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One On 1 Profile: Longtime Fashion Designer Norma Kamali Infuses Her Work With Accessibility, Empowerment

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It would be hard to be more of a New Yorker than fashion designer Norma Kamali, as she grew up here, went to school here, and has always had her offices here, but the results of her creativity have long been felt far beyond New York. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.

I came to talk to Norma Kamali about her life in fashion. I'm not sure I bargained to have her teach me several stretches.

Every weekday, the woman whose fashions have stood out for years blends in for her requisite workout.

"I like being in situations that don't separate me so much from everyone else and it's better for me as a designer and as a person," says Kamali.

For the record, I opted not to join her for her weekly acupuncture.

For more than 40 years, Norma Kamali has been dressing women and setting trends in the fashion industry. She is certainly influential but is not a celebrity like some other designers.

"I like not being caught up in kind of a whirlwind of being recognized, and I'm not that good at that," says Kamali. "There are people who are much better at it than I am."

She says a few years back some of her long time customers started to complain that her clothing no longer fit and was too expensive.

Kamali then raised some eyebrows, entering into an agreement with Walmart. Its success led her to create Kamali Kulture, a line of primarily professional clothing under $100.

Along with a line of of wellness products, Kamali is clear on her goal of empowering women. But she says the fashion industry has not always given her such clarity.

"I wasn't sure about it for a long time and I thought it was indulgent as a career choice. People are curing cancer and doing all these things. What am I doing?" says Kamali. "But I learned from women through their stories of wearing my clothing, they did have an experience that was meaningful. It changed how they felt."

The fashion industry has long faced charges that it objectifies women by presenting models who are simply not representative of most women.

"I'm guilty. I mean, I don't know if you've seen some of the swimsuits I make, but if you do, you'll say, 'What are you talking about?'" says Kamali.

Kamali says she wants her models to smile and like they enjoy a meal. But the difference between objectifying and empowering can be subtle.

"If someone chooses a swimsuit that exposes too much of their body, it's a choice they're making to be objectified," says Kamali. "But if someone, maybe, has a very athletic body and they wear a smaller swimsuit and their body is enhanced by that design of swimsuit, they may not be objectified but they may be empowered."

When you think of swimsuit and Norma Kamali, you think of the 1970s poster of Farrah Fawcett wearing a Kamali swimsuit. The poster sold millions and is now in the Smithsonian.

"It's really this classic poster, the idea of a poster that I'm sure every boy had up on their wall. Maybe even someone at this table," says Kamali.

I responded, "I'm not sure I had it up in my room in college but I knew hot to get to it."

Another one of her calling cards is the sleeping bag coat, inspired by her one-time love of camping.

"Middle of the night, freezing, nature is calling, I would just drag my sleeping bag into the woods and I thought, 'Why don't I put sleeves on this thing?'" says Kamali.

But one of her creations of which she is not so proud is... shoulder pads.

"I thought it was pretty fabulous and everybody else did too, because we sold tons of them," she says. "But I look back at it now as one of my big fashion faux pas. Like, what was I thinking?"

Kamali went to Washington Irving High School in the Gramercy section of Manhattan. She's back in her old school, as part of the Pencil Program, bringing business expertise into public schools.

"In fashion, not only do your clothes have to sell but you have to be able to sell your clothes. You have to be able to sell your story," Kamali tells her students.

Kamali's story? She grew up in Yorkville, in the 1950s a predominantly Irish Catholic neighborhood. She was Norma Arraez then, a young girl of Basque and Lebanese descent.

Then her folks got divorced, unheard of in that neighborhood, and her mom married the neighborhood candy store owner, who was Jewish.

"Now we were not only Lebanese and Basque, but we were Jewish," Kamali says.

Kamali graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1964, but her love of fashion ironically only blossomed when she got a job with an airline.

She made frequent visits to London at the heart of its "mod" stage, and noticed the lengths of skirts were much shorter than back in New York.

"I sat on the plane back from London hemming my skirt, all the way around, and I remember walking down the street. Talk about objectification," says Kamali. "I was called everything under the sun that wasn't pretty."

Her career in fashion began in a bottom floor store on East 53rd Street with her then-husband, Bobby Kamali. They were married for 10 years.

"A personal life takes a lot of time and nurturing and it also takes the right partner. And I think through the years, I'm not sure that I've been that successful," she says.

Kamali also decided long ago that she would pursue her career, not parenthood.

"I didn't want to contribute to bringing another neurotic child into the world. With my commitment to my work, I wasn't sure that I could have a housekeeper raise a child," says Kamali. "And I thought about it long and hard."

Kamali's position as an influential figure in the industry, but not one of its most prominent celebrities, is perhaps best reflected in a story about Studio 54. At the time, she was dating one of its founders, Ian Schrager.

Her fashion designs were part of the Studio 54 scene, even if the designer wasn't.

"I'm a drug-free person, I don't drink, so I'm not really good in environments where there's a lot of freedom or whatever," says Kamali. "And so I never really felt that comfortable in that environment, but I dressed a lot of people that were comfortable in that environment."

Long ago, Kamali wanted to be a painter, until she realized that making a living was going to be difficult and she could pour her energy and creativity into fashion design. She has never stopped.

"I didn't want a minute to go by when I wasn't being productive and I wasn't living out the idea or dream I had," says Kamali. "Truth is, I still am that way. I just don't want to waste this lifetime."

Kamali always has more than a few ideas for future projects, since she is not one to dwell on the past. But with parachute dresses and sleeping bag coats, shoulder pads and Farrah's red bathing suit, what a rich history it is.

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