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Something strange happened during New York Fashion Week this past September. At the presentation of Norma Kamali’s spring 2012 collection, the industry’s most frozen-faced elite were moved to crack a smile. Wearing 3-D glasses—in Kamali’s iconic cat-eye shape, of course—the assembled editors marveled at the giant projection of a 3-D fashion show, featuring “dance-hall girls” shimmying and twirling right off the screen. The result was pure delight, the energy in the room almost ebullient. People were having—gasp—fun at a fashion show.
Kamali, who says she has “always felt like an outsider” and, therefore, feels “comfortable on that edge,” gave up traditional runway shows years ago: “I really felt that there were so many new ways to tell a story,” she says. “Not this sour girl walking down the runway, looking very unlike anybody you would ever want to be.” Instead, she opts for short fashion films, which the very democratic designer makes available online. The 3-D campaign is no exception: Through her website, Kamali enthusiasts can order free glasses to appreciate the film, as well as 3-D online shopping. The revolutionary concept has already gained the label more than 26,000 new Facebook fans.
With her signature bangs, cat-eye glasses and toned frame, Kamali appears at least two decades younger than her 66 years. And after 44 years in business, she is more enthusiastic than ever: “The future and the opportunities for things never done before, it’s so exciting. It’s like being an explorer!” Kamali, a self-proclaimed app addict, was one of the Internet’s earliest adopters, launching her website in 1996, long before her competition woke up to the profit potential of online shopping. “I’m drawn to it,” she says, explaining her easy relationship with technology. “I have a natural inclination to want to see tomorrow.”
To see tomorrow is to always be one step ahead of the curve, which is especially challenging now that even the biggest fashion houses are tapping into the next media-savvy generation of consumers. Ralph Lauren had an e-commerce site as early as 2000, and brands like Burberry and Alexander McQueen began streaming their fashion shows about three years ago. Tory Burch and Diane von Furstenberg use Twitter and Facebook to provide a window into the designers’ personal lives and incentivize their followers with insider promotions. “Digital is the new skinny jeans for the fashion industry,” says Maureen Mullen, director of research and advisory for the digital innovation think tank L2. “For companies that really understand, it begins to seep into the design aesthetic and the brand DNA.”
“Fashion is about change, and I love change,” says Kamali, who, at age 50, sold the majority of her possessions at a Christie’s auction in order to clear her creative mind. “But I also love being able to keep what works.” Which is why her most iconic—and innovative—pieces continue to have a cult-like following: the sleeping-bag coat, the fringe dress and the Bill bathing suit (a retro silhouette that magically looks good on everyone), to name a few. The strength of Kamali’s vision is most palpable entering her flagship store on West 56th Street in New York. It’s a bit like boarding a high-fashion spaceship, where eight-foot-tall cardboard “glamazons” showcase her simultaneously flirty and tough designs.
Along with technology and smart design, an emphasis on health and wellness rounds out the Kamali trifecta. In an industry that revolves around making women look beautiful on the outside, Kamali wants the process to start on the inside. “If we communicate beauty as someone who is healthy and fit, who does all the things that are good for the body, they will be beautiful,” she says. In 2007, she opened the Wellness Café on her store’s ground floor, featuring an outpost of the popular juice bar Organic Avenue, along with shelves stocked with her favorite natural health items: olive oil specially harvested for the café, products by organic beauty pioneer Horst Rechelbacher, organic fast food like nuts and vacuum-sealed salmon. Devotees can take home a DVD of her workout of choice from Physique 57 or even attend a seminar by her acupuncturist, Chinese medicine expert Jingduan Yang, M.D.
Holistic practice has only magnified Kamali’s intuitive nature—especially when it comes to what works for her business. Being simultaneously agile and unwaveringly true to herself is the key to her success: “Ultimately, I learned how to sew, make patterns and drape because people would tell me, ‘No, that’s not possible, you can’t make that. It can’t be done’—and I thought, I don’t know…men are landing on the moon and I can’t make these pants? I think it can be done.”
Fact: Clients trying on Norma Kamali pieces at home can get fit assessments from the company’s stylists via Skype.
Related: Get Norma Kamali’s 3-D glasses.
Norma Kamali and the Wellness Café are at 11 W. 56th St., New York; normakamali.com.
Norma Kamali’s World Now
Wellness: Health initiatives are as important as clothes to Kamali, who uses her Wellness Café to promote her latest feel-good obsessions, including a proprietary line of olive oil.
Design: Dubbed the Dance Hall Girls collection, Kamali’s spring 2012 lineup plays with the designer’s most iconic silhouettes, reworking them in bright hues and graphic prints.
Technology: Kamali’s recently launched 3-D fashion campaign, which shoppers access via her website, has gained the innovative designer 26,000 new Facebook fans.