Bette Midler, Vera Wang, and More Tell the Story of the Iconic Norma Kamali

Bette Midler, Vera Wang, and More Tell the Story of the Iconic Norma Kamali
JUNE 1, 2016 8:00 AM


Photographed by Dominique Nabokov, Vogue, October 1987

Over nearly 50 years in the business, Norma Kamali has done her fair share of prefiguring. Before the term athleisure was so much as a twinkle in a marketing director’s eye, the New York”“born designer was building her business on stretchy, eminently wearable styles for the Studio 54 set and beyond. Since first opening her doors on the cusp of the 1970s, she’s been moving the needle of design. First it was with the modish Brit brands she imported, then her own early, vampish, ’40s-inspired fare. But before long, the perennially wellness-obsessed Kamali had made it her mission to create clothes that, even at their slinkiest, were utterly livable; across the decades, that credo has remained. Consider a handful of the label’s most iconic pieces: the high-heeled sneaker, the Sleeping Bag coat, sweats separates . . .
It’s that legacy and much more set to be toasted next Monday, as Kamali is honored with the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award.
In honor of the recognition, caught up with some of the people who have known Kamali best–among them early fan Bette Midler; nightlife legend and former beau Ian Schrager; peers (and CFDA Lifetime Achievement honorees themselves) Anna Sui and Vera Wang; choreographer Twyla Tharp; Fern Mallis; and even a New York Doll. Read on for her singular story in their words.

Norma Kamali (née Arraes) came up middle class in New York City, an aspiring painter from a young age. After earning a degree in illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology, she found herself hungering for something more. Taking a job with an airline for the sole appeal of discounted flights, Kamali reportedly flew to London every weekend for a few years at the peak of the city’s swinging Carnaby Street heyday. The city’s youthquake zeal sparked something surely already brewing in Kamali’s psyche–the fashions she encountered there would ultimately line the racks of the eponymous boutique she and her husband, Eddie, debuted on East 53rd Street in 1968.

Anna Sui, designer: When I was at Parsons, I lived on the block where her boutique was, and my roommate worked there, so that was the gold standard–Norma Kamali clothes. Even the New York Dolls were buying clothes from her. They were my neighbors. Betsey Bunky Nini [was on the block], too, and then there was Sweet Shop.

Sylvain Sylvain, founding member and guitarist of the New York Dolls, designer: This was just after we finished recording our first album [in 1973]. There was this girl who worked at [Norma’s] store and she sees me and Johnny [Thunders, late guitarist of the New York Dolls] at Max’s Kansas City one night, and says, “Oh, Norma’s renting her apartment on 53rd Street,” in the same building that she had the shop. Johnny met Norma or her husband [of the time, Eddie] and we sublet it. They had wallpapered it with a maroon crushed velvet–me and Johnny used to call it The Coffin!

Anna Sui: [Norma] was always there, and she was always head to toe in her [designs]. She would change the shop interiors along with the collections. At one point there were snakeskin walls and a lot of snakeskin clothes, and then another time it was all velvet patchwork, and she patchworked all the walls. Then another time it was all tartans, and she did these beautiful tailored tartan suits, and the walls were all covered in tartan.

Sylvain Sylvain: On the first New York Dolls album cover, the [pants] that Johnny is wearing, the black lamé ones with the fringe, I made those, but if you [look at] my pair and the ones that Arthur Kane is wearing, those are actually Norma Kamali. They were stretchy and a lot higher-waisted. When you saw someone wearing her clothes, they looked sharp! She used good materials–silks and good cottons and Lycra.

New York Dolls Album cover

New York Dolls’ album cover

Photo: Courtesy of Mercury Records

Before she had a debut album to her name, a young ingenue out of the infamous Continental Bathhouse scene turned up at Kamali’s 53rd Street spot, keen to browse the retro-tinged styles generating so much chatter.

Bette Midler, singer-songwriter and actress: [Richard Amsel, the late artist] said, “There’s a girl on 53rd Street who is selling stuff that you would love.” I went over there, and it was as though [Norma and I] were both in a time warp! We were both ’40s-mad; we both loved the styles, the hair, the makeup, the movies; we loved the black-and-white of it all. She was selling kind of an updated version of that look–high-waisted pants and pedal pushers. I just adored her. I loved not just what she was doing, but her own persona, which was very glamorous. I would hang out at the store.

