Norma Kamali has been a fixture of the New York fashion world since the 60s. Her sleeping bag coat was worn by the Studio 54 bouncers. Her parachute silk pieces are in the Met. Her swimwear is legendary (she made Farrah Fawcett’s red one-piece in that poster.) In the 80s Kamali made sportswear stylish – decades ahead of her time. We meet the designer and wellness guru as she launches NORMALIFE her totally natural, four part skinline.
Interview and Portraits JOHN WILLIAM Archive NORMA KAMALI
Norma Kamali is 74, wearing not a scrap of make up and she looks fucking fantastic. She is taking me through the four parts of her skinline NORMALIFE. “So the first is CLEAN. This obviously is not a soap, so we’re eliminating soap but we’re using a cleanser that has aloe which is restorative for the skin, and charcoal which is an antibacterial. The big bold statement with all of these products is the way you apply it – by massaging. So not only does it work better when you massage it into dry skin, but the process of self-care and the ritual of massaging into your body and taking the time to do that every day is really very healthy.” Now we are giving our hands a good massage with the gorgeously gritty SMOOTH (loaded with finely ground olive pits.) “It’s all about the ritual… taking time.” The range is unisex and as we share in the self-care Norma talks about how even her clothing line has returned to a gender fluid formula.
“So in the seventies it really looked like the idea of individual style and blending clothes – not necessarily defining them as male or female – was really becoming easy and comfortable for everyone. And then of course AIDS came and stopped it, and everything went extremely conservative and sort of very butch. And it never really swung back – to menswear not being strictly mens, until I would say in the last two years. I’m sure you’ve noticed that too. I used to dress The Dolls [those of The New York persuasion]. So they would come in and take their clothes off, put on the outfits and ask us to throw away what they came in wearing, and then they’d come back in two weeks and change their clothes again. Recently I was ordering mannequins for our space. I don’t have clothing racks anymore I just have mannequins with QR codes. So you put your phone up to the QR and the product page comes up and you can shop. So I ordered more mannequins, and male mannequins arrived and I didn’t order male mannequins. So I thought, Okay, I get it. The universe is telling me. As a woman, I think the more men that have a strong feminine side, the better we’re gonna get along, the better it is for the universe. And I think clothing helps men do that.”
Beauty Papers: When did you start working on the cosmetics?
Norma Kamali: I’ve sort of been in the wellness world for quite some time. I’ve carried many products since 9/11 actually because I thought the stress factor was going to really take a toll on our immune systems collectively. Products like alternative toothpastes. Instead of having a sugary toothpaste, one that is alkaline that will help balance the acidity in your system. There are so many skin products out there, and they all have these wonderful promises and I’m not quite sure that all of it is necessary. So I created some products that are very simple. The ingredients are timeless and amazing quality and like we were just saying – they have no gender, they are just about skin that looks great.
"I've not worn makeup since 1990. I was getting older and I don’t have a problem with lines on my face, but I felt like makeup was just accenting everything that says I’m ageing. I started to say 'I just want my skin to show.'"
BP: You don’t wear make up do you?
NK: Not since 1990. I was getting older and I don’t have a problem with lines on my face, but I felt like makeup was just accenting everything that says I’m ageing. I started to say “I just want my skin to show.” That’s why I developed this [Norma grabs the bottle of GLOW] because sometimes, especially in the winter, we all look grey. I still wanna have colour, but I don’t wanna do the typical tanner thing. You can do your whole body with this, massaging it into dry skin. You can’t go wrong. It doesn’t streak. You can see when it’s all absorbed in your skin and that guarantees you’re not gonna have any funny stuff going on. It adapts to every colour skin.
[Norma is now applying a liberal serving of SOFT to both of our hands]
I even use this it on my dog. I have a little fifteen year old Dachshund who is like a very crickety old man, and so I massage his paws with it. He loves it. I also put olive oil in his food.
BP: Throughout your creative career you’ve had many zeitgeist moments… has it been instinctual?
NK: Yeah, I mean clearly if you’re in a creative field you have to feel it. What sign are you?
