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.”