In front of me in the SCAD Museum of Art Theater sits a woman in a structured, oversized pink dress adorned with a floral and bird print. Next to her sits a man, his hair dyed a subtle blonde, sporting a sweater with a green, white, and grey diamond pattern. And on stage walks Norma Kamali, one leather lace-up peep-toe bootie after another.
Her blunt bangs and tortoiseshell eyeglass frames do not shade her enthusiastic disposition, and it is as if all at once she locks eyes with her audience: the woman and the man sitting in front of me, and all of the SCAD students and faculty who have gathered to listen to the advice and experience of Kamali, who has spent fifty years in the fashion industry and is credited as the creator of a college student go-to style: athleisure.
Perhaps it is Kamali’s natural, humble attitude that it is reflected in her designs. Her upbringing as a fashion designer is unique because she didn’t go to school for fashion design. However, Kamali attended an arts high school in what she described as a “not so good neighborhood.”
Inspired by artists such as Michelangelo, she excelled in high school with a stellar portfolio and ended up getting a scholarship to The Fashion Institute of Technology.
It was a time where college girls wore cone bras, girdles, stockings, and matching outfits. Kamali earned a degree in illustration.
At FIT, Norma Kamali did not fall in love with fashion. She loved fashion illustrations, but after college Kamali’s wanderlust led her to a job as a flight attendant. She brought clothes home from her $29 round trips to London for her friends, and years passed before Kamali decided to open a store simply to sell the things she liked. It wasn’t meant to be a place where her own designs were sold, and Kamali emphasized to the audience that while you may have an agenda, it is important to be open to change. Opening a store in East Village? Change it was.
When Kamali decided to delve into her own design work, her strict instructor saw potential – potential that is now reflected in each of her pieces.
“They’re going to find out that I don’t know what I’m doing,” said Kamali lightheartedly after remembering one of her first big moments as a designer – full page spreads in both Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
The unexpected adventures are not the only thing Kamali welcomes with open arms. She believes that even if we have a bad experience, we can choose to look at it as a blessing. Known for her swimwear, Norma was not given credit when one of her suits appeared on the cover of Time magazine. A sincere apology from her friend led to the inspiration for the parachute dress.
“Bad experiences can steer you into the right direction,” said Kamali.
More than anything, Kamali reminded us that the most important thing to do is give.
Give your time and kindness to others, because giving allows us to see the glass as half full.
Kamali is also known for her focus on wellness; and in addition to the spirit of giving, she tells us that by taking care of ourselves through eating healthy, food and exercise we can better excel in our studies. By taking care of ourselves mentally and physically, we are able to tap into the best parts of ourselves.
All of us in the audience listened to her experiences in the ever-changing fashion industry and wondered how we, too, could accomplish our dreams.
Her answer was simple: “If you’re going to do anything in the way it has been done before, you’re going to fail.”
She told us to explore and be inventive. After listening to her speak, I know that even if I fall, a parachute will be there, because even the most difficult experiences in our lives have the ability to take us to the greatest places.
Written by Carly Walker
Photos by Angie Stong and Lucy Hewitt