Bette Midler and Dan Aykroyd in 1984

Bette Midler and Dan Aykroyd in 1984

Photo: Courtesy of MTV

Vera Wang, designer and former Vogue editor: I lived in that store. When I was an editor at Vogue, [Norma] was someone whom I promoted relentlessly because I really believed in her sense of body and modernity and comfort and line. I was a ballet dancer and a figure skater, and Norma always seemed to incorporate that naturally into her designs.

Bette Midler: It was very deluxe. It wasn’t a Village store, and it wasn’t an [Upper] West Side store.

Sylvain Sylvain: She would give [the Dolls] a huge discount!

Fern Mallis, former executive director of the CFDA and fashion consultant: It was not a party scene at all. It wasn’t like, “Oh, let’s all go get disco clothes.” It was very sophisticated. Always two or three colors, maybe. It was the women who liked, in that era, Ungaro or Vicky Tiel, but Norma was way more affordable. The shop itself was beautiful. She always worked with Bob Currie, a mutual friend of ours, who did the interiors and the architecture of the store. Right from the get-go, from the windows to the clothing, you knew what you were going to Norma for.

Buzzy and on the rise, it wasn’t long before Norma Kamali had outgrown its 53rd Street digs. The boutique relocated to tonier Madison Avenue in 1974.

Ian Schrager, hotelier, entrepreneur, and cofounder of New York’s Studio 54 and Palladium: The first exposure I had to Norma was when Studio 54 had opened up in April of 1977. At that time I was living on the Upper East Side. Late at night, I’d be traveling home, and my eye would always be kind of drawn to these second-story windows of her store on Madison. They were so exotic and so different than all the other retail stores that I had seen. That was the first time that I really became aware of her. There was a fierce independence and attitude about her clothes, what she did. It was out of the box. I think that it attracted fierce, independent women who all marched to their own drumbeat.

Anna Sui: Her clientele was so glamorous. I think Bianca [Jagger] shopped there, and Bette Midler. It was really a particular style. Bette Midler was into all that lamé, and Norma did those great pinup-girl bathing suits and the bustier tops with pedal pushers.

Bette Midler: We worked together for a number of years. We used to call [one number] the Baked Potato dress: a silver lamé dress that unzipped so that it was a little bit ’50s, for my Carnegie Hall show [in 1972], and underneath it was a corset that I had found–or maybe that someone had stolen for me–and she paired it with some pedal pushers. That was the photograph that was in Rolling Stone magazine when I first arrived on the scene.

She was a big part of everything that I was projecting in those days. I had my thrift store rags that I was buying, or that people were giving to me. I have such a fond memory . . . so many great films, so many great parties, so many great experiences–Norma Kamali clothes were such a big part of that. When I played Central Park for the first time, I really didn’t expect anyone to show up; I was surprised that they booked me. I wore Norma’s high-waisted black pants–they had a cuff and they had three buttons at the top. I had them in a couple of colors, and I wore those for just years. They really were iconic. They became part of that whole thing that I stood for and that I was projecting.

Onstage and off, Kamali’s stock quickly rose among other in-the-know types: Bruce McBroom’s now-legendary 1976 pinup snap of Farrah Fawcett, all smiles and tawny good looks, shows the actress wearing her own red NK maillot. (Today it resides in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian.) While that surely didn’t hurt in cementing the status of Kamali’s faultless swimwear, the styles did plenty to recommend themselves–even sans starlet.

Anna Sui: She exploded with her swimwear. It’s still the best.

Ian Schrager: I think [Norma] was the first one that I know of who lifted up [the leg holes, to be cut higher on the hip] and modernized the bathing suit. A woman designing bathing suits for other women seems more logical to me than a man designing it for a woman.

Vera Wang: I went by her store the other day and saw her windows with bathing suits, and I said, “My God, they’re as hot as they were [then].” I’m amazed that they don’t get more notice. It was sort of like Rudi Gernreich on steroids.

Bette Midler: I still have some of her bathing suits, which look as modern today [as they did then]. My daughter still wears the bathing suits and the bodysuits that [Norma] made.

Linda Evangelista

Linda Evangelista

Photographed by Patrick Demarchelier, Vogue, April 1990

Kamali’s marriage to her husband and business partner, Eddie, had dissolved by the tail end of the 1970s. Norma’s singular aesthetic, though, was more in demand than ever. It wasn’t long before a nightlife impresario came calling.

