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Norma Kamali

Norma Kamali (1945 –    ) American

Nylon parachute dress in International Orange, 1974.

Norma Kamali (born Norma Arraes) grew up wanting to be a painter but instead graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) with a degree in Fashion Illustration. While searching the city for a job in the fashion industry she worked in the office of an international airline. A perk of this job were the discount tickets that allowed her to visit London frequently, sometimes weekly. In 1968, she and her husband opened the first store in New York importing and selling some of the clothes she saw in London along with items from local Salvation Army stores. In 1974, the store moved to a more fashionable address on Madison Avenue.

Nylon evening dress, 1978.

She was now creating and selling her own designs. She began experimenting with unusual materials, producing dresses and jumpsuits from parachute silks. To capitalize on the original use of the fabric these pieces were constructed with drawstrings in place in order to adjust the fit of the garment. Her 1975  “parachute” collection was a huge success. In later years, the material used would be changed to a more durable and water-repellent nylon. Several of these pieces are now part of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art permanent collection. The following year, she produced her most famous item, the “sleeping bag” coat. Inspired by an actual sleeping bag, she wanted to transfer that insulated and snug feel to quilted, down-filled outerwear that insulated the wearer from winter weather.

"Pull" swimsuit, Cosmopolitan, June 1977.

Kamali’s swimwear business was launched after Christie Brinkley wore her “Pull Bikini” on the June 1977 cover of Cosmopolitan magazine and the orders multiplied. The unique bare and graphic  suit was a sensation and Norma Kamali became an internationally recognizable name.

Terrycloth skirt and bolero for OMO, 1979.

Kamali and her husband divorced in 1978. Norma Kamali, Ltd was dissolved and she began a new company, OMO for On My Own. During this period she produced clothing made from sweatshirt fleece, knits and terrycloth. She elevated gray sweatshirt fleece from functional athletic wear to everyday street fashion. Many of the dresses incorporated elasticized sleeves or waistbands and were sold with detachable shoulder pads.

High-heeled sneakers, 1983.

To complement her new take on using gym-like fabrics she designed high-heeled sneakers that literally looked like athletic shoes propped up on sturdy heels with extra-long laces meant to be wrapped and tied around the leg. Her fondness for athletic wear would continue as she has a current partnership with Everlast and has aimmence interest in health and wellness.

Purple jumpsuit for OMO, 1975.

Swimwear continued to be a substantial amount of her business. In the 1980s her designs changed to more retro-influenced styles, long before the recent fascination with all things vintage. Around the same time, Kamali had a distinctive look loosely based on the 1940s with her jet black hair put up in victory rolls, a powdered face, and lips made up with red lipstick. She has streamlined her look and wears less makeup but that retro look is still seen on her models in promotion materials.  She was influenced by films of the ‘30s and ‘40s in her personal wardrobe and her clothing designs too. Her ensembles of bold-shouldered jackets, mid-calf skirts and platform heels were highly reminiscent of Hollywood designer Adrian.

Synthetic dress, 1960-70.

In 1995, she developed an interchangeable practical, comfortable wardrobe of jersey pieces available in three colors; black, red, and white. This collection was reminiscent of the clothing philosophies of designers Bonnie Cashin and Claire McCardell.

Retro bathing suit, 1980-90s.

Early on Kamali embraced the possibilities of direct marketing and the Internet for customer sales. Her direct marketing venture, 1-800-8Kamali allowed her customers to purchase all of her products through the Internet. Her product line at this time includes swimwear, active wear, fine clothing, home furnishings, her cosmetics line Norma Kamali Beauty, fragrances, eyewear and swimwear.

Wal-mart collection, Fall 2009.

In 2006, she revisited the jersey wardrobe idea and produced an affordable collection, Norma Kamali Timeless, exclusively for the Spiegel catalog and Instructive videos were provided on the website showing the many ways the pieces could be worn. She used this same concept in 2008 for an even lower priced collection for Wal-Mart stores. A $30 trench coat from that collection was voted Best Travel Fashion in Travel + Leisure magazine in 2009.

Emerald City sequence in The Wiz, 1978.

Film Connection: Kamali designed the costumes for the hyper-colored Emerald City sequences in The Wiz (1978) with Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.

Kamali for Everlast, 2010.

Her style, innovations, and lasting influence on fashion:

Farrah Fawcett poster, 1976.

  • Kamali was responsible for the red bathing suit worn by Farrah Fawcett in her best selling 1976 calendar.
  • She designed costumes for three of choreographer Twyla Tharp’s dance performances.
  • Her 1999 Living Rubber collection introduced a thermo-chromatic fabric that changed color via body heat similar to a mood ring.
  • Kamali has been awarded many honors for her clothing, video production, and architectural and interior design,  along with her efforts for education and the arts in New York public schools.
  • She received a plaque on the 7th Avenue Fashion Walk of Fame in 2002.

Images: Mark Seliger; Costume Institute at Metropolitan Museum of Art; Pamcoco on Etsy; Kick Shaw Productions;; and the Norma Kamali OMO blog.

Source:; Norma Kamali (2003) index magazine; Who’s Who in Fashion (1996) Anne Stegemeyer; Fashion: The Century of the Designