October 5, 2022

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Is Norma Kamali Fashion’s Most Prescient Designer?

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She’s always known what her customer wants before they do.

Norma Kamali began sowing the seeds for her own fashion empire in her 20s, but not by apprenticing at a fashion house. For a spell in the 1960s, she was working as an airline clerk, each weekend shilling out $29 for a roundtrip ticket to London.

“England was becoming this hotbed of music, of film, of fashion, and being there every weekend, I felt so much a part of it,” says Kamali, now 77. “It was what my soul was feeling.”

The bright, shining modernity in London at the time — all go-go boots and creeping hemlines — was much more her beat, a far cry from the girdles awaiting her back home in New York City. But rather than lamenting her domestic fate, Kamali took matters in her own hands, filling her suitcase with pieces to sell in the United States.

By the mid-’60s, her business was booming. In 1968, in partnership with her then-husband, Kamali opened a store on 53rd Street where she would eventually make clothes of her own. The attire in London made her feel free, and she figured the women of Manhattan wanted the same — she did, anyway. This is the Kamali experience even now: With an almost prescient approach to her business, she’s spent five decades channeling what her customer wants, and maybe even needs, before they realize they do.

Since Norma Kamali, the brand, entered the fashion lexicon in the late 1960s, it’s been associated with the sort of timeless practicality that, in design, is usually reserved for things like lounge chairs or classic cars. Take her Diana Gown, which soared into Instagram ubiquity after a particularly momentous cameo on Carrie Bradshaw in “And Just Like That.” Though Kamali created it in the ’70s, the Diana’s roots go back even further, having drawn inspiration from the draped marble sheaths adorning goddess statues in antiquity.

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In fact, Kamali has always approached her work in observance of the human body. Studying fashion illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology (from which she received an honorary doctorate in 2010), she came of age learning about the physique in an almost clinical sense.

“At FIT, I started to study the way a lot of the illustrators from the ’40s and ’50s would illustrate fashion on the human form and have great anatomical expertise in the way the fabric draped over the body, and I loved that,” she says.

Over the decades, this knowledge has extended beyond the bends and curves of human flesh and into its inner workings. In 1973, Kamali launched her iconic Sleeping Bag Coat after researching the NASA method for warmth: Each jacket is actually two coats sewn together with air pockets in between, wherein heat from the body exchanges with the cold from outside. Today, this technology can be seen across brands of all makes and models, including PrimaLoft, a line of patented synthetic microfiber thermal insulation material that was developed for the United States Army in the 1980s. But in capital “F” fashion, Kamali brought it to market first.

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In an interview with Vogue, Fern Mallis, former executive director of the CFDA and fashion consultant, remembered how Kamali “was one of those people who was completely computer-savvy when nobody in the fashion business knew what that meant.”

“[Years ago],” Mallis said, “I did an exhibition with the Fashion District, and we had, like, 40 mannequins up Seventh Avenue, each designed by different designers. Norma did hers with bar codes on it — nobody was doing that at that time.” Twelve years later, Amazon has begun opening brick-and-mortar clothing stores that use QR codes to display details about each item. QR codes aren’t exactly pervasive yet — but did Kamali know they were at least on their way there? According to CFDA CEO Steven Kolb, she has always demonstrated an innate ability to forecast trends.

“To stay relevant for decades, as Norma has, requires an intimate understanding of who is shopping your brand and how their lives evolve,” he says.

Norma Kamali with her mannequin for the “Fashion Center Sidewalk Catwalk” — featuring bar codes — in Manhattan’s Herald Square in June 2010.

Photo: Marc Stamas/Getty Images

“What I’ve noticed as a designer is that the longer I’m doing this, the more I can intuit how the social condition affects what people are going to want to buy,” says Kamali. “And I’m realizing more and more that this intuit perspective is what gives me the ability to start trends rather than follow them. And some of the trends I’ve started have lasted years and years.”

In 1980, Kamali launched her “Sweats” collection, a precursor to the athleisure boom. Amid the conservatism of the Reagan Decade, Kamali proposed something that was just the opposite: a range of ready-to-wear garments, from bias-cut jackets to fishtail skirts, done up in sweatshirt fabric, striking a balance between comfort and sophistication.

“The sweats are a great example of the fact that people wear casual clothes every day,” she says. “Active sportswear is just part of life now, and there’s no connection to me at all in it, which is great, because it’s now part of life.”

Kamali goes about her design business not unlike a trend forecaster, fostering a consumer relationship that enables her to closely observe her shopper’s behavior. In the 50 years since Kamali first launched the Diana Gown in 1973, the brand has reissued it at various strategic points, first in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and again in 2018, now complete with a Skims-era bodysuit sewn underneath. (“I intuited that this was going to be a good dress for this time,” says Kamali, “which is why I brought it back.”) Two years after its most recent revival, the world entered lockdown, and while that may have spelled the end of days for some formalwear, the Diana took on a life all its own.

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“Even at the start of the pandemic, all of a sudden, we saw sales going up,” says Kamali. “‘Who’s wearing this dress during a pandemic?’ But this dress just kept going up and up and up. And then I realized more and more people who wanted to get married weren’t, and there was the anticipation for special occasions — not just for weddings, but for other events, too. And people would need dresses for them.”

The Diana Gown is a retailer’s dream. At Saks Fifth Avenue, which carries the Diana in more than 15 colors and lengths, the Norma Kamali brand resonates as well today as it did half a century ago. At press time, the dress is set to emerge as a top-seller of the current season, according to Saks’s SVP and General Merchandise Manager of Women’s Contemporary & Modern RTW Dayna Ziegler.

April Koza, VP at FWRD, adds: “What stands out for me is what a timeless business Norma Kamali has created with such a clear and well maintained design point of view — never driven by trends and therefore, always in its lane. Norma also serves as a uniformer of sorts for women who choose to abstain from major trends.”

The irony here, of course, is that the Norma Kamali brand is inherently trendy, in the most literal sense. But for Kamali, “trendy” isn’t necessarily a bad word — if anything, the Diana’s recent popularity has introduced her to an entirely new subset of shoppers, which she’s found invaluable.

“On Instagram alone, the amount of women photographing themselves in my clothes has given me, for the first time in all these years, a look at the diversity of who my community is,” she says. “The fact that they’re all so different but wearing my clothes has been the biggest education I’ve gotten in fashion after, like, 50 years. And that education is helping me tremendously in decisions I’m making now about how I want to service women, because that’s my job. My job is to make them feel good and happy.”

Fifteen years ago, Kamali was walking down the street, perhaps on her way to her studio or to pick up her daily green smoothie (which she famously drinks every morning) when she came across a young woman in a suede skirt. It fell at the mid-calf, with an uneven hem and whip stitching. Kamali recognized it immediately.

“It was the first thing I ever made, and when it sold, I literally would’ve paid somebody to wear it — but that somebody actually paid money for it was just astounding to me,” she says. “I made it in the ’60s, so that skirt had a life with several owners. This idea of a piece of clothing having history is very exciting.”

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