Norma Kamali on Making her Fashion Statement: Always in Style!

In sixth grade, a teacher wrote in a student’s autograph book: “know thy self.” Those wise words seemed perplexing but years later that student, Norma Kamali—now known to the world as a fashion designer, entrepreneur, writer, fitness guru and public speaker—says that it’s the most significant advice she’s been given. Norma was on the panel of our Women Helping Women breakfast last December, but recently she sat down with Dress for Success again to further explain just how dreaming big is at the heart of her brand.

Norma stayed true to her sixth grade teacher’s advice even when she wasn’t certain what her aspirations were. She’s always had a great love for art and fashion but after she finished college, she wasn’t yet sure what she wanted to do. It was the mid-60s and she got a job working for an airline selling reservations. It was the perfect opportunity because it fulfilled her desire to travel as she was able to visit places such as London and other far-off hot spots.

It was just a few years later in 1968 when she would begin to take big steps in her fashion career. She opened her first boutique on 53rd Street in New York City where she initially started selling clothes that she had purchased on her many trips abroad. She would later use her skills in sewing and design to fill the boutique with her own creations.

But the boutique was just the beginning. Every decade after, Norma continued to take the fashion industry by storm. In the 1970s, her focus would be designing refined clothing and tailored suits. A few short years later, she’s became most recognized for her drawstring parachute jumpsuit. The jumpsuit was included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Vanity Fair: A Treasure Trove of the Costume Institute” in 1977. She would then open another store in the Upper West Side: “On my Own.” Its Norma’s uniqueness and boldness that’s led her to create what no one else anticipates. She took fabrics that were then used only for athletics and sporting wear and she made jackets, skirts, and narrow and baggy trouser that were the must-have items of their time. Her “rah-rah” skirts were the first short skirts to sell in a volume since the mini skirt of the early 1960s.

By the 1980s, everyone knew Norma’s name because of her fleece and swimwear collection. The fleece collection was inspired by the sleeping bag she supposedly used after her divorce and the earliest pieces of her swimwear collection were one piece suits that were daring ensembles for the 80s. She– along with Calvin Klein– are credited for introducing high-cut bathing suits.

Decade after decade, her business continued to thrive. In 2012, she created the go-to online destination for shoppers to discover timeless style, KAMALIKULTUR. Norma says that fashion is similar to any other industry in that it’s going through a disruptive time so it’s vital for brands to be creative and innovative. She calls women “smart shoppers” because they are selective—they’re not just looking for the best clothing but are comparing stores and prices to get the best deal. Through KAMALIKULTUR, customers get a collection of modern styles, everyday pieces and chic office wear. The best part is that it’s all under $100. Shoppers can look their best without exhausting their wallet.

Norma thrives on her love of fashion, but she also has another love: helping women. That’s why she does not shy away from admitting a negative influence fashion has had on women.

“Every woman has something that she doesn’t feel good about. Women’s insecurities are universal and the beauty and fashion industry reinforces that,” Norma states.

In order to empower women, Norma advocates on the understanding of what authentic beauty is about. To her, it’s more than just how you look but also how you’re treating your body. That was her motivation with “The Wellness Café” located in Midtown Manhattan. The café is a shop with products that are 100 percent certified organic, plant-based and chosen by Norma herself. The café is her way of encouraging others to be mindful of taking care of their bodies through consideration of what goes into it.

“Fitness and health are the definition of what beauty is about. Being healthy is a tool for empowerment. When we feel good, we are able to accomplish much,” said Norma.

Norma encourages women to be healthy and especially ambitious in their lives. She continues to make waves in her career till this day. Today, while she’s still focused on her love of beauty and wellness, she’s also working on innovative and simple messages to help women with wellness and skincare. And to top it all off, she’s writing a book to serve as a reference to help women on the topic of health.

Since the 1960s, Norma hasn’t stop. She’s continued to inspire and amaze us with what she’ll do next. She credits her mother with instilling the notion in her that nothing is out of reach.

“My mother is an incredible woman, well ahead of her time. At first, I didn’t know she was different and once I did, I initially rebelled, wondering why she was doing all these things. I’ve realized I was lucky to be raised in such an environment. She taught me that anything is possible, so the mentality is part of my DNA.”

She encourages women to be just as daring in their dreams and goals, and she wholly believes that amazing things happen when you endeavor to aim high.

“A big dream takes us to places we never thought we’d go. A big dream opens up a horizon we never thought possible. Even if we don’t get to that top height, the path and experiences open up insights and opportunities that we would have never had if we just stuck to what was safe and practical.”

Ceci Johnson on Building a Luxury Design Empire

Ceci Johnson in office

Once a bride to be has the date of her wedding secured, a significant stage of the wedding planning process is sending out the invitations. That’s where the leader in wedding invitation design: Ceci New York’s team comes in. At Ceci New York, the team specializes in invitation and lifestyle designs for weddings, corporate events, galas and much more. The design empire was founded by Ceci Johnson, a Southern California native whose career accelerated from launching her website to forming a business that would alter the art of invitation and branding. Johnson is an entrepreneur, trailblazer and force in the graphic design world.

Ceci Johnson3

Johnson’s idea to launch her business was sparked by designing a wedding invitation for a co-worker when she worked as a designer for the bridal registry kits at Macy’s and Bloomingdales in California. She later moved to New York, and began freelance desigining with one referral from the next. After, she decided to launch a website which after six months would garner her the trendsetter award by Modern Bride Magazine and the New York Magazine’s expert stationer award. The website was just the beginning as her business expanded from a shared creative workspace she found on Craig’s List to a few desks that ultimately grew to 2,200 square foot storefront on 23rd Street.

