Norma Kamali on Perfecting Function and Form
“Flattering” is a loaded word. To call something—a photograph, a pair of pants, a haircut, a shade of eyeshadow—“flattering” is to underscore the imperfection that lurks beneath. Flattering garments conceal bumps and lumps. They lengthen body parts, mask disproportions, and even out color palettes. The high fashion world has therefore never strived to make flattering clothing. In the arena of the impossibly rich, thin, tasteful, and artistically-minded, nobody needs flattering. “Flattering” is right up there with “functional” in the list of dirty words from which the fashion world may distance itself.
Except Norma Kamali has never adhered to the guidelines of the fashion world, despite steadily climbing its ranks over the last four decades and becoming one of its most important and well-respected figures. She is perhaps the only designer of her status whose chief concerns are flattery and functionality; her designs keep the everywoman at heart. Above all, her garments demonstrate a deep understanding of how the human body works, as well as what it needs to look good and move well. Her clothes make the body look more like a dancer’s, and they are comfortable enough to dance in for hours. “Dancers to me have the ultimate bodies,” she says over the phone to Heroine. This means that Kamali’s garments are artful and fanciful; she shows that flattery and functionality can be their own form of high art. Just ask those who danced at Studio 54 in her stretch-lame jumpsuits, or those who have survived a bone-shattering cold winter armored in one of her famous sleeping bag coats; Rihanna is among them.
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Raised in a middle-class family in New York City, Kamali grew up intending to be a painter. After high school, she earned a scholarship to the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she earned her degree in illustration. There, her anatomy classes instilled in her a deeper understanding of how the body functions. Draping fabric is like “painting on the body,” she says, which is perhaps why she is one of the best drapers of all time. “My skills really gave me a sense of the body in a 360 degree perspective,” she says. Kamali keeps her body in peak condition through rigorous exercise, and she does her draping on her own body. Once she graduated from FIT, Kamali took a job at an airline, which frequently brought her to London. Inspired by the styles she saw in that city, she transported fabrics back to New York and experimented with making clothes. By 1968, she opened her own little shop on E. 53rd Street in Manhattan with her husband, Eddie Kamali.
From minor styling trends to massive cultural shifts, Kamali has tapped into the zeitgeist and peered into the future. Her list of highlights is so long that it feels absurd. From her early years selling clothes, she was both more whimsically futuristic and practical than any of her peers. She says, alluding to the early 1970s, “Men were coming out of the closet, women were talking about feminism, it was just a very provocative time. My store was a cult underground shop.” The designer noticed at least half of her clientele were men. Robert Plant, Alice Cooper, and John Lennon all traipsed into the East 53rd Street store to look for items more stretchy, sexy, and form-fitting than their usual clothes. “But they weren’t dressing in drag,” she says, “It was shocking, but they weren’t trying to look like women. They were guys.” The New York Dolls, for whom Kamali created an iconic look, best exemplified this—tight, straight-legged pants, little-tailored sweater-jackets and blazers, women’s-cut blouses made from stretch jersey, and vampy metal makeup and hair. “It was a very provocative time, and [The New York Dolls] were clever enough to make it the identity of their brand.”
This ethos stretched into the late 1970s. Kamali’s designs such as her metallic stretch diaper dresses and her cut-out jumpsuits were a unifying symbol of the disco and glam-rock movements. At the same time, Kamali earned fame for her swimsuits, thanks to a magazine cover that depicted Farrah Fawcett in a red one-piece that hinted at just enough nipple to light the imagination of every teenager in America. Later, Kamali single-handedly popularized the high-cut one-piece bathing suit. Today, there are more photographs of the Kardashian sisters in Kamali one-pieces than countable.
Kamali has pushed beyond the boundaries of bending gender, associating with rock stars, and exposing skin. In the early 80s, as women flooded the corporate realm, she also popularized shoulder pads. Around the same time, she introduced the world to high-fashion separates made of sweatshirt material, perhaps her deepest-running and most undersung legacy. “I intuitively thought, I would love to have something like this myself,” she says of comfortable, athletically-minded garments. “It was really the first time women wore casual fabrics to work. Casual fabrics to situations that normally would require you to look a different way. And it was met with an enormously positive response,” she says. Known for her affinity for health and wellness, Kamali predicted athleisure decades in advance, proving to the world that athletic wear also belongs outside the gym. Even forging into the future, Kamali has played with the past, selling pin-up girl silhouettes and referencing the 1940s—part romantic and part vamp.
As a businesswoman, Kamali has also innovated. While e-commerce currently dominates the fashion industry, Kamali was one of the first designers to sell her clothes on her website, in 1996. In the 90s, she was also one of the first designers to boldly and aggressively opt out of Fashion Week. Kamali has also been stubbornly populist in selling her designs, collaborating with Wal-Mart and Amazon. Her designs go for both $1500 and $15. She is not a snob; recognizing the power of celebrity, she styles everyone from Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and Bette Midler. Kamali demonstrates an extraordinarily rare and open mind, which has given her even rarer staying power. Just this March, Solange Knowles was featured on the cover of Elle sporting a bright-red Kamali sleeping bag coat.
Today, at age 70, Kamali keeps her eyes trained on the future when she thinks about her brand. This year she shot an entire collection on her iPhone, asking models to hang out on the street as if they were casually shooting for their Instagrams. A master draper and pattern-maker, she believes that pattern-making and sewing machines will become entirely outmoded in the near future, as clothes-making becomes roboticized. This also means that her most valuable skills will be outdated. “The whole idea of having people working in factories sewing clothes—if we open our eyes and are realistic, there is no millennial anywhere in the world who wants to do that. And I don’t blame them,” she says. But that does not make her afraid of the future. In fact, “It means that creativity is redefined,” she says. Therefore, she experiments, making a capsule collection that fuses fabrics, rather than being sewn. While some garments like the sleeping bag coat or the high-cut bathing suit might raise some eyebrows, people start seeing the brilliance of these garments in the flesh. “Yes, a lot of people still think I’m a little crazy,” she says “but the game keeps going and it doesn’t stop.”