Norma Kamali Atelier Dore Norma Kamali Garance Dore archive

From the Archives: Norma Kamali: Ahead of Her Time

Author Garance Doré

Ok, ok. You’re about to hear probably one of my favorite, most inspiring podcasts ever. You probably know Norma Kamali, but let me introduce her still. She’s a fashion designer, a pioneer in every way. She’s made some of fashions most recognizable designs, she created swimwear when it wasn’t yet a thing, and she also has been talking about wellness well before there was even a word for it. Oh, also, she is redefining what it means to be aging, and I’m telling you, women need that.

Yes, Norma is 72, she is not afraid to say it, and she is probably one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. And by that I mean the way she moves, the way she thinks, the way she looks at you, the way she leads her life, the way she works, all that makes up her beauty. She taught me so much in such little time, that I decided to let the podcast go a little bit longer…

Why stop something when it’s so good?

On being a New Yorker…
I was born in New York Hospital. I’m as New York as you can get. I grew up in Manhattan in the late ’50s, early ’60s. I was in an Irish Catholic neighborhood, but I obviously am not Irish Catholic. But as a result, I had an incredible childhood. There were only Irish brogues, the smell of corned beef and cabbage everywhere, I can do an Irish jig, I know every Irish song. We were ruled by the Church. The priest would come to your house and pull you out of bed if you didn’t get to school on time!

On how she felt about her appearance at a young age…
I did look different so I always questioned my beauty because I didn’t have blond hair and freckles. My mother was Lebanese and my father was Basque, so this is the land of big noses and dark hair! You don’t have a little turned up nose if you’re from that world.

On being exposed to wellness at a young age..
My mother was incredibly interested in wellness. Every morning, we’d wake up to this big iron monster making juices, every morning. She was very savvy about supplements. She exercised with this guru. She grew herbs in the kitchen, she was doing everything that we’re doing now.

Norma Kamali Garance Dore archive
Norma Kamali Garance Dore archive

On advice from her mother…
When I was 11, my mother looked at me in a serious way, very out of character for her personality, and she said, “I want you to learn how to be independent and I want you to marry the man you love, not because you have to marry someone to take care of you.” It didn’t register until later when I realized what incredible advice that was. That means I need to have a job and a career of my own.

On experiencing sexual harassment early in her career…
I go for my first job interview as an illustrator. I’m very nervous an excited, and wanted to look very business-like and really thought about how I would speak. My portfolio was spotless. I go into this office on 7th Avenue and there this is this guy with his feet up on his desk eating a tuna sandwich. He said, “put your portfolio down over there,” as he’s leaning back in his chair, and then said, “come here young lady and turn around for me.” I couldn’t think, I was so distraught. So I turned around, he was the power in the room. I was so humiliated. I ran out with my portfolio, crying, and never talked about what happened.

On the freedom of the ’60s and ’70s…
We really had ownership of the way we wanted things to go and we wanted them to be more free. We were coming out of the ’50s and early ’60s, you know “mad men” uptight everything. So the ’70s, I didn’t wear underwear one day, and sometimes I still don’t! There is a freeing experience in that mindset in the ’70s and it was great. We felt we could do anything new. As far as creative spirit, you literally were valued more for how individual you were. If you looked like somebody else or tried to copy something else, it was like no. Authenticity was really key.

norma kamali garance dore archive

On what she wanted to design early on….
It started with what I was wearing and the way I wanted to dress. I wore a lot of vintage and was struck by the fact that I felt totally at home in vintage. I thought, I want to design clothes today that people 30 or 40 years from now will want to wear. And I want them to have that ability, just like the clothes I’m wearing, to make someone feel so right in them. So I designed a whole group in the early ’70s with that in mind, and I am still selling them today, including the Sleeping Bag coat.

On the importance of ups and downs in a career…
The truth is, it’s incredibly important that you have a career that’s up and down and moving constantly, because you want to be creative. I have appreciated from day one, the fact that I found a place where I can be creative, found something I love. There have been cycles when everybody thinks I’m fabulous and great and each time, I worry they’re going to find me out and realize I’m not that good and I’m so freaking afraid. And then it goes away and I’m a little relieved but what happens next is, you feel nobody thinks I’m great anymore, nobody cares about what I’m doing, and that is like fire in the belly for certain people.

On not having children…
I was on my own and running a business on my own. I was sleeping in little places and just thinking about how I’m going to pay the rent the next day. How do you raise a child in a healthy way if you’re just trying to survive yourself? And a lot of women do this. And a lot of women are so brave and so strong and I honor them a million times over, but I did not feel capable of raising a healthy human being mentally and emotionally while I was in survival mode. So I didn’t.

norma kamali garance dore archive

On the power of women…
A woman who reaches her potential, or has self-esteem that is healthy, is such a contribution to the planet right now. Women are powerful and what we can do when we’re feeling good about ourselves is incredible. It will not only help all children, it will help women around the world to heal and rise and become productive. But it will also free men of all of the responsibilities that have been put on them that are unrealistic. We need to be kind to men, need to talk with men, understand their fears now that we’ve gained power and connect with them.

On beauty….
If your skin is shining and glowing and your eyes are sparkling, and your hair is healthy, and you feel good, that’s a big deal. If there is something you do to supplement that, that’s ok, but just don’t go into the witness protection program! Don’t go there because then it’s your insecurities showing and that you’re not loving yourself.

On the future…
I am verbally saying I want to live to 120. I want to say that I’m going to live to 120 because I want to. I find what’s going to be, so much more me, than where I was before. I feel like the future is so much my personality, that I don’t want to miss it. I want to experience it. I want to be in a driverless car, I want to see AR and VR to change our lives. I want that desperately and I am really so excited about it.