Ian Schrager: We asked her to do some costumes for a show we were putting on at Studio 54. That was the first time I had met her, when she came in that afternoon to look at the space. She came in, with her cornrow hair, bright red lipstick, and some kind of draped gray tunic with cowboy boots and a saddle handbag–it was like all these disparate elements that you wouldn’t think would work together. She kind of floated in, and I was transfixed by the whole scene of it.

We were doing a New Year’s Eve show. Grace Jones was performing in a kind of Hollywood, Busby Berkeley [number]. Grace had a couple of different costume changes, but it was a very exotic gold bodysuit, very sexy.

1978 was a banner year: In addition to designing costumes for the high-glitz film adaptation of The Wiz, soon Kamali had relaunched her company under the name OMO–wholly solo.

Fern Mallis: That was really an enormous undertaking, and an enormous statement that she made. Most people didn’t even know what that [stood for], and it meant “on my own.”

Bette Midler: She went off on her own and subsequently made a name for herself using fabrics that people didn’t really use in those days–parachute fabric, certain kinds of lamé, certain kinds of stretch fabric.

Vera Wang: At the time it wasn’t exactly Vogue fare, but I did my best, I hope, as an editor to push it forward. [Eventually] the high-fashion gods of Vogue began to understand. We love a name, we love Paris, but it’s nice to give credit to Americans when they have a vision. It’s not about just clothing–another pant, another blazer, another baseball jacket–it was about a vision of women. That to me was the most important.

Bette Midler: She was a tremendous draper. In the days when she was making things in stretch jersey that people weren’t using or weren’t thinking about, she was using those fabrics in new and kind of revolutionary ways. I remember seeing Yoko Ono in one of her stretch jersey dresses with a kind of drape that reminded me of Madame Grès.

Fern Mallis: She had an incredible celebrity following, everybody from Raquel Welch to Farrah Fawcett–you name it. They all bought her clothes.

Anna Sui: She had all the movie stars. Everyone always looked so good in her clothes.

Ever mindful of women’s day-to-day lives, Kamali debuted her now-signature, almost criminally comfy separates in sweatpant material at the beginning of the ’80s. “What happens,” Vogue wondered aloud in an Avedon-lensed Kamali spread from 1982, featuring a young Brooke Shields, “when a savvy, shy designer becomes the star of ”˜sweats’?” $11 million in sales in the previous year alone. Kamali’s ethos of comfort was surely resonating on a retail level.

Fern Mallis: She’s really the first person who ever made pieces out of sweatshirt material impeccably glamorous, and for every sort of occasion.

Ian Schrager: I loved when she [first] did those sweatshirt-material designs way back in the ’80s. It was the idea of taking a very everyday, modest material and doing something to it to make it special.

Fern Mallis: She created the whole puffer, down jacket business. Other than being available as ski clothes, way back when, she really made that everyday. The guys at the front door of Studio 54 all wore [the Sleeping Bag coat] because they were out all night. She was camping one night in a sleeping bag and needed to go to the bathroom. She took the sleeping bag and opened it up and wrapped it around herself in a way that an idea clicked in her head.

Anna Sui: When you talk to Norma and you [learn] how her brain works, she thinks so much about practicality. You’d have to be, to come up with the Sleeping Bag coat or all those fleece pieces. Those were revolutionary at that moment, and it’s still kind of the same concept as [athleisure], but it was the 1970s. She was visionary.

Vera Wang: Norma brought a sexuality [to her designs], like a dancer–I wouldn’t say ballet, but like a modern dancer. It was, in a way, like a modern Madame Grès. She just understood the body and texture and sexuality and sensuality.

Although Kamali did plenty to popularize structural, ’40s-inflected shoulder pads during the 1980s, it was the more fluid, organic aspect of her aesthetic that led to a long and fruitful partnership with Twyla Tharp. Their introduction? Courtesy of none other than the storied Richard Avedon.

Twyla Tharp, dancer and choreographer: I said, “Dick, I need costumes” [for 1986’s In The Upper Room]. He said, “Why don’t you go to Kamali?”

The clothes are not constricting, but they always hold their place. They always come back to where they want to be, which is very reassuring for a performer. For a viewer, the cuts are great, the line is great, the flow is great, the drape is great. What’s not to like here, right? She’s also terrific with [color]. Her clothes are very comfortable to wear without ever being sloppy–which is extremely unusual in dance clothes. The black and whites [from In The Upper Room] were in her [ready-to-wear collection] that year. The clothes make friends with the dance, and then we do what we need to do to make accommodations.

To date, Kamali has costumed nine of Tharp’s works, notable among them In The Upper Room, Sweet Fields, and a new piece this year set to Beethoven’s “Opus 130.”

