Considered one of America's most original fashion designers, Norma Kamali created innovative and influential garments during the 1970s and 1980s. In the early twenty-first century she continued to market forward-looking fashions. Born Norma Arraez in New York City in 1945, her fashion career might be said to have begun with her outrageous personal style of dressing during her teenage years. It was later refined through formal studies in illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York. After graduating from FIT in 1964, Kamali took several jobs making sketches for Seventh Avenue buyers, only to leave in frustration at the restrictive, stifling environment. Deciding that she wanted the freedom to travel, Kamali took an office position at Northwest Orient Airlines. The airline job allowed her access to cheap travel, a benefit she exploited with frequent weekend trips to London and Paris. There she enthusiastically explored the swinging fashion scene burgeoning in the 1960s.
Norma Kamali's First Boutique
Her friends and associates coveted the clothes that Kamali brought back from her travels in Europe, and provided the impetus for her to open a boutique in partnership with her husband, Eddie. The shop opened in 1968 on Fifty-third Street and was stocked with garments Kamali purchased abroad. Teaching herself to sew, cut, and make patterns in a very hands-on approach to her design business, she soon began supplementing the inventory with clothes of her own creation.
From the beginning her designs were fresh, original, and entertaining. Inspired by pop culture and street fashion combined with a sense of practicality, Kamali created bold pieces, such as hot pants and leotards. When the store moved to Madison Avenue in 1974, Kamali turned to designing more refined clothing, including tailored suits. Her divorce in 1977 and subsequent opening of OMO (On My Own) on the Upper West Side marked her true emergence as a designer. Through OMO, Kamali revealed her interest in and identification with a newly independent and creative female customer base.
Kamali is credited with introducing some of the most recognized looks of the 1970s and 1980s. She became a household name after the success of her influential 1980 collection of day and evening wear made from sweatshirt fleece. Inspired by the sleeping bag she supposedly used after her divorce, her quilted down coat design has become a fashion standard. Especially notable is Kamali's drawstring parachute jumpsuit from the mid-1970s, which was included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition Vanity Fair: A Treasure Trove of the Costume Institute in 1977. In the 1980s, Kamali stressed exaggerated shoulders in her garments and is widely acknowledged as a contributor to the revival of the big shoulder look of that decade.
Kamali has also been a pioneer in swimsuit design. Her earliest pieces were daringly revealing bikinis and gold lamé maillots (one-piece swimsuits for women). She is also credited (along with Calvin Klein) with introducing high-cut bathing suits in 1976, a look that dominated swimsuit styles in the 1980s. In 1985 Kamali introduced a shirred, 1940s-inspired maillot, revealing her deep interest in retro fashions. Kamali's fresh, updated vintage styles, such as the "Ethel Mertz" wrap dress of the mid-1980s, anticipated the postmodern reprocessing of retro styles that occurred in the next decade. Even in the early 1990s Kamali was ahead of the retro curve, including flared trousers, reminiscent of those styles popular in the 1930s and 1970s, in her collection.
Kamali as a Mentor
The Manhattan Chamber of Commerce gave Norma Kamali the 2001 Business Outreach Award for her outstanding work with public school students, particularly those at her alma mater, Washington Irving High School. There, in Room 741 (her former homeroom class), she has created a state-of-the-art design laboratory where she instructs students in fashion design every other week.
Kamali's creativity has been recognized through a number of awards from such fashion institutions as the Coty American Fashion Critics, Council of Fashion Designers of America, the Fashion Group, and the Fashion Walk of Fame, to name just a few. She remains in 2004 one of America's most inventive and witty designers.
Baker, Therese Duzinkiewicz. "Norma Kamali." In The St. James Fashion Encyclopedia. Edited by Richard Martin. Detroit, Mich.: Visible Ink Press, 1997.
Diamonstein, Barbaralee. Fashion: The Inside Story. New York: Rizzoli, 1985.
Lencek, Lena, and Gideon Bosker. Making Waves: Swimsuits and the Undressing of America. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1989.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. Couture: The Great Designers. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1985.
Talley, Andre Leon. "True Wit: The Zany World of Norma Kamali." Vogue (November 1984): 430-435.