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Exclusive: Uncompromising Kamali

By Ruchel Louis Coetzee
Posted On Dec 01, 2018
Exclusive: Uncompromising Kamali

Design icon Norma Kamali doesn’t just try on style for size: Decade after decade, she makes it. As she zealously creates another seismic shift in the lives of women with her Stop Objectification campaign, Wellness Café, and her new Invincible beauty line, this fierce fashion icon shows us that change isn’t just inevitable, it’s glorious. 

Up a forested winding path hidden among the hills of Mount Kisco, New York, lies a Richard Meier architectural masterpiece joined at the hip to a Seventies stone cottage. At the door, Norma Kamali’s personal assistant instructs me to take off my shoes and put on paper booties before leading me down the staircase of the stone home to a suite all done up in white leather. There, buried between rows of black and gray clothing in the vast dressing room, I locate a petite yet incredibly toned Kamali in signature oversized sunglasses, looking more like a wild, grinning kid in the world’s most chic candy store than a woman who’s logged seven decades on this planet.

“Spirit defines age,” she laughs. But when it comes to Kamali, she’s done much of the defining herself, thank you very much. After all, this prolific and iconic 71-year-old introduced some of the world’s most symbolic looks of the Seventies and Eighties: the Sleeping Bag Coat, Farrah Fawcett’s red swimsuit, shoulder pads (they’re back!), and the Parachute Dress.

But believe it or not, these are just tiny blots on the canvas of Kamali’s life. The past few decades have given rise to other colorful brushstrokes. After receiving an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in 2010, Kamali became inspired to bring a little egalitarianism to couture, launching her super affordable KAMALIKULTURE line, giving women not on a bon-bon budget the opportunity to have design, fit, and high-quality clothes within reach. Two years later, she simultaneously resurrected her ahead-of-the-curve Eighties collection, Sweats, which made a prophetic statement about wearing casual clothing, and kicked off her new complementary Active collection, too. Not content to decorate the body, Kamali used her own age-defying habits to create her recent skin-care line, aptly named Invincible. And then there are the multiple nods in the fashion industry, among them several Coty and CFDA awards and the recent CFDA 2016 Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award, all strong validation to her creative vision.

Kamali isn’t just dictating the architecture of a lifestyle. She’s living it.

Fadil Berisha
Fadil Berisha

From the Inside Out

Every decade since the start of her business in 1967, Kamali has reinvented herself, always staying ahead of the curve. She was there in London in the Sixties, living in fashionable Chelsea and frequenting the same clubs as the Beatles and other soon to be discovered super-star musicians. “London at the time was very gray—gray clothes, gray rain—and there was this little area that was like a blast of color you never could imagine,” she says of her old London neighborhood. “I saw that colors started to take over and then the gray was gone. Everything that happened before that was Mad Men, all girdles, corsets—I hated it! And all of a sudden, [there was] freedom like you could not imagine.”

What this translated to for Kamali was a kind of exciting disruption; a shaking up and out of the old to make room for the new. “That same disruption is happening now, but completely different,” she says, prophesying as only a fashion guru of her stature can. “I think it’s motivated mostly by our mobile devices and our ability to communicate in a way that nobody could have imagined. Every business that exists today and every person that’s functioning on the planet today will have their lives changed, and the important thing is that you have to be the one that makes the change.”

It’s a modus operandi that has served her well. “I had to understand what being a brand was before people were talking about what being a brand was,” she says. “And I realized the brand was me.” Indeed, the name Kamali has practically taken on a life of its own. Her brand and passion have evolved over the years, spawning into beauty, health, and wellness, with an overarching, well-stitched theme of helping women feel strength through self-esteem.

“That dress that they put on is not going to look as good unless they feel good about themselves, spiritually and emotionally,” she says. “A lot has to do with what you’re feeding your body and how you treat your body. It’s so connected—fitness, health, beauty, and style. That’s really the key.” For Kamali, self esteem and body image are entirely wrapped up in healthy habits and attitude. So passionate is she about this idea, that her latest venture, the Stop Objectification campaign, adopts the mission statement of bringing awareness to the detrimental effects of objectification on women’s self-esteem and body image.

“I didn’t have a desire to have children or feel I could be good with children if I was so involved with my work,” says Kamali with her trademark honesty, “so I made the decision to put that energy into discovering things that can change women’s lives and make them feel good about themselves.”