NK: So I’m a Cancer, and we feel everything, right? It’s all about intuition and sort of a sense of it being right or right for me, or right for my mindset and being authentic about it. So I’m very strategic and I take a lot of risks, but they’re Virgo calculated risks. And fashion, this industry, sort of trains you from season to season, year to year, decade to decade on how the pendulum is swinging or what the mood is or how to feel about a trend. Is it gonna be long term? Is it gonna be short term?
BP: I associate you so much with New York, but I believe you were in London in the late sixties?
NK: Yeah. I graduated from FIT. I had a job interview in the Garment Center, and I didn’t really … I hated fashion then because it was Mad Men time, you know corsets and all of that. I hated clothes. I just wanted to be an artist. I wanted to paint, and my Mother was like, “Get over that, because I’m not supporting you.” [both laugh] “You’re gonna have to pay rent so you better find something to pay the rent.” So I figured maybe I’ll do fashion illustration, because I loved illustration. So when I graduated I went for a job interview and it was horrible. I went in with my portfolio and this guy says to me, “Turn around for me. Let me see what you look like.” And I turned around, and I was so humiliated and embarrassed that I did. I was just out of school and I wanted a job so my Mother would stop yelling at me, “Get a job, get a job!” I was horrified that I did that, and I could hardly talk about it, maybe up until seven years ago. I don’t think I ever mentioned it, I just told my Mother I didn’t get the job.
So I looked in the papers at the time and I got a job at an airline, and at the time airlines were kind of like Apple or Google. It was the cool job to have. Not as a stewardess but in the offices, and I got it because I could come to London: twenty-nine dollars round trip! So I was here every weekend, every weekend. And over here [London] it was all beginning, it was just sort of erupting. Somebody at the airlines told me to stay near Sloane Square in Chelsea, and so I stayed at this little boarding house and I remember going up to Kings Road. I was walking along the Kings Road and it was nothing but art stores and shoemakers, and then all of a sudden I hear this music and I see this colour all over this building. I remember walking inside and thinking Oh my God! Oh my God! I had chills. I’m here! I felt very at home here, and came very close to moving to London.
BP: What were you dressing like back then?
NK: Well before what happened in London there wasn’t a skirt above here [Norma chops her legs way below the knee]. There just wasn’t, and women were wearing garter belts and stocking and corseted cone bras. So those undergarments defined a certain way to dress. You couldn’t really wear a miniskirt if you had stockings and garter belts. So the idea that there were skirts to here [Norma hikes her hands to way north of the knee], then that means everything else you’re wearing needs to change too. I embraced it completely. There was no question in my mind that this was the way I was gonna dress. So I would go shopping at Biba and Bus Stop. I mean, the dresses were like twelve dollars, and I was only making eighty dollars a week at the airlines at the time, which was not a lot of money but that was what you got paid at that time. I would buy as much as I possibly could and come back and wear these skirts, and New York hadn’t gotten the feel of what was going on here yet and literally cars would stop and call me a prostitute. All my friends wanted me to bring them clothes. In the airlines they teach you how to pack efficiently and tight – you take your dress and you roll it up like that. So I would roll up all of the clothes, put rubber bands around them and carry them through customs. And I never got stopped.
Then finally, I decided I should have a store in New York, so I found a basement store for $285 a month. I painted it and went to Salvation Army and got snakeskin wallpaper and whatever, and then I started selling clothes that I found in London, and it was a big hit. Then I started to make things. I had only been making clothes for six months when Harper’s Bazaar gave me a full page, and then I got another one in Vogue.
BP: Did you meet Diana Vreeland at Vogue?
NK: I was very fortunate to meet her, but it was later around 1973 when she was working on the Met exhibitions. She was doing an exhibition and I was doing my parachute clothes, and she contacted me to do three outfits for the exhibition, and it was the first time a living designer was in the exhibition. And so she asked to meet me before it opened so she could show me the displays. Like, Me?! It was wonderful because it was all of this antiquity and then in the middle these three girls in billowing parachutes that were being blown up by fans. She was a force of creativity that I think represents a lot of what was going on at that time, in the sixties. The beginning of a revolution.
BP: How would you compare that sense of possibility and creativity to the industry we have now?
