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  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
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WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

Norma Kamali,2003

WITH TARA SUBKOFF
PHOTOGRAPHED BY THIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS







Norma Kamali Tells Tara Subkoff about her secret warehouse.








TARA: You were the designer who pioneered the '80s shoulder pad.
NORMA: I started using shoulder pads in the late '70s, at the end of the disco era. They created this woman—in—power look that was very different from the disco silhouette. My inspiration was films from the '30s and '40s— I had a real thing for them. So I was making these beautifully constructed suits, with tempered shoulder pads. Women loved them because they made their hips look thinner. Some women got so carried away that they were layering on three or four pads at a time. Looking back, I wouldn't call it my best contribution to fashion.

TARA: There's a backlash now, but in twenty years there will probably be another shoulder pad moment.
NORMA: I hope not!

TARA: I love your store. It's in midtown Manhattan, on East Fifty—Sixth Street. How long have you been here?
NORMA: I bought this building in 1982. I got a great deal— it was built before the Trump Tower was built. It became my headquarters, with a design studio and a retail store. I'm going to renovate the building soon, though— it's too dark for me.

TARA: So you want to brighten everything up. I notice you're using a lot of white in your designs.
NORMA: That appeals to me right now, maybe because I've spent the past year working on a new wellness collection.

TARA: I've been hearing rumors about this collection but it's shrouded in mystery!
NORMA: I love designing clothes, but I think my future is in the area I'm calling wellness— which I define as any product that makes you feel good. It could be champagne. It could be a piece of chocolate.

TARA: What's the collection called?
NORMA: The products have different names, but mine isn't on any of them. I don't want people to buy them just because it's a Norma Kamali thing.

TARA: What made you focus on the idea of wellness?
NORMA: I was thinking about fashion's role in everyday life. After September 11, all these people were calling, asking to by my sleeping bag coat. People were craving comfort and safety, and so was I. I started to look at my work at a completely different way, getting involved with all kinds of things that make people feel good, from grandma recipes to homeopathic remedies and aromatherapy. The wellness products are intended to put a smile on the face of an older person, a teenager, or a baby. They should make you want to kiss somebody. The collection will fill the entire first floor of the stoor.

TARA: That's incredible. You opened your first store in the late '60s. The fashion business has gone through so many upheavals since then.
NORMA: Fashion is in the middle of a difficult period. As much as we claim to change every season, we still can't seem to move forward to address the world as it is today.

TARA: You think it's the last hurrah for fashion?
NORMA: It could be, unless we transform the way we present and sell clothes. Fashion shows are the most irrelevant, unlikely showcases. A woman never walks the way a model does on a runway.

TARA: And the cut and shapes of clothes are difficult for most women.
NORMA: The fashion industry has been very slow to change its attitudes. People have to be able to live in their clothes— to lie down on the floor in them and let them get wrinkled. That's what clothes are really about.

TARA: What can be done to make the presentation of clothing more relevant?
NORMA: At the turn of the last century, people went to department stores like Siegel Cooper and Macy's on Union Square to spend the day. It was called Ladies' Mile. There were beer gardens on the roofs and tea dances. People went to department stores for entertainment, not just to shop. We've held on to the idea of the big store, but it needs to evolve, especially when everyone is using the Internet and our lives move so quickly. Department stores should be vibrant and interactive, right now they're not.

TARA: You were one of the first designers to sell your clothes online. How did that come about?
NORMA: In the early '90s, the relationship between designers and the department stores changed dramatically. I didn't see any future in continuing to be just another vendor in these huge stores. My direct relationship with my customers is too important to me.

TARA: You found a way to take out the middleman and go directly to the public.
NORMA: Yeah. I've always had a lot of celebrity clients who like me to send them clothes on approval. They try them on, or their stylists look at them, and then they send back what they don't want. I had been doing that for years when suddenly I thought, "Why don't I do that for my none celebrity clients?" Now, through my website, you can try on six swimsuits at home and just pay for the ones you keep. Even better, I can design something today, take a picture tomorrow, and put it up on the website the day after that.

TARA: Another innovation you came up with is to sell pieces from your past collections at special sales in your store. People just go to war over the clothes.
NORMA: Early on, I started saving the samples from each collection, so eventually I had a warehouse filled with my old pieces. It's the entire archive, from the late '60s on, as well as the vintage clothing I've collected. Editors have always been interested in my old pieces, so I decided to hold these sales, taking the stock directly from the warehouse. I've been selling things little by little. Lately everyone loves the old dolman tops and the rah-rah skirts. Stylists come with big trash bags to stockpile clothes. It's hysterical!

