Norma Kamali, a New Yorker who built her business over 50 years in the city, was honored WTuesday with the City of Design Award from the Museum of the City of New York at its spring symposium and luncheon.
She joins previous recipients such as Cynthia Rowley, Peter Marino, Jacques Grange, Ralph Pucci, Jonathan Adler, Simon Doonan and Elizabeth Graziolo.
As women approached Kamali at the champagne reception to sign copies of her ‘I Am Invincible’ book, several people in the crowd, including Kamali herself, wore the designer’s Diana gown. This dress, which is a one-shoulder dress with gathered sides and an asymmetrical hem, was worn by Carrie Bradshaw in “And Just Like That” and sold strongly.
During the event, which was attended by 150 people, Kamali had a conversation with Sarah Brown, Executive Director of Violet Lab at Violet Gray and Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, who collaborated with Kamali on her book. They discussed Kamali’s upbringing in New York and her thoughts on what the city needs to do to recover from the pandemic.
Kamali, who opened her eponymous business in 1969, is best known for items such as the sleeping bag coat, her collection of swimwear and sweatshirts, and more recently, the aforementioned Diana dress.
“A lot of you look so amazing in my clothes,” Kamali said. “That’s probably the best compliment a designer can get, and I’ve been complimented several times today, so I appreciate that.”
Kamali said writing her book, which details how to maintain a healthy lifestyle at any age, was so personal and she was so happy to have worked closely with Brown during the pandemic and frequently on Zoom. .
New York has always been the backdrop to Kamali’s story.
“I’m so proud to be a New Yorker, and I’m so proud to have a New York accent. There are times when I purposely dig up my accent from the streets,” said Kamali, who grew up in the 1950s in the Irish neighborhood of Yorkville in Manhattan. “I loved the culture where people take care of each other. There would be costume parties in their neighborhood and volunteers would come to the East Side House. People on Broadway would create shows for them and they would learn to sing and dance. His mother made the costumes for the performances. She said her mother didn’t have the opportunity to run a business, but “her power was overwhelming”.
“She dominated these events because of the beautiful clothes she created for everyone,” Kamali said, noting that her mother also did hairstyling, haircuts and took pictures and paintings of them. . Her father died when she was a child.
“Between New York and my mom, I knew that was the kind of life I was comfortable with,” Kamali said.
She said her mother, who was Lebanese, remarried the only Jewish man in the neighborhood who ran a candy store. “Now we are Jewish and Italian and I clearly understood what it was like to be different. I understood what it was like to have a different religion and to have a different ethnic type and I understood this was what the city was, and that was what our culture was.
Calling her a “fashion oracle,” Brown asked Kamali to be a “New York oracle” and tell the public where she sees New York going and what changes she is going through.can you see she’s excited?
“We all love this city, and now is the time to love it more, more than ever. I remember the 70s and everyone left, it was a very sad and difficult time. I remember of what also happened creatively in the city.People who couldn’t afford to come to New York, all of a sudden, if you were brave enough, you could find an apartment at a very good price, and you could probably find a building at a really good price,” Kamali said.
“There was a creative influx in the 70s, which is why the 70s are so special and things started here in a way they hadn’t had in a very long time. Lots of very creative people and creative friends of mine have become part of the city’s culture.… Even Studio 54 was that event that only happened because of what New York was going through and going through. Fast forward, New York just surviving a pandemic…” Kamali said.
So what do we do now?
“We pray for our mayor. And I think it’s time for all of us to individually examine what worries us. And find ways to solve the problem, volunteer, even if it’s just in your neighborhood or in your schools. I think the schools need so much help and so much love. And we have to control our children. Our children in public schools desperately need us. We must use everything we can to place the city in a powerful place. I think when there are times like this, we get more creative and we get smarter about how we live and what we do. I’m scared for New York and I’ll never give up on New York, and we can’t. We have to stay and we have to fight to make him healthy and strong again.
During the Q&A, Kamali said that after graduating from Washington Irving High School, she got a scholarship to the Fashion Institute of Technology, so giving back was always what she wanted to do. She returned to Washington Irving High School and established a design studio and trained children to learn math by making a dress or tell your story in making a dress. Now Washington Irving High School has been divided into six schools and she works with art and design students. Every season she donates leftover fabric, every season she reviews their portfolio and talks to the students.
“I can be very hard on them and ask them for excellence, which is not really the case in this world, but they like to be asked for excellence,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to the next school year. If I could redesign the school system, I already have the plan.
Kamali was asked what inspires her now. During COVID-19, she said she was on Zoom daily with her team, planning the business and her e-commerce site. But everyone was staying home and not running errands so she made pajamas. Before COVID-19 no one could ship and her friend in China opened her factory to her and had the clothes made and also shipped masks. “We convinced most of our customers to buy it. We had the only clothes available on e-commerce, and everything was sold out. Then we were on a roll. We are a better company today and a stronger company today.
She sold a lot of swimsuits during COVID-19. After so many weddings were canceled and postponed, she quickly started selling dresses. She pointed to the Diana dress, which she did in the 70s and 80s. Five years ago she put it back online and put a bodysuit in it, and it started selling again. It was selling so much thanks to COVID-19, there were thousands of people who wanted to have the dress and they wanted it in many colors. Just when they finally shipped it all, Sarah Jessica Parker decided to wear it on “And Just Like That.”
“And I was like, ‘nooo’, then we had another rush. We sold so much. It’s a dress that’s more comfortable and you can wash it,” Kamali said.
“The dresses are now. I feel like there’s going to be a change and I’m already doing a collection that we’ll be shooting next week,” and she incorporates what she thinks is next, but wasn’t ready to talk about it yet.
Finally, Kamali was asked what she thinks about social media.
“I think social media is a gift from Millennials. Millennials don’t like to work hard, so they’ve found a way not to, and they’re very smart,” she said. For the first time in 55 years, I see women all over the world wearing my clothes. They take pictures of themselves and use hashtags, NKMyWay, and I see amazing pictures of women of all sizes, shapes, and colors looking amazing, and it’s so fantastic. I used to stalk people on the street [wearing my clothes]. Now they send me pictures, and I see them on social media and it’s exciting.
Personally, she said she struggles with social media because she likes to keep her personal life private. But because she thinks the information in her book is important to share, she knows it’s more important than her personal feelings to have her photo taken. “I’m going to exercise on Instagram. I will do these things to tell you that you can do it too. I’m 76 – if I can do a split, you can do it too.
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