Norma Kamali photographed by Dominique Nabokov, Vogue, October 1987.
Over nearly 50 years in the business, Norma Kamali has done her fair share of prefiguring. Before the term athleisure was so much as a twinkle in a marketing director’s eye, the New York–born designer was building her business on stretchy, eminently wearable styles for the Studio 54 set and beyond. Since first opening her doors on the cusp of the 1970s, she’s been moving the needle of design. First it was with the modish Brit brands she imported, then her own early, vampish, ’40s-inspired fare. But before long, the perennially wellness-obsessed Kamali had made it her mission to create clothes that, even at their slinkiest, were utterly livable; across the decades, that credo has remained. Consider a handful of the label’s most iconic pieces: the high-heeled sneaker, the Sleeping Bag coat, sweats separates . . .
It’s that legacy and much more set to be toasted next Monday, as Kamali is honored with the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award.
In honor of the recognition, Vogue.com caught up with some of the people who have known Kamali best—among them early fan Bette Midler; nightlife legend and former beau Ian Schrager; peers (and CFDA Lifetime Achievement honorees themselves) Anna Sui and Vera Wang; choreographer Twyla Tharp; Fern Mallis; and even a New York Doll. Read on for her singular story in their words.
Norma Kamali (née Arraes) came up middle class in New York City, an aspiring painter from a young age. After earning a degree in illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology, she found herself hungering for something more. Taking a job with an airline for the sole appeal of discounted flights, Kamali reportedly flew to London every weekend for a few years at the peak of the city’s swinging Carnaby Street heyday. The city’s youthquake zeal sparked something surely already brewing in Kamali’s psyche—the fashions she encountered there would ultimately line the racks of the eponymous boutique she and her husband, Eddie, debuted on East 53rd Street in 1968.
Anna Sui, designer: When I was at Parsons, I lived on the block where her boutique was, and my roommate worked there, so that was the gold standard—Norma Kamali clothes. Even the New York Dolls were buying clothes from her. They were my neighbors. Betsey Bunky Nini [was on the block], too, and then there was Sweet Shop.
Sylvain Sylvain, founding member and guitarist of the New York Dolls, designer: This was just after we finished recording our first album [in 1973]. There was this girl who worked at [Norma’s] store and she sees me and Johnny [Thunders, late guitarist of the New York Dolls] at Max’s Kansas City one night, and says, “Oh, Norma’s renting her apartment on 53rd Street,” in the same building that she had the shop. Johnny met Norma or her husband [of the time, Eddie] and we sublet it. They had wallpapered it with a maroon crushed velvet—me and Johnny used to call it The Coffin!
Anna Sui: [Norma] was always there, and she was always head to toe in her [designs]. She would change the shop interiors along with the collections. At one point there were snakeskin walls and a lot of snakeskin clothes, and then another time it was all velvet patchwork, and she patchworked all the walls. Then another time it was all tartans, and she did these beautiful tailored tartan suits, and the walls were all covered in tartan.
Sylvain Sylvain: On the first New York Dolls album cover, the [pants] that Johnny is wearing, the black lamé ones with the fringe, I made those, but if you [look at] my pair and the ones that Arthur Kane is wearing, those are actually Norma Kamali. They were stretchy and a lot higher-waisted. When you saw someone wearing her clothes, they looked sharp! She used good materials—silks and good cottons and Lycra.