As a teenager, Norma Kamali made sure she had the tightest pants on the block by literally stitching herself into them before going out on a date. But calling attention to herself in that or any other fashion is the last thing the 37-year-old designer would do today. Yet no matter how retiring Kamali may be personally, her clothes are outspoken statements of funk and fun. She is, without question, the designer of the moment. “Americans are getting out of their jeans,” sums up fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo, “and into their Kamalis.”
Last year Kamali won her first Coty Award when she moved sweat shirt fabric out of locker rooms into the street, using it for knickers, bomber jackets and minis. That was the beginning of the Norma-lization of America. She then forged ahead with a line of kiddie clothes, plus a collection made from denim, chino and thermal cloth and, of all things, cotton sheeting.
This year’s sales of her ready-to-wear line are expected to reach $20 million, and in 1983 Kamali plans to expand into shoes, stockings and socks. Remarkably, all this activity comes during a protracted slump on Seventh Avenue. “She has had more impact on the fashion world than any other designer I can think of,” applauds Bloomingdale VP Kal Ruttenstein.
Kamali may have finally tapped the mainstream’s millions, but “before sweats,” she reveals, “I was the queen of extravagance.” At first she was most popular with avant-garde rockers and stars like Raquel Welch, Carly Simon, Bette Midler and Donna Summer. Always ahead of the fashion pack, she made jump suits (out of parachute cloth, no less) fashionable. Ditto her Indian dhoti pants and Lycra body suits. Before the down revolution, Kamali pioneered a sleeping-bag coat when, in the middle of a divorce, she found herself living in an apartment with no furniture except a sleeping bag. And the diminutive designer was the first to revive 1940s shoulder pads. It was her way of building up her 5’4″ frame.
The outrageous quality of some of Kamali’s designs is in stark contrast to the quiet nature of her personality. As fashion’s Greta Garbo, she avoids any kind of star treatment. “Even as a kid,” she says, “I was shy. But I loved to dress up. I know it’s a contradiction.”
Kamali grew up Norma Arraez, of Basque-Lebanese parentage, in Manhattan. Her mother was a talented seamstress. “She made the best costumes, and I lived in costumes as a child,” Kamali has noted. “I guess it was my destiny to be a designer.” She remembers, as a sixth grader, going to school wearing eight skirts piled one on top of the other and spotless white bucks dusted with powder that left telltale traces on the floor.
After studying fashion illustration at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, Kamali opened a boutique in 1968 with her now ex-husband, Eddie Kamali, an Iranian. When the marriage foundered and Norma moved out, she fittingly called her new business quarters OMO, as in “On My Own.” Kamali, who views her midtown Manhattan store as a laboratory for her design ideas, can still be spotted waiting on customers to test their reactions to her latest work.
She is, however slowly, learning to enjoy her success. On a recent fashion tour to Tokyo, she submitted to an interview on a talk show and was asked how she enjoyed being an overnight success. “Oh, it’s wonderful, wonderful,” she replied. “But it took me 14 years to do it.”