At Ceci New York, there are two levels of services brides can choose from: Ceci Collection and Ceci Couture. With Ceci Collection, brides can make custom changes to a variety of invitations that are designed and make them their own. They have the flexibility to choose ink colors, fonts and even the placement of artwork. Ceci Couture is a creative collaborative process where the bride works directly with her team to come up with an exclusive invitation.  In addition to Ceci Collection and Ceci Couture, Johnson launched CeciStyle Magazine in 2010. Each issue shares her latest passions and discoveries, not just in invitations, but also in the world of art and design, entertainment, fashion, beauty, home décor, travel and more. CeciStyle boasts over half a million viewers.

Johnson certainly built a remarkable business with a notable clientele list that includes Sean “Diddy” Combs, Katherine Heigl and the President of the United States. She credits her team for her company’s success, calling them dream makers and innovators that are dedicated to making clients happy by turning their creativity into an artistic reality.

“I believe 50% of our job is to create incredible design while the other 50% is excellent customer service and quality product” says Johnson.

Johnson recently sat down with Dress for Success to discuss building and growing her company and what more she has in-store for the future of Ceci New York.

  1. In 2004, you launched your custom invitation design business: Ceci New York but you first started with a website which after six months, won the trendsetter award by Modern Bride magazine. Were there some challenges you encountered as you started the business and how did you overcome them?

I always thought that it would be so easy to launch a company and be successful instantly. I learned very quickly that you won’t be famous over night (sigh), that you have to constantly work on your business and that it’s not an easy straight line up to success. It’s a crazy hard wild ride full of ups and downs and tough challenges every step of the way that constantly test your patience. I’ve learned that your hardest day only lasts 24 hours and that you really cannot give up no matter how tired you are. Because, honestly, if you are not pushing your business forward, then it’s not really going to go anywhere on it’s own. I constantly remind myself that if it was easy, then everyone would be doing it.

  1. You’ve said that what makes Ceci New York wedding invitations stand out from other companies is the great customer service, to bring clients the best service that they will remember. How would you describe the work environment you’ve built at Ceci New York?

“The company culture at Ceci New York is extremely important to me. We are a team of dream makers and innovators, dedicated to making our clients happy by turning our creativity into an artistic reality. However, we wouldn’t be able to make our clients happy if we weren’t happy ourselves, so I insist on hiring the most positive people on the planet who have a happy, can-do attitude. People who love a good challenge, love to problem solve and work hard at creating something amazing. We are collectively building something bigger than all of us. I always say, you need to check your egos at the door and come in and work as a collaborative creative team. Nothing is beneath us. If I have to take out the trash, I will. If we have to work late to get the job done, that’s a given. We do whatever it takes with a smile and turn it into fun.

  1. Your business has expanded from the launch of your site and obtaining referrals, to having a company that does not only create wedding invitations, but also partnerships, such as your collaboration with Dress for Success. How will you continue to expand Ceci New York?

I am proud to partner with great organizations like Dress for Success and have our design do good. Giving back and helping others is a mission I’ve always been on ever since I was a little girl. I love making people happy through our creativity and make their lives a little more beautiful. This year, we hope to expand into more lifestyle categories and bring our designs to beautify your world everyday – not just on your wedding day or birthday, but now you will be able to enjoy a bit of Ceci on a daily basis through our new products launching soon.

  1. In your letter for our “Success Diaries,” column you shared that the best piece of advice is what you obtained from your father. He always said that “your hardest day is only 24 hours”. For women entrepreneurs in the beginning stages of their careers, what career advice would you pass on to them?

Be strong. Be laser focused and never give up on your dreams. Remember to not take things too personally. Being an entrepreneur definitely thickens your skin because you have to learn to set your emotions aside and remember it is just business. Once you can separate, you can drive your business with a rational mind, which will get you much farther than you ever imagined.

  1. In the Ceci Couture design process, your team comes up with a brand new, custom design concept for each client. How do you work with your clients to create a design that they love? Has there been a request that you’ve admired most?

The design consultation is all about asking a lot of questions and doing a deep dive into who my clients are and what makes them tick. We like to think of it as our “first date.” We consider what kind of person or company they are, what their home looks like, what they wear, what they love individually and together as a couple. Once we define the style, I start brainstorming ideas for their unique invitations. It’s the ultimate luxury to turn yourself over to a talented designer’s hands and let them do what they do best. The results are always something you could have never dreamed of yourself. For me, it’s easy and fun. I try to eliminate the stress of having to know an exact invitation design before starting the process. That’s our job!

  1. You’ve spoken to designers, women in business, wedding industry professionals and entrepreneurial groups. What would you hope that attendees take away from your talks?

I hope I can inspire others to better their own businesses and to know they can run a successful business all while having a work life balance. To find the confidence to stand up for themselves (especially women in business) to get paid what they deserve and not let clients take over their lives. That it’s ok to fail. And that failure isn’t final, it is just feedback. To learn from my mistakes and know they’re not alone in this crazy hard entrepreneurial journey. And most importantly to know that if you dream it, you can always find a way to make it a reality if you don’t give up. 

  1. You’ve been featured in The New York Times, USA Today, InStyle, Town & Country as well as spotlighted on the Today Show and VH1. You’ve also had high profile clients such as Sara Jessica Parker and Katherine Heigel. What does this success mean to you?

I am so grateful and flattered to have had these moments along the way. While these are what I would consider incredible moments of success, I’ve learned they are fleeting and we have to constantly keep after it. Success, to me, is achieving your dreams and to keep making your dreams come true every day.

 To learn more about Ceci Johnson and her design work, follow her on Instagram (@cecinewyork) or visit www.cecinewyork.com