NEW YORK—Norma Kamali radiates a rare beauty, a glowing gorgeousness that can only come from the inside. Full of energy, creativity, and a balanced sense of passion for life, the 71-year-old fashion designer, style icon, and innovator loves change. Yet as she has been reinventing herself over the years, her core motivation remains consistent.
“I spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking of ways of making women feel good,” she said in an interview at her all-white, minimalist-style flagship store on 56th Street, off of Fifth Avenue.
As a fashion designer, Kamali is strongly attuned to the connection between what a woman wears and how confident she feels in her body. Beyond clothes, Kamali extends her awareness of that connection to health, fitness, and wellness as essential for women to look and feel beautiful.
“I love having the ability to express myself creatively, and by doing so I think I can actually affect women’s lives. I can affect how they feel about themselves and their self-esteem and their body image. A woman who feels good about herself is just invincible,” she said.
Kamali herself is full proof of that axiom.
Looking incredibly youthful for her age and remaining true to her creative vision for nearly five decades, since the start of her career in 1967, Kamali sets a stellar example in helping women tap into their full potential.
Strength and nurturing are the first words that come to her mind when thinking of femininity. “Women have incredible endurance, they have incredible patience and understanding,” she said.
All of Kamali’s models are slim, healthy, and fit. Their poses are active and dynamic, exuding confidence, projecting Kamali’s wish for all women. “I think men understand women’s strength. They are very much aware of it, and they are a bit in awe of it because it is powerful,” she said.
But she also realizes that the potential of women has yet to be tapped completely. “Not that I think women are better than men, I just think we are not getting the best of women yet,” she said. “There is so much more that women can contribute, but first they have to be free of any anxieties, anger, and insecurities, all of that stuff, and then when that happens, they will help men balance themselves too.”
The way women are objectified and the way they objectify themselves is a huge block to reaching their full potential. She recalled a memory of her own experience of being objectified, one she had suppressed for years.
At age 19, after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), she had her first job interview with a potential employer in the garment industry. “He tells me to put my portfolio down and his feet are up on his desk and he’s eating a tuna sandwich and he says, ‘Why don’t you come here and turn around for me.’ I was just shocked, I couldn’t think, so I just turned around.
“I was so embarrassed and humiliated that I just took my portfolio and ran out. I was in tears. I never told my mother or my father, but I know that if my father knew, he would be so angry and so upset,” she recalled.
She feels that if men would hear their daughter’s stories of being objectified, they would become advocates for change. “I think it’s important for us not to keep these secrets, but to talk to the men in our lives and share the details,” she said. It would help dissolve the shame and blocks to women contributing fully.
Kamali is aware of how the fashion industry has contributed to that epidemic, so she started the Stop Objectification campaign, urging women to post photos of themselves with their messages of self-empowerment.
“A lot of women that I meet and know, I find they are extremely inspirational. In fact I would say that every woman that you know, and every woman that I know, and even women we don’t know have a really compelling story if you listen to them,” she said with sparkly eyes.
Her Own Authentic Boss
On a typical day, Kamali arrives at her office at 6 a.m. She designs in the quiet morning hours until 10 a.m, then does fittings, checks in with her company’s departments, has outside appointments, or lunches with interesting people on her radar.
Then, she said, by 4:30 p.m, “I run to the gym and work out. By then there’s nothing left in the head. Gone! So I focus on the body. It’s actually very good because it’s a great stress reliever, and it’s the perfect time of the day for that.”
From the very beginning Kamali decided she wanted to have total artistic freedom. She had to figure out how to pay the bills without having outside investors or a board, and she has kept it that way since she was 24. Her staying power and ability to stay ahead of the curve is rooted in her commitment to being authentic. There isn’t anything for her to keep up with but her own creative ideas, which only inadvertently influences the fashion culture.
Just to name a few examples, she came up with the idea for her iconic sleeping bag coat during a camping trip, when she found herself wrapping her sleeping bag around her shoulders to stay warm outside. After doing that a couple of nights, she realized that sleeping bags needed sleeves. With her more recent Kamalikulture collection of high-quality affordable styles made out of an easy-care fabric in sizes 0–18, was her answer to women nudging her to broaden her range to be more inclusive.
She took Chanel’s versatile concept of day-to-evening wear, dressing up or down, to a quantum level with her “All in One” and “Wrap and Tie” collections that can be worn in at least eight different ways. She was also the first designer to sell clothes online back in the ’90s.
She went on a quest to find the best olive oil in the world, which has been the panacea her mother passed on to her since childhood. She promotes at least 12 olive oil tips for health and nutrition, and for improving the hair, skin, and body, as part of her Wellness Café venture. Lately she has been developing a beauty kit that doesn’t contain any toxic chemicals (like cadmium, a carcinogenic ingredient used by many lipstick brands).
It’s no wonder that the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) honored her with a lifetime achievement award in March. It marks another exciting phase in her life.
“My career has been really based on what I want to do artistically—whether it’s designing clothes, making films or beauty kits,” she said. “It’s all according to what I feel is right in the moment, for what is going on in the world and what people are ready for. So my interest in wellness, fitness, health, beauty, and a plant-based lifestyle is really coming around for me to share more information about it,” she said sipping a delicious green tea her assistant brought to the table.
“Between green tea and olive oil, my life is very simple—the basic things that I just love,” she said. “I also like the idea of no makeup on the face. Seeing skin shine and glow is really healthy. To have a mask with layers where the skin is maybe three inches deep, that’s more corpse like than it is healthy looking.” Kamali herself prefers to wear just mascara and a little bit of concealer under the eyes.
Her recently published book, “Facing East: Ancient Health plus Beauty Secrets for the Modern Age,” written in collaboration with renowned classical Chinese medicine doctor Jingduan Yang, shares her musings on wellness and her insights on beauty. She turns a time-tested ancient healing practice into a fun read, despite all the complexity of Chinese medicine.
In addition to taking good care of herself (she never drank or did drugs), her vitality and beauty stem from her conviction to be true to her creative call.
“When you do something that you love creatively and share that experience or its results with others, it seems to generate energy, not just within yourself, but in the people around you as well,” she wrote in “Facing East.”
Of course, she has had to face many challenges, ups and downs, like any other leader of a company.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fallen, just made stupid mistakes, but the key is you’ve got to get up quickly, come up with another way of doing things, and have a solution,” she said.
“There’s good days and there’s bad days and so how do you deal with the good and the bad? Sometimes you can deal with the good inappropriately too, so I think balance is a big part of it. Having balance through the highs and the lows is very much a key to regulating how you live your life.
“I’ve been able to have the most creative life and that’s really my motivation. Money and fame, or to be the most whatever, is not as important as being as creative as my soul wants to be. That formula has actually kept me in business for all this time, and I’m so grateful for it,” she said with a glowing smile.
“This Is New York” is a feature series that delves into the lives of inspiring individuals in New York City. See all our TINYs here: epochtim.es/TINY or follow @milenefernandez on Twitter.