NK: Well, I’ve been doing this for five decades, so in the context of decades there have been certain shifts that are very significant. I think that the sixties just gave everybody permission to think in a new way. The seventies, in fashion especially… Do you know who Ian Shrager is? [the founder of Studio 54] So Ian’s my best friend and we have this conversation a lot, and our take on the seventies is that that time was probably the height of fashion creativity and innovation. New York City was in very bad shape. It was almost bankrupt, the crime was ridiculous. It was really broken and a lot of people left the city, just totally left it. And so it became the perfect place for people who wanted to leave their hometown. New York was the place to come, because it was cheap. If you could survive not getting mugged you could come to New York, and the interesting thing that happened was because of this infusion of creativity, things just exploded in New York. A lot of it was gay, and a lot of it was women and the feminist movement. You knew everybody in the creative circles and you mixed and you talked and you inspired and you would really help each other. Then AIDS came and just brought everything to a halt. And then the buildup began, and it came in different ways. So now the fashion industry was more branded, and it was about licensing and the size of your business and huge advertising campaigns. It wasn’t so much about the inventive creativity of the clothes it was more about the power of the fashion show. That didn’t mean it wasn’t creative, it was just creative in a different way.
And then design teams versus the designer. And so through the five decades that I’ve witnessed, there have been some extraordinarily beautiful clothes. But are they relevant to today? I think this disruption we’re going through is not only the way we do business and the way we storytell and how we use our devices, but we’re also asking are these garments creative in every way? How can technology and creativity come together and really be new and be exciting? Even though I would be very happy to make clothes that regulated body temperature, that could check your heart rate, your health status, I could go there in a second… For me it’s more about the socio-political situation we’re in. For me to say “the most important thing about the clothes right now is that it’s okay for men to wear women’s clothes,” sounds a little antiquated, but in our time this is that step towards this gender neutral mentality, where we’re not so caught up in things like race, religion, gender. We solve this problem first, and then the clothes will change and evolve too. Women need bras, men need certain things, but then everything else can be merchandised in one place, so men and women can all shop in the same place to buy whatever they like without a “Oh is this a men’s, is this a women’s?” No, it’s do you like the colour? Do you like it? Try it on in your size.
BP: Are you optimistic about what’s gonna come next?
NK: I’m always optimistic. I always see glass half full. I think that’s what being creative is about, looking for an opportunity to come up with an idea or to contribute to be a part of it. To be honest, the time we’re in right now is even more exciting than the sixties, the big disruption we find ourselves in the middle of. It’s global, instant, and it affects all of us immediately. This is an incredibly exciting time. It’s the most exciting in my lifetime, so I think you guys are really lucky to be here in this moment if you have a positive outlook about it.
"I’m always optimistic. I always see glass half full. I think that’s what being creative is about, looking for an opportunity to come up with an idea. To be honest, the time we’re in right now is even more exciting than the sixties, the big disruption we find ourselves in the middle of"
BP: Fashion and wellbeing have not always been compatible bedfellows. How have you navigated this?
NK: That’s a great question, because the fashion industry, and the beauty industry are probably the biggest defenders of objectification of what the idea of beauty is. How thin you have to be or how rich you have to be to be able to be special and to be a part of what the fashion industry decrees as right or in fashion, and that’s done a lot of damage to a lot of people. It’s really been a problem that women especially are constantly dealing with. Truth is, you can never feel beautiful if you don’t feel good about yourself, and a dress can make you feel better, a great pair of jeans can make you feel good, but if you feel good in your own skin – whether it’s what you’re putting in your body to eat, or how you’re using time to take care of yourself, that investment is much better than spending your rent on a handbag.
I was lucky because my Mother, as eccentric as she was, was also right on target when it came to this target. She was juicing. I remember as a kid we had an apartment that was about that big [Norma makes a shoebox sized gesture], the juicer was this huge iron demon, that was in the kitchen that was like that far from my head and at six o clock every morning, she would start talking to me, and the juicers going, and she’s doing exercises and there are supplements and all of this stuff, and I would say, “Mom, nobody else’s Mother is doing this. When my friends come over can you please …” “No. Too bad.” And I literally rejected it until I realised What was I thinking? This woman totally was right about all of this!
BP: When did you rediscover it all?