TARA: It's a huge compliment because it means that everything you've done is timeless.
NORMA: Not everything!

TARA: One thing I really want to ask you is how you got your start?
NORMA: I wanted to be a painter, but my mother kept telling me it would never pay the rent. So I got a scholarship to F.I.T. and studied illustration instead. But the only illustration jobs were at stupid companies, doing stupid things like drawing eyelashes on faces. I thought I'd rather die— there was no way I was going to have anything to do with the fashion industry. But I knew that I wanted to travel, so I got a job in the office of an airline, which allowed me to get discount tickets. I ended up going to London every weekend from 1965to 1967— for twenty—nine dollars round—trip.

TARA: That's amazing.
NORMA: I was in the right place at the right time. During those years, London was the most exciting, creative place I have ever been.

TARA: What was it like?
NORMA: The first time I went there, I stayed at this boarding house for six dollars a night. It was near Sloane Square, which at the time looked like Queens. I was wondering, "Where are all the stores? Where can I see things?" Then someone told me to go to King's Road.

TARA: That's where it was all happening.
NORMA: Yeah. I wish I had a photograph to show you what it looked like then. There were great little art shops with songs like "All You Need Is Love" pounding into the streets. It was fantastic. And I thought, "My skirt is too long, my skirt is really frickin' too long!"

TARA: Did you start wearing miniskirts in New York?
NORMA: You have to understand, miniskirts were nonexistent in New York. You had to be either a prostitute or insane to wear a short skirt. But every weekend, when I got back from London, my skirts were shorter and my false eyelashes were longer. I even shaved my eyelashes and wore wigs. I wanted to do the same things my British friends were doing, so I decided to bring clothes back from London and open up a shop in New York.

TARA: Where was your first store?
NORMA: Fifty—Third Street between Second and Third Avenues. It was a basement store, probably six by nine feet. The rent was two hundred eighty—five dollars a month. If the clothes didn't come from London, they came from the Salvation Army.

TARA: Did the store take off right away?
NORMA: Magazine editors would always drop in. In 1967 Harper's Bazaar ran a full page about me, but I wouldn't show it to anybody. I thought I would get found out as a fraud because I had no idea what I was doing. But that page actually helped a lot— people believe what they read.

TARA: Did you know that you wanted to be a designer at that point?
NORMA: No, because the word "designer" had a different connotation back then. In the '60s, fashion was still about manufacturing. Designer's were people who worked for manufacturing companies, and only industry people knew who they were. I was only aware of a few American designers, like Norman Norell

TARA: What about Bonnie Cashin, The great American sportswear designer who worked for Coach in the '60s?
NORMA: I didn't care about contemporary designers like Bonnie Cashin because they made the kind of clothes my mother wore— the hat , the gloves, the girdle. I wasn't part of that generation.

TARA: When did you start to design clothes?
NORMA: After a few years, I wanted to push the store forward creatively, so I started making clothes myself. I had never sewn in my life, never made a pattern. I really learned on the job.

TARA: I completely relate to learning as you go. I have interns who know more than me. I don't know anything about fashion. Imitation of Christ was a project I started just to see how far I could go with it. I never had any training. I went to art school, dropped out, and became an actor. I don't think of myself as a designer either.
NORMA: Not having any training can be a good thing. You don't have preconceived notions about how things should work. That's why the '60s and the '70s were a very precious time for me— I was able to find my way before I encountered all the pressure of being well known.

TARA: The attention that Imitation of Christ has received has been wonderful, but also very overwhelming. Plus, I'm a very disorganized person.
NORMA: I'm sure you are not. You can't run a business without being totally organized.

TARA: I wish it were more of a business and less of a project— but we're working on that. The main thing is to keep from becoming stagnant. That's the worst jail sentence.
NORMA: And the biggest mistake people in this industry make is thinking that moving from place to place will give them creative freedom. The truth is, you can create no matter where you are. It's not going to happen just because you move somewhere. Nobody is going to be creative for you. Nobody is going to say, "Here is your opportunity, do whatever you want for the rest of your life." Hello, what fantasy is that?

© index magazinegelatin1
Norma Kamali by Thimothy Greenfield-Sanders, 2003
© index magazinetobias
Norma Kamali by Thimothy Greenfield-Sanders, 2003
 
 
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