Jul. 18, 2019

For Norma Kamali, the best things in fashion are eternal.

I wanted Norma Kamali, Fashion Illustration ’65, to tell me about her stuff. The original concept for this article was to go her studio and have this iconic designer of American sportswear talk about her favorite possessions—souvenirs of the past, gadgets, and snapshots. The idea was for readers to learn about Kamali by looking at her things.

There was, as it turned out, only one problem.

She doesn’t have any things.

Well, hardly any. About 15 years ago, she gave up all rituals of accumulation and began to concentrate on letting go. “One day, I just looked around me and I said, ‘I’ve got to get out of here!’ I had a warehouse full of stuff, and I learned to let go of all of it. Everybody thought I’d lost my mind, but I’m happy to say, it’s great.” At the same time, she stopped smoking and gave up eating meat.

Sitting in the all-white, futuristic boutique of her headquarters on busy West 56th Street while a recording of soothing ambient sounds plays, Kamali adds that seeking inspiration in objects can be a trap for designers. “If you have a possession that inspires you and you look at it for 20 years, you’re not going to grow. To survive in this business, you have to design in the context of the times you live in.”

High-heeled sneakers, c. 1985.

Fortunately, Kamali has always been ahead of her time, so many of her signature pieces—the sleeping-bag coat, the jersey suit, the parachute jumpsuits, the high-cut swimwear—remain in production. So my planned excursion into the past turned into a stroll through the present with a peek at history and a glimpse of the future. Watch out: According to Kamali, that future includes the return of… shoulder pads.

One inspiring person: My mother could see magic in simple things. She did cake displays for the windows of Schrafft’s. She literally had oil paints out all the time. She could cook a meal, crochet, sew, and build enormous dollhouses, so I always thought I had to be doing three or four things at the same time.

Life-changing experience: An illustration class taught by Ana Ishikawa at FIT was the best thing that ever happened to me. She brought in different illustrators to talk to us. One day, she brought Antonio, who was the year ahead of me and already working for The New York Times. We became friends. He was super talented, a really good guy, the best. He had that energy of the ’70s, when it was easier to get excited about everything.

Origin of the parachute jumpsuit: [The performance artist] Victor Hugo was a very dear friend of Halston’s, and he also knew me. One day he took me to Halston’s brownstone. He told me to sit on the floor in the living room and close my eyes. Then, from the second floor, he dropped a parachute on my head. ‘I know you’ll do something amazing with that,’ he said.

Exercise routine: I’m very physical. I love running and power walking in Central Park, but I also do Pilates and Gyrokinesis. They’re timeless moves, great for increasing flexibility, strengthening your core, spine, and muscles.

The sleeping-bag coat: My boyfriend in 1975 was very much a hippie—which was a side of me, too. In the middle of a cold night, when we were camping and I had to leave the tent, I’d think, ‘I wish I could just wrap my sleeping bag around me.’ So I cut up my bag and made the pattern.

Why she brought back shoulder pads in the ’70s:  In the late ’70s, the squared shoulder was the look—not for political reasons, but because it was stronger aesthetically. I love the contrast of the strong shoulder with loose sweatshirt material. I wasn’t imitating Adrian. Adrian was Adrian; what I was doing was a fun thing.  I know I can be held responsible for the ugliness of those big ’80s shoulders. One girl in my workroom actually created the Velcro shoulder pad. We used to make sculptures out of them.

Uh-oh: I believe there’s a shoulder pad silhouette that’s due now. It looks fresh again. I did it in activewear recently and people told me, ‘I want to kill you.’

On the ’30s and ’40s: The classic American concepts of beauty and style were put in place. [Vogue illustrators] Eric and RBW drew the gestures and attitudes of the time. Everyone held a cigarette then, the way everyone holds a cell phone now.

Favorite color: None, really. Color comes and goes, but I’m a very black-and white person.

Spirituality: I believe in astrology and the evolution of the spirit, and that we can re-morph into another lifetime.

Julie Christie and Oskar Werner in Kamali’s favorite movie, Farenheit 451.

Favorite movie: I watch Fahrenheit 451 (above) every two years. It’s so modern. Truffaut made it from the Ray Bradbury novel, about a future in which people burn books and watch giant TVs. I knew when I saw it in 1966 that I was seeing the future.

Most memorable award: Awards are tricky. I don’t know if you deserve them in your lifetime. But the one that changed my life was from Washington Irving High School, where I went. I’ve helped them set up a design studio there. It’s a great place for kids to learn about fashion, but the studio’s not as important to me as working with parents and teachers.

Jersey dress for Spiegel, current collection. Kamali is also doing sportswear for Everlast.

Jersey girl: I started working with synthetic jersey early on (above). It’s easy to wear and drape. I made dresses that could be worn a million ways. I do a Spiegel line now with designs that don’t change, because the year is not reflected in how they look. That they’re affordable makes them even better.

Antonio drawing of Kamali swimwear.

How to buy a swimsuit:  Stand in front of a mirror absolutely naked. Get to know what your body is turning into, and look to enhance it. Focus on the complement to your body, not a picture of some model in a magazine.

Her Wellness Café, opened in her boutique in 2007: Everything in it comes from the idea of nurturing, and it’s all good for you: lavender tea, honey drops, and shortbread and cupcakes made with olive oil.

Kamali imports olive oil to sell in her Wellness Café.

Olive oil: Olive oil has been produced for thousands of years. It has spiritual and healing properties. I went from orchard to orchard in the olive belt in Europe, going to tastings, doing research. The world has changed and changed, but the simplicity of olive oil is timeless.

How to survive in the industry: Be very aware of social, political,economic, and environmental influences. If you don’t read the newspaper and know what’s going on, you’re not relating to your time. And fashion is always a barometer of its time.

This article was original published in the winter 2007 issue of Hue Magazine.