Norma Kamali and postmodern economy

Now I was just a wee lass when Norma Kamali came out with her famous “sleeping bag” coat and the Christie Brinkley bikini. My cultural memory filed her as one of the classic disco-sheen designers of the 70s, and there she lay. So when I bought a cool zippy anorak by “Kamali for Everlast” in a hunt for some funky non-yoga workout clothes, my fashion memory warmed up to the possibility of her return.

I loved that thing so much it reached a state of decay after too much painting and gardening in it. So I thought, in this day and age of you-and-me-and-everyone-we-know, of Bluefly via eBay, that I might be able to find another from someone else’s abandoned closet. I did find a few remaining Everlast pieces but discovered the brand had gone defunct. And instead I ended up at Norma Kamali’s website.

And this place is a blast.

I mean, a parachute dress (yes, parachute nylon) made almost Victorian:

And the timeless-retro swimwear:

And the do-it-yourself gowns that can wrap any which way you please:

And then she gets all punk with safety pins:

I can’t help but admire someone that makes a punk-military jacket with Victorian silhouettes in 70s polyester jersey–and it doesn’t look chaotic.

I admit, the bodycon thing isn’t for me, nor is the polyester jersey. I feel like sweating just thinking about it, and the resurrected Halston Heritage is using it again, too. (I know, I know, textile technology has changed and maybe this isn’t some sly comeuppance of bad 70s style. This is sustainable stuff! But does it breathe more than it used to?)

But I adore the deconstructive boldness and playful simplicity of most of the pieces. There is an artistic freedom and adventurous economic spirit about her whole business, which has a few genius schemes unlike many other designers:

1. She wants to appeal to a variety of incomes. You have Norma Kamali for Walmart and a higher-end Norma Kamali Omo. And there’s Norma Kamali on Ebay, which is kind of like her clearance rack. There are also various distinct collections like a tailored terry knit line, a cool modal jersey line of cardigans and draped dresses (that breathe!), another poly-jersey lifestyle line with cool 40s styles, and on and on. You just have to get lost here to discover it all.

2. There is a Try Before You Buy scheme, which is refreshing for those of us that shop online. You can basically order the clothes without paying, try them on for a few days, and then decide. Almost everything that is found in stores, is being sold on the site–so no hunting down obscure pieces in a boutique.

3. Clothes are manufactured in the U.S.

Over at Fashion Incubator, a blog geared toward industry folk, there was a great entry about her business approach vs. the mainstream marketing and manufacturing practices of the fashion industry. The exclusivity and advance lead times of runways and manufacturing used to depend on a sense of exclusivity, but now, with the internet, we the consumers are in constant access with current style from the moment it hits the runways. Knock-offs galore come out the same time as the original, thus creating a market glut. Not only does this cause artificial inflation to race with the rest, but other serious ethical issues like huge outsourcing to sweatshops. Not to mention sheer waste of “stuff”.

I hope I’m not oversimplifying things but for a long time I have been very interested in the ethical troubles of the fashion industry. I love fashion, but both as art and economy it is in desperate need of an ethical electroshock.

On the one hand, some designers are fighting for their exclusivity by pushing copyright laws for design, part of forcing a reduction of offerings to create demand. (See this article.) And many feel spells disaster for smaller, independent designers trying to start a business. (See here and here.) On the other lies someone like Kamali, who just wants to change the ritual altogether, by making more of a variety more accessible, and staging her collections in the actual season they are released. This is akin to something like print-on-demand in the publishing world.

From an article last year at the Los Angeles Times:

For the first time, Kamali will be showing clothes during New York Fashion Week that are available to purchase not six months from now, but on the spot.

“The fashion shows used to be such an elite situation, only for editors and very special buyers. Then it opened up and became more of a celebrity-type event. Now there is no elite anymore. You don’t have to be in same country to see a runway show; everybody can see it as soon as it’s over, on the Internet.”

…“I don’t think people are that anxious to buy clothes right now. They are being cautious and smart, and that’s not a state of mind we can change. We have to address the new reality with timeless clothes, great value and convenience.”

Her multi-faceted marketing and consumer awareness seems truly postmodern, and rather in stark contrast to this quite modernist understanding of the consumer:

“We design for the consumer, and right now, I believe the consumer is completely confused,” [Donna] Karan said, adding shoppers don’t know whether they were looking at a pre-season, a fall season, or another delivery. “We should truly focus on the problem and the solution. The consumer has been trained to buy on sale. The clothes in stores are not in season, so she is confused. Why should she go out and spend money early in the season, when in fact come September and October, when the season actually changes, the next season is there and it’s called resort? We are putting all the energy into something that the consumer isn’t really getting, because by then it’s on sale.”


I personally think Kamali has it right, and I certainly feel from her website no pressure to buy anything at all, which is refreshing. The lines between fashion audience and fashion-maker are forever blurred, and the former aren’t as naive as they used to be. I don’t think we are confused, at least the younger generations aren’t. It’s nice to be treated with respect and understanding of our increased awareness, global visual fluency and choices, rather than demanding of them.

Also read: “Always in Her Element” via the New York Times