In 1976, Norma Kamali left her ex-husband and business partner to create her own label, OMO Norma Kamali, which stood for "on my own"

By Colleen Kratofil
January 14, 2021 03:41 PM
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On any given night in the late '70s at the legendary New York City nightclub Studio 54, chances are someone was wearing designs by Norma Kamali. Grace Jones, Bianca Jagger, even the bouncers—who wore her now-famous sleeping- bag coats—dressed in her creations. Kamali herself, however, stayed home. "The shock is I never went to Studio 54," the designer tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "My clothes were at Studio 54." She didn't have time for nightlife—she had work to do. "I was sewing every night," she says. "I was trying to get the clothes done and stay in business."

That unwavering work ethic is at the heart of everything Kamali, 75, does, whether it's growing her company (she's been in the industry for 53 years) or following a strict diet and fitness routine (which she credits for feeling and looking her best ever). Now she's revealing what she's learned about happiness, health and "aging with power" in her new book I Am Invincible (out Feb. 2). "My purpose in my 70s is to share everything I know," says Kamali.

For more on Norma Kamali, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

One thing she certainly knows, is the secret to longevity in the industry. After five decades, she's still at the top of her game and busier than ever, but it hasn't been without hard work and determination.

She was inspired to open her first boutique in 1967, after traveling to London and experiencing the freedom of the Swinging Sixties. "Everything was new and experimental and exciting," explains Kamali. She brought back clothes from her favorite boutiques and opened a shop in Manhattan. She quickly began designing her own pieces while her then-husband, Mohammed (Eddie) Kamali, whom she married at 19, handled the business.

Credit: Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock

Her early designs, which she describes as being made to move in, attracted stars like Sly Stone, Robert Plant, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The attention was like "a shot in the arm" for a young designer, she says. "It made me feel like I shouldn't give up."

Despite her celeb clientele, finances were always an issue. "Eddie controlled the money," Kamali says, adding that he spent profits on partying. "He was going out every night, and I was sewing every night." The couple grew apart, and Kamali's self-esteem was "submerged," especially when he began dating other women, she says. With $98 to her name, she left her husband and her brand. "I didn't know what I was going to do, I didn't know how I would do it, but I knew one thing—that I still had my soul."

In 1976 she relaunched her company with the name OMO Norma Kamali, which stood for "on my own." Her swimwear was quickly a sensation, thanks to the iconic 1976 Farrah Fawcett poster featuring her red one-piece bathing suit and Christie Brinkley, who wore Kamali's "Pull Bikini" on the cover of Cosmopolitan in 1977. But it wasn't until the 1980 launch of her Sweats collection, one of the first sportswear lines designed to be worn outside the gym, that Kamali felt successful. "That was the first time I ever made enough money that I didn't have to worry about paying the rent," she says.

Credit: MPTV

Throughout her entire career, she continued to forge her own path and stay one step ahead of the trends. She helped popularize shoulder pads in the 1980s; in the '90s she was an early adopter of e-commerce and expanded into beauty and skin care; the next decade she launched her Wellness Café and took high-end fashion to the masses by creating a clothing line for Walmart with classics all priced under $20. True to her OMO label, this time she was the one calling all the shots. "I didn't want anybody telling me [what to do]," she says. "I didn't care if I was the most famous or the richest designer. I wanted total freedom to live a creative life."

Her designs still have a huge celebrity fan base. Her studded "Marissa" swimsuit was seen on stars like Kourtney Kardashian and Chrissy Teigen in 2017. Her cutout dresses have been a staple on red carpets (Miley Cyrus wore the design in 2012). Even the sleeping-bag coat, first designed in 1974, still makes for epic street style moments today (Rihanna is a fan).

"When what I do matches what [a star is] doing or how she's creating magic, it's great," the designer says. Kamali also designed the yellow gowns worn by Beyoncé and her dancers in the 2019 "Spirit" video. "I felt so good that I could contribute to the work this incredible woman does," says Kamali. Fans can even keep an eye out for a Kamali bodysuit worn by Jennifer Lopez in her upcoming film with Owen Wilson, Marry Me.

Kamali has been busier than ever amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Her quarantine-friendly casual wear has been so popular she amped up production and hired more staff. Needless to say, the designer has no plans to retire. "I can't imagine!" she says. "I've had the same job for 53 years but I've reinvented myself along the way. Designing clothes is so much who I am that I don't think that goes away."

I Am Invincible (out Feb. 2) is currently available for pre-order.