that empower the people she dresses. Or, as she puts it: “My goal is to impact women’s lives with information and tools to help them reach their full potential.”

 

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