The idea was born after Kamali watched a scene in the movie Bridesmaids where the lead character, Annie Walker, played by Kristen Wiig, is in bed with a love interest and pretends that she does not care that it’s a one-night stand. “I’ve observed that women crave being loved more than a man can totally understand,” says Kamali. Following that, she began conducting informal surveys, asking women whether they had ever been in any situation where they had felt objectified. No matter the age, the answer was always a resounding, “Yes.”

Kamali created a website (Stopobjectification.com), which urges women to post photos of themselves, adding to each of them a personal, heartfelt empowerment message. “Instead of being embarrassed by a body part [I want to know] what’s the favorite part of you because we are judged by our physical. It could be your fingernail or your nose or your butt….whatever. I want [women] to take that picture and post it and then put out a proclamation of who you are.”

Kamali made short films for the campaign, too. One called “Hey Baby” shows a beautiful woman walking down a street with the camera zooming in and stopping at her breasts. The words, “Ph.D. in neuroscience” flash across her chest. “I think if every father heard his daughter’s stories of objectification, he would become the best advocate,” she says. “He would then share the stories with friends and other young men. If he was ever with a guy who was objectifying a woman, I know that his memory of his daughter’s story would end that situation from happening.” But these scenarios aren’t theoretical; it comes directly from Kamali’s first taste of adulthood in the Sixties. “I started to think of situations where I was objectified and it was like a landslide of memories that I would never speak about,” she says.

One such incident was her very first job interview at 18. Armed with a degree in fashion illustration from FIT and the recommendation of a critical instructor, Kamali recalls with visceral feeling the day she walked through the door of a potential employer in the garment industry. “There’s a guy sitting with feet up on his desk, eating tuna fish. I’m there with my huge portfolio but he asks me to put it down and come toward him. Then he said to me, ‘Turn around.’ I just remember like white noise thinking, I’m going to cry. I need this job. I turned around and I was so humiliated and horrified that I feel every emotion right now as I tell you. I grabbed my portfolio, ran out, and never told anyone about it.” Like many women of the world, it wouldn’t be the last time something like this happened to her. With this campaign, she wants to try to change that by getting women to share and own their tales, too. “By releasing your story,” she offers, “you have incredible freedom.”

Fadil Berisha
Fadil Berisha

Finding Her Joy

Step into her swanky, all white, zen-like West 56th Street office in Midtown New York and you will be confronted by rows of skillfully cut leisurewear you could pluck off the rack and wear to the office straight away. But this isn’t just fashion for fashion’s sake—behind Kamali’s success is the idea that life is truly about simplicity, goodness, and truth; your clothes should help you embrace that. “Authenticity is really important so that we all can understand that what we each have is so much better than what anybody else has because it is ours,” she implores. “It’s our unique kind of contribution. I think being authentic, keeping it simple, and trying for balance is a great trio and sort of a life concept.” For Kamali, it’s that very simplicity and clarity that have been the tools to earning (and enjoying) her incredible success; one that was, indeed, hard won.

Two years after marrying her first husband, Mohammed Kamali, at 19, they opened the Norma Kamali clothing enterprise with her at the design table and him overseeing business development—and, according to Kamali, “living out his fantasies.” Five years later, they divorced. “It is never easy to leave a relationship especially when your world is your business and everything is wrapped in it. I was at my cutting table thinking, How am I going to leave all of this, I don’t know how to do this, and the ceiling fell literally down on top of me. I said to myself what Confucius says: ‘When ceiling falls on your head, it’s time to leave.’ I left with $98. That was one of the biggest challenges of my life but the best I could have ever done.”

What Kamali learned during that transition as she reached out to friends and other industry people took her by surprise. “I am ever so grateful for people who are generous and really care about anyone who is in need or has a mission. I didn’t think people were that generous, but it was great to see.” In the decades that followed, the trust that had been broken in her first marriage left her content to single-mindedly focus on her brand and business. After all, she was still Norma Kamali. But it took a walk into the world of eastern medicine and the power of Neuro-Emotional Technique to finally release emotions buried deep within her and open her heart up to someone again. Four years ago, an ex-boyfriend introduced her to attorney Marty Edelman, and her eyes still light up whenever she talks about him. “I never thought I would ever meet my soul mate and never really understood what that meant. I think a soul mate is someone who gets you and you get them and if that happens simultaneously, it’s sort of like a miracle. I’m really lucky to have him in my life.”

