When Norma Kamali
sat down to talk to OC at her Wellness Café in uptown New York, neither Gillian
nor I was prepared for the semi-religious experience that followed. The iconic American designer radiates health and a guru-like aura. You would never guess that she's been dressing women like Cher, Madonna, and the original supers since 1974. But she has, and now her new guard of devotees includes Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Nicki Minaj.
This season, Norma joins the OC family, bringing with her a spring collection filled with fringing, fun, and form-fitting jersey. We took the moment to talk to the designer about topics close to OC's own heart: karaoke, Lady Gaga, and taking the road less traveled.
Shop all Norma Kamali here
Alice Newell-Hanson: Can you tell us about where we’re sitting?
Norma Kamali: The Wellness Café started after 9/11. Everyone was just totally blown away by the experience and I’m a native New Yorker so it was very real to me. I realized that we were never going to go back to a time when we weren’t feeling stressed about something. I’d already been thinking about how stress and the immune system go hand-in-hand. I needed to find a way to help people feel better, and it started with olive oil.
When I was growing up, my family used olive oil for everything. I decided to find the orchards that made the best olive oil in the world and to start making products that were made from just puréed olives and nothing else. There’s an enormous amount of very healthy alternatives that just use olive oil—I brush my teeth with it every day. I’m obsessive about reading newsletters about wellness.
Gillian Tozer: I love your coconut water! Coconut water is a real "thing" right now.
NK: There’s a lot of stuff that we shouldn’t be drinking. If you substitute coconut water it’s so much healthier and your electrolytes are balanced. They still use coconut water for transfusions in many places around the world and that tells you that it’s doing something for you. So that’s the whole idea of the Wellness Café: it’s about alternatives that will help you have a strong immune system.
GT: Is the Wellness Café a new phase for you? How have you changed over time as a designer?
NK: I’m not a designer who references. My process just evolves and grows. I’ve been in the industry for a long time and I’ve realized that to get rid of things just because you did
them is crazy. If something still looks good then it enters a new realm and becomes a classic. I’ve learned that I should celebrate that. But evolving forward is also very important for me. I like inventing things and finding new ways to communicate. I’m in the process of doing something that’s more revolutionary right now.
ANH: In the way that your clothes are designed?
NK: If you’ve been around as long as I have, you look at everything and think, “I know everybody loves that but I’ve seen it before.” So there isn’t a lot that can be new from a design perspective, except for the way that it’s made and the way that it’s communicated. The only other thing that will inspire new design—and this is scary—is if the environment becomes so toxic that we have to create protective clothing.
ANH: The balance between glamour and practicality is something that always defines your clothes, I think.
NK: Yes, I am very practical. Just like everybody else, I don’t want to send everything I own to the cleaners and I don’t want to be restricted. I like clothes that feel casual even if they’re dressy. If you’re at a special occasion and you have to sit a certain way, you’re not going to have as much fun. There’s nothing more boring than a girl that’s so girly that she can’t laugh and have a good time.
ANH: And we hear you’re really into karaoke?
NK: It’s a lot of fun! I worked with Japan for 28 years, and I was very entrenched in the culture. At the end of the day, part of the job was to go out to dinner with your boss and the whole team and sing karaoke. I noticed that everybody was so good and I thought, “I don’t get it! How is the Japanese ear so great that he can be Billy Joel and she can be Belinda Carlisle?” Then they finally told me that they take lessons! What I’ve learned though about karaoke is that if you don’t care, you’re actually so much better. I love Ray Charles and Etta James—I would love to have her voice but I know that I don’t, so I pretend. That’s what karaoke is for.
GT: We love office karaoke too.
NK: I’m always shocked at how many really great singers there are in the company. Our last karaoke party got really raunchy, it was like a bachelorette party! We had a lot of organic beer—everybody convinced me we had to have alcohol and I said, “Okay, but it has to be organic.” It made for some interesting song choices and then the dancers from Physique 57 came and did back-up dancing!
GT: I was chatting with the buyers, Carol and Jesse, and they mentioned that Madonna wore a piece in the video for "La Isla Bonita"?
NK: Yes, through the years—and I’m not sure why this is—singers and dancers have always been drawn to what I do. We have a great client list of women who have really made an impact in music—Beyoncé and Rihanna—but it also goes further back that that.
Cher was such a breakthrough personality and she was a customer through that period. She made enormous changes in the way that women saw themselves, and in the way that women were presented, riding that fine line between being objectified and being empowered. And this was before MTV. Then Madonna used music videos and became Madonna through that medium. She was perfect for the clothes.
And now Lady Gaga is a customer. Her first order was online under another name and we thought, “Who is that?!” And it turned out to be her! I think those three women really harness that duality of being both objectified and empowered. And obviously Lady Gaga is all about social media and reaches an even bigger audience through that.
ANH: You have your own relationship with social media too, with your website and astrology tips, and your newsletter, Note from Norma. How did you approach the Internet?
NK: In the early 60s, I really wanted to be a painter and I got a scholarship to FIT. But when it came to choosing a job, I didn’t want to do anything in fashion. It was still Mad Men time and I was not a matching handbag and hat person at all. I was out of sync with everything and I couldn’t stand fashion. So I got a job at an airline selling tours and tickets. I traveled to London every weekend from ’64 to ’69 (for $29!) and I saw a completely new way to look at fashion. I thought, “This is so much more me, you don’t have to match, you can look a little off.” That’s when I realized that fashion was really my thing.
At the airline, I was working on a computer and it was the first time computers were being used in an industry. I learned the power of getting access to information instantaneously. So in the mid-90s I had a website up the minute you could. I was convinced early on that this was the best thing that could happen to me as a designer, because I could learn from you and send messages about what I wanted to say. Now, we really use it to communicate, and the astrology is just a fun part of it.
ANH: How did you get into astrology?
NK: I went to an astrologer for the first time in 1970 and she’s still a friend of mine. What I’ve learned is to accept your tendency to have a certain type of personality based on your sign. It’s good for me to know that, especially if I’m working with you or if you’re a customer. The more information I have, the better my understanding of that relationship.
ANH: What sign are you?
NK: I’m a cancer. But it’s more about your combination of signs. Because I’m nothing like a cancer; cancer women tend to be very maternal and home-oriented. But if you saw my refrigerator you’d say, “She has serious problems!” I don’t have any children and I’m nothing like the textbook cancer, but I use my maternal instincts in my work and within the company. I also have a Pisces rising, which is connected to photography, film, fashion, and the illusion of things—the magic of what we create.
GT: What’s inspired you to create this amazing world and to keep it going, season after season, since the 60s?
NK: I knew the minute I saw London and said, “This is me!” that this is what I wanted to do. I’ve also changed it up a lot. I’ve used being a fashion designer as a platform to do a lot of different things: I’ve designed furniture, architecture, interiors, and films. There isn’t anything that I wanted to do that I haven’t done. I’m thrilled that I can still say I love doing what I do. If I didn’t, I would stop immediately.
We’ve been playing around with all of this 3-D technology, and today I got a call from a guy who does 3-D "reality plus." With all the new technology that there is, this is the best time to be alive.
Shop all Norma Kamali here