Norma Kamali on Studio 54 and the return of power dressing

Meet the queen of New York City.

[T]alking to Norma Kamali about her life is a thing of wonder. Like fashion’s answer to Forrest Gump, the New York designer has been at the centre of countless cultural movements over the past six decades. From the decadence of Studio 54 in the 1970s to the rise of genderless fashion in the 1980s – Norma has not only seen it all, she created the wardrobe for much of it too.

Credited with inventing the Sleeping Bag Coat (as loved by Rihanna), Farrah Fawcett’s iconic red swimsuit and high heeled sneakers – there aren’t many trends that the pioneering designer hasn’t had a hand in.

Power dressing? It’s Norma who popularised the shoulder pad in the 1980s. Athleisure? She also made the tracksuit a thing of glamour. Maintaining her independence throughout, she continues to inspire the next generation of designers, winning a Lifetime Achievement Award from the CFDA in 2016.

Taking it back to the 1980s, Norma’s latest collection flirts with the strong silhouettes of the era but recasts them for the modern woman in the softer, flexible fabrics that have become her trademark. We talked to the design icon about female empowerment and her fond and fabulous memories of New York City.

Hi Norma, what do you think about the return of 1980s fashion?

I do think the women’s movement in the eighties and shoulder pads and power suits were a connection to how women were feeling. I am not sure if there is a real connection now or if it is just a coincidence. I do think the style, fun and looks best mixed with non-eighties elements.

"Don’t be afraid to be the best you and work your ass off!"

Your new collection has some strong eighties references - can you talk us through some of the inspirations?

Proportion is fun to play with and I see that as symbolic of the eighties. Active and leisure wear really started in the eighties. It was a time when there was a blur between punk, anti-fashion and non-gender specific styles.

You've been credited with bringing the shoulder pad into fashion, and the sleeping bag coat - did you always set out to be innovative in your approach to design? Are there new inventions you still want to create?

I am always excited about invention. In fact I think about invention in every collection. For me, I’m always looking to construct clothing so that it can be worn in more than one style.

Has it always been important for you to ensure your clothes are accessible and versatile for a variety of women?

Women are balancing complicated lives and clothing should function and be accessible, and when it is she can have more fun with her wardrobe.

"In the 1980s, there was a powerful creative energy that gave rise to an energetic fashion industry, Studio 54 and an art and music scene still influencing today"

As a designer you've stayed independent and kept reinventing your brand over many decades - what do you think have been the secrets to that? Do you have any advice for emerging designers?

The secret is no secret. Authenticity! Don’t be afraid to be the best you and work your ass off!

Tell us about some of your most amazing memories of 1970s and 1980s NYC?

Due to the crisis in NYC during that time NYC was extremely affordable since folks were leaving for safer environments. There was a powerful creative energy that gave rise to an energetic fashion industry, Studio 54 and an art and music scene still influencing today. AIDS ended the momentum.

"Studio 54 was the platform for the gay identity to be open and expressive and for feminist freedom of expression"

What was the experience of being at Studio 54 really like?

Studio 54 was the platform for the gay identity to be open and expressive and for feminist freedom of expression. I was seeing Ian Schrager at the time so I was very much in the moment but after my peak at the party preparations before the club opened, I was never there!

How have you embraced social media and the digital world - you've shot this campaign yourself on iPhone, was that important to you?

I love connecting directly to people! I love the creative possibilities of technology. The camera on the iPhone is fantastic and I can video and do stills and show the line through my eyes.

 

"I am always at my most creative where there is disruption"

London has been a big inspiration for you throughout your work, can you tell us about your trips there in the 1960s and how these shaped your style and creativity?

I felt so connected to London the day I arrived in 1965! I was in the right place at the right time to experience and be part of the transformative disruption into the magical revolution. Self expression, the individual and reinvention of what is possible is also happening again now. I am always at my most creative where there is disruption.

Who are some emerging designers you admire right now?

Gen Z designers are thinking about what they can do to change the world one piece at a time. They tend to be less interested in personal fame and more about purpose. I relate to that and have throughout my career

"Gen Z designers are thinking about what they can do to change the world one piece at a time"

Share three of your best beauty secrets with us...

Sleep, exercise and a healthy diet! All priceless and free at the same time!

Thank you Norma!

Shop Norma Kamali’s latest collection on her website and follow her on Instagram @normakamali

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