Fadil Berisha
Fadil Berisha

The Culture of Kamali

What you start to realize about Kamali is that there are many things in her life that are cut from the same pattern. Although she projects a culture of cool, calm, clear simplicity, it’s this combined with her ability to change that’s kept her current, cutting-edge, and thoroughly relevant. But that ability and openness has also held sway in her personal life and health regime, too. The haute couture isn’t so far from holistic.

It was during the excesses of the Eighties that Kamali began to place more emphasis on what she ate and her level of fitness. “I love to eat! I could eat a ton of food and always be thin, but then I realized that there’s something smarter about [how] you eat and working out in an appropriate way.” She began keeping in her cupboard only healthy foods that make her feel good. That way, nothing would be off-limits because nothing would be harmful to her well-being. “When I eat bad food, I feel sick,” she says with a simple shrug.

I wondered at what point in her life she realized she had to adopt a healthy lifestyle. “Probably around 1980,” she answers. “Before that I was dancing every night with very little sleep—that was my exercise.” Being a very physical person and always on the move, Kamali began exercising to Jane Fonda tapes and doing Pilates long before it became mainstream. “I also never drank, never did drugs—intuitively, my survival instincts were always there.” She credits her mother for that intuition. During the Fifties, her mother was exercising to Jack LaLanne and already adopting a healthy diet as part of her lifestyle. “When I realized she was different, I begged her to stop doing facial exercises when my friends were in the house,” she laughs. “She was so on it, I didn’t have to think about it because that was my frame of reference. But she was totally eccentric and sometimes ‘oh my God, what’s that about!’” Kamali says, holistically, she has learned from her parents that nothing is impossible, everything is possible, and that people from different worlds should really try to understand who the other person is because you may have more in common than you realize.

The journey to explore Eastern medicine accelerated when her curiosity about acupuncture facelifts came to the forefront. For someone who has always maintained a very natural approach to health and beauty, Kamali was determined to hunt down the best acupuncture doctor she could find. “I found the best doctor in Philadelphia and I asked [Jingduan Yang, M.D., F.A.P.A.] if I could get an acupuncture facelift and he said no and I said ‘What do you mean? I drove two hours here!’ He told me I had to learn about eastern medicine before I have an acupuncture face lift, so I told him I would agree if he would allow me to tape the sessions.”

The resulting work of this six-month period Kamali spent learning about acupuncture with Dr. Yang, a fifth-generation practitioner of Chinese medicine, is a comprehensive Eastern medicine reference handbook called Facing East: Ancient Health + Beauty Secrets for the Modern Age. It’s an engaging dialogue from both Dr. Yang and Kamali that morphs ancient methods of healing for the modern age. “This is really his book, but I am doing a book that might coincide with this project and it’s a book about fitness, health, beauty, and style. I’m really excited about it,” she says modestly.

In keeping with Kamali’s quest for all things natural and timeless, olive oil plays a very dominant role in her health and beauty life, and that of her new online Wellness Café as well. “My mother was Lebanese, my father was Basque; clearly, there was olive oil flowing,” she laughs. “When I opened my Wellness Café after 9/11, I decided to make olive oil one of the key product categories.” She also loves to keep the stress at bay by working out each day and making sure she gets enough sleep. “I love my bed! And I love the process of just getting into bed, feeling good in the space, and then having a great night’s sleep so that in the morning, I’m energized and ready to go.”

She’ll need the rest—Kamali’s beauty, health, and fitness ventures promise to garner even more attention. This year, her new skin-care line, Invincible, launches with the same passionate thought and dedication she has afforded her award-winning designs. Besides a cleanser, serum, and night cream, what sets her line apart is the product Glow, an everyday moisturizer with a sunless tanner, and her Booster cream for a daily all-natural glow. With its signature all-white design (and the best advertising of all: Kamali’s age-defying self!), Invincible is certain to become routine for all card-carrying Norma Kamali fans.

It’s hard to imagine when Kamali isn’t ready to bust a move. The layers she’s built of her life, both personal and professional, seem to enouncter no bounds; she certainly has never let a single one stop her. It left me with one challenge to present to Kamali at the end of our visit: Could she possibly describe herself in five words? She paused and looked down at her hands. She silently counted out four fingers on her right hand, looked up at me, and smiled. True to Kamali’s pursuit of simplicity, she didn’t even need five: “I. Am. Norma. Kamali.”


Photography by: Fadil Berisha