NK: I would go on these retreats in the late eighties, with doctors who were looking at integrated medicine and looking at wellness – it wasn’t really called that then. I’d go with my notebooks, absorbing all the information. I was really inspired by Michael Pollan, who was investigating farming and looking at hormones in the animals we eat. I was fascinated by it all but if I talked to a friend about it, they were like, “What’s happening to you?!” So I wouldn’t say anything. I stopped eating meat and started looking at a plant based diet, but it wasn’t a conversation I would have with friends. It wasn’t until after 9/11 that I started to really incorporate it into my business. I started to stock fresh juices made by people in their lofts… and then it progressed, and just like with fashion something that starts out pure starts to become a commercial “how big can you get and how many leggings can you sell” thing.
We’re at that point now where there’s an excess of a lot of things that maybe aren’t all that necessary. Most people can’t discern what the good things are and what the silly things are. I think, because of the amount of time I’ve been involved in this, I think it’s my duty to clear the air, and make it simple, and stop having the beauty industry and the fashion industry define what beauty is. And authentic beauty to me has always been where it’s at, so your face, your skin, your lips. You don’t have to do other people’s lips.
BP: Tell me about your very well-known exercise regime? If I was coming on the plane back to New York with you and staying in your spare room, what would it be in for the next morning?
NL: [Laughs] Well I mean, I think movement of any kind is important, and I think everybody’s different, and everybody has a different energy level and a different motivation. You would have to identify what was fun for you, because if exercise and a workout isn’t fun, you’re just not gonna go, and you have to feel like you’re accomplishing something. It could just be walking, walking is absolutely perfectly acceptable and having a really great pair of sneakers that make you float when you walk and you walk in places that make you feel good and are exhilarating and exiting, for your eye and your sensibility… So it could be anything. I like classes, because you know you can’t make a fool out of yourself in a class, you can’t fake it, you really have to give it your all.
So if you put yourself in a situation where you have to give it your all and you work at it and you’re successful, it’s very empowering, because if you can succeed physically then you realise how you can succeed at other goals or objectives. I think exercise is critically important for all aspects of our lives.
BP: I have to ask you about Studio 54. Were you a bit of a party animal back then, or was it just that your clothes were going to these parties and you were off doing your own thing?
NK: I never went! And it was mainly because I don’t drink, and I’ve never taken any drugs, ever, so you can’t be in a place where everybody is out of their minds and you’re straight. But my clothes had a lot of fun at Studio 54, and my clothes do have a lot of fun. They’re on fun people, doing fun things and that’s what I enjoy. I could dance all night, every night for the rest of my life but the idea of going to a party is not something I think about.
"I really feel glamour is natural, authentic beauty. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t do eyes and lips and hair and all of that, but the idea of a healthy lifestyle is such a luxury, and that to me is as glamorous as you can get."
BP: What about your idea of glamour? How would you define it?
NK: Well you know, it’s changed a lot, because I really feel glamour is natural, authentic beauty. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t do eyes and lips and hair and all of that, but the idea of a healthy lifestyle is such a luxury, and that to me is as glamorous as you can get. I think when I see women made-up every day to that airbrushed Instagram, kind of filtered look and so carefully groomed that you don’t wanna touch them because they’ll smudge… I think that that is a sign of someone who’s not feeling good about themselves, and so they’re pretending. Pretending is fun, but not everyday, not as the way you look everyday. And I did that when I was younger, literally pounds of makeup, hair, everything because I felt ugly. I think the idea of feeling that you don’t have to do that stuff gives people confidence to be brave and bold about whatever they wanna do, and I think they look more beautiful. So it really goes back to glamour is beauty that is authentic.
BP: When did you start to feel that for yourself? When was it that you felt more comfortable in your skin?
NK: I think probably in the nineties. So how old was I then? I was probably about forty-five, when I felt “I feel smarter and I feel a sense of myself” and so I started to feel that I was living the lifestyle that was better for me, and understanding how to do that. I experimented through the eighties with different things, I was always sort of playing around. But by the time I was forty five I had a sense of, “Okay, this is who I am. This is what I look like now, and maybe I’ll look different in ten years,” but feeling comfortable about what that is. When you’re forty-five you’re grown up, you’re not judged just by the way you look first. So when I turned forty-five, I had created a sense of Norma Kamali that people knew, and so I didn’t have to pretend to look a certain way. I could just be me. And that was very freeing.
NORMALIFE by Norma Kamali is available at Selfridges