Twyla Thorp

Kamali’s costumes for Tharp’s In the Upper Room, 1986

Photo: Herbert Migdoll / Courtesy of Twyla Tharp

“Videos play constantly in the window,” The New York Times wrote after the debut of an OMO Soho outpost in September 1986, “and in about two weeks her signature perfume will make its debut. It comes in two parts, Mrs. Kamali said, incense balm and fragrance, to wear separately or together. She has her way of doing things.” Who could dispute that fact? Two years later, she would introduce OMO Home, a fittingly luxe furnishings range.

Anna Sui: She was a lifestyle designer before that was even a term.

Kamali’s forward-thinking ways extended into technology–from compression garments to some of the industry’s earliest fashion films, which played throughout her store. (Back in Spring 2012, 3-D flicks even stood in for the line’s New York Fashion Week presentation.) She was an early adopter of the brand website during the Internet’s younger days. In March 1996, on the occasion of a massive Christie’s offering of home furnishings from her personal collection, the designer mused to the Chicago Tribune: “There is a world of new technology out there that represents the 21st century.”

Fern Mallis: [In the 1960s] she worked for an airline, with computers. She was one of those people who was completely computer-savvy when nobody in the fashion business knew what that meant. That gave her a lot of comfort with technology. [Six or seven years ago], I did an exhibition with the Fashion District, and we had, like, 40 mannequins up Seventh Avenue, each designed by different designers. Norma did hers, with bar codes on it, and she had that whole program in her windows, where you would swipe the bar codes and it would take you right to her site to be able to order stuff immediately. Nobody was doing that at that time, certainly nobody in fashion.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, despite a flatlining retail landscape, demand for Kamali’s Sleeping Bag coats soared, helping her business to weather the difficult time. Given the garment’s cocoon-like comforts, it’s little wonder why. In 2002, the famously fit Kamali bowed the first iteration of her Wellness Café, located in-store and selling everything from juices and soups to holistic beauty products and workout DVDs from the designer’s beloved Physique 57.

Christy Turlington

Christy Turlington

Photographed by Arthur Elgort, Vogue, September 1990

Fern Mallis: Her store became a haven for this other whole aspect of her life that she added into it, with the health and well-being, with her olive oil and the foods and the drinks. She could tell you every single thing that you’d ever want to know about olive oil! She’s developed products; I think she’s explored how to integrate that world into her store, and some people just go there for juices and olive oil soaps. It’s quite amazing. And there’s no better advertisement for her business than Norma. That woman–I keep asking her, “Where is that Dorian Gray portrait?”

Ian Schrager: When she got into wellness and health, it became part of her life, so it became what she was doing in business. She wasn’t trying to respond to what she thought the market wanted. She was doing what she wanted to do, and the market had to respond to her. I think that’s a crucial difference, and what separated her.

Twyla Tharp: Norma herself is an exercise geek; she’s a total enthusiast and has been forever. So she knows the feeling of working in clothes. She designs from the inside out, which is why I call it respect for the body.

Across decades–and spanning collaborations with everyone from Everlast and Bloomingdale’s to a sellout range for Walmart–Kamali has remained uncompromising and iconoclastic when it comes to the vision she built her name on. Recent years have found her creations resonating with a new generation of starlets, among them Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Kim Kardashian West. Her 10,000-square-foot space on West 56th Street has remained a mecca of all things Kamali, and continues to draw an impressively diverse clientele.

Fern Mallis: She’s consistent. She hasn’t diverted and tried to appeal to any other kind of person. You don’t see Norma saying, “Okay, I’m going to try and get customers X, Y, and Z, and I’m going to rethink everything.” She has stayed so true to her positioning and point of view. The only thing she’s veered off to is doing them at really incredible price points, with [the collections] she did with Walmart.

Anna Sui: [Her vision] has always been her own. I think that’s what’s so unique, but I think that’s also why she’s been such an icon for so long.

Vera Wang: Anyone who’s paid attention to fashion for the last 47 years like I have, on the American horizon, Norma Kamali’s contribution was just staggering.

Ian Schrager: I think Norma’s the most creative person I know.

Bette Midler: She never took the path that so many people took. She never sold out, she never was swallowed up by a gigantic conglomerate. She’s kept her vision Norma Kamali. What happened to so many people we adored didn’t happen to her. [She’s] like a model for how to live a creative life and have a successful business and not be subsumed by the commercial pressures.

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