Meet Norma Kamali, New York's 72-year-old swimwear queen
Women who disrupt the style status quo don’t come around that often, and when they do, they are always worth listening to. Norma Kamali is a born and bred New Yorker with a trajectory that spans the cultural highlights of the past 50 years. From 1965 to 1969, while working in the sales office of an airline, she would take up its offer of a $29 round trip to London and stay in a Chelsea boarding house every weekend. She met Jimi Hendrix at cult hang-out The Speakeasy club, later taking him shopping on Portobello Road.
After college (“my mother said, “Get a job, get a job” – her mother was Lebanese, father Basque) she studied illustration at the Fashion Institute of New York where she was unimpressed by the crowd’s “Mad Men” look, “I hated fashion before [London], I didn’t [understand] these people with their matching handbags and shoes.” At the airline she would reappear back at her Univac computer with “my false eyelashes, my wigs, and boas. They would send me home all the time saying, ‘You can’t dress like that.’”
Her swinging London style education sharpened her eye and turned her into a vintage magpie, bringing back her finds to New York, which prompted her to open her first store, supported by her then husband Eddie. She began making patchwork shorts in velvet and snakeskin, and moved on to pieces fashioned out of stretchy Lycra infused fabrics. Something which no one was doing.
“Athleisure” might be the modern obsession with wearing sports influenced clothing at all points, but Kamali was doing this in the Seventies. Bette Midler, Raquel Welch, Yoko Ono, Bianca Jagger and then-Vogue-editor Vera Wang all went to Kamali’s store on Madison Avenue to stock up on these newfangled stretchy jersey pieces. “I found fabric used by circus entertainers and made tight leggings out of it. Nobody was wearing leggings, it wasn’t a concept.” She met Studio 54 co-founder Ian Schrager and made stage costumes for Grace Jones to wear at the club.
She outfitted the New York Dolls, Mick Jagger and Robert Plant. “They were customers like anyone else” says Kamali, “they would just come in and pile on layers of clothes.” “It was pure, they didn’t have stylists, they were inventing their persona through the clothes they wore. It was very provocative.” There is nothing new about sartorial gender fluidity. But now is a different time says Kamali. “It’s not the generation for the individual to be expressive. There’s more insecurity because you’re judged so harshly if you screw up.”
In the late Seventies, having split from her husband, she struck out on her own. “I never thought of myself as a business woman. I thought that was a man’s thing. But I realised that if I want to do a dress with six sleeves, then I better do something else with two sleeves so I can pay the rent. It helped me become a better designer”. She made the shrewd decision to retain her control. “I had offers along the way. I accepted that I wouldn’t be the richest or most famous designer in the world, but I wanted longevity and independence”.
A contemporary of Diane von Furstenberg and Donna Karan, her designs come from the same ballsy point of view. They all created clothes for women to be themselves in and not simply male versions in a world where boundaries were being broken. In the same way that DvF often speaks of her clothes as “the friend in the closet” and Karan had her “seven easy pieces”, Kamali has had a similar prerogative “to make women feel good about themselves”.
Her light bulb design moment came when she decided to make swimwear out of her stretchy jersey fabrics – infusing Lycra into the pieces – unheard of at that point. Her training studying anatomy gave her an instinctive advantage, she knew how to drape fabric so that it would work with and for the body. “I take pride in making swimwear patterns. For me it’s like reading a book that you get lost in”.
V neck rectangle gown with stars, £195, rectangle gown with stripes, £239, Norma Kamali
You may recall the irresistibly sexy 1976 poster of Farrah Fawcett, honey hair perfectly flicked out, wearing a bright red one-piece. It was a Kamali swimsuit, which now sits in Washington’s Smithsonian Museum as a notable piece of 20th-century cultural history. In more recent years, Beyoncé, Rihanna and the Kardashians have worn her creations.
Swimwear is still Kamali’s USP. Expertly cut, she offers designs ranging from the risqué to the reassuring. Not cheap, but a very good investment (she counsels to always wash out after use – it’s the bacteria sweat that kills the fabric – and if you can dry it in the sun, even better). “I have women who’ve worn the same suit for 25 years” laughs Kamali. “I’m like, enough already. I’m happy for you, but I think you need another.” She has designs in her collections that haven’t changed for decades. She also has eagle-eyed employees who track down vintage pieces and persuade her to reissue them. “Timelessness has always been key for me. I’ve learnt from having years as a vintage advocate and understanding that when a style is really incredible, it can live forever.”
Equally fundamental to her is practicality. Alongside swim, she offers jersey dresses, suits and separates (all interchangeable from workout to taking a meeting clothes). Plus her classic “sleeping bag coat” so named because of its very literal inspiration, which came from a camping trip where Kamali wrapped her own bag around her as a coat to keep warm in the middle of the night. The coat is a precursor to the puffer, another Kamali original thought mass produced. Her coats are gossamer light, made of a synthetic parachute material, which is doubled up to trap air between the layers, keeping you warm.
Camouflage-print sleeping bag coat, £723, Matchesfashion.com
“Everything is washable (even the coats). Nothing should be dry cleaned ever, I don’t believe in it. None of my clothes need steaming, everything can be rolled up, thrown in a bag and put on afterwards. What you pay for that piece of clothing is the final price. You’re not having to reinvest more money in it to keep it alive.”
Alongside designing, she hosts a weekly radio show and has her own podcast (which is a very good rabbit hole to get lost down, she’s interviewed Ian Schrager, Bobbi Brown, Gwyneth’s trainer Tracy Anderson and American Vogue legend Andre Leon Talley among other fashion industry figures). She’s launched a campaign to stop the objectification of women (and men), focusing on character attributes rather than physical.
Her take on #Metoo is one of the best I’ve heard. “Every man over 25 has objectified women, intentionally or unintentionally, because there were different rules. There was a different level of acceptance. Now we have to get a grip and step back a little, and not attack every man.”
“I’ve been through so many feminist movements and seen them hit a wall. Everybody screams, then hits the wall. And I’ve screamed too. But now there has to be some kind of discipline in how we communicate and achieve something that is long term and not this anxiety rush.”
I’ve been through so many feminist movements and seen them hit a wall. Everybody screams, then hits the wall
Her other triumph, is frankly, herself. She appears to be about 40. At a push. Slight and toned, with her striking black hair framing her face in its solid fringed cut, she looks incredible. Her elixir is simple. “Sleep, diet and exercise. That’s it. There’s nothing else, no other potion. I realised I functioned much better if I took care of myself. I didn’t have kids because I felt I wouldn’t be able to do everything. Other women can run a business and do it, but I didn’t think I could. [Instead] I spent a lot of time studying and learning about fitness and health. There were times when I did a collection, and another collection and ate all kinds of crap and felt ‘ugh’”.
She works out everyday, a combination of her own developed exercises and “barre on crack” classes at NYC gym Physique 57 (“the first thing I did was find a gym that was as close as possible to my house”) – her hot London tip is to go to Ashley at Define (define.london) – a former Physique 57 trainer who has since moved here and set up shop.
Mio one-shoulder striped swimsuit, £140, Net-a-porter
“Movement is key, even for your face” she says gently massaging her jawline. “Sugar is really bad for me, so I stay away from it (she doesn’t drink). Clear out your kitchen cupboards. If it’s there, you’ll eat it. Create a discipline to eat food that’s good for you and you develop a taste for it.”
“I treat sleep as a ritual. I put my phone in a different room and don’t look at it after 8pm. I mentally prepare to go to sleep. The bed is always made. I put on something separate from what I worked out in. “I’m embarrassed to tell you how early I go to bed but I do get up at 4.30am, because the guy I live with [her boyfriend] starts making phone calls then.” She’s in the office by 6am, out of there by 4:30pm and off to the gym. Then a couple more fittings, then dinner, then sleep prep.
“It’s not being a high maintenance diva to eat right, sleep and exercise. It’s not having a manicure every other day. You don’t need a spa if you do those three things. In fact you save all sorts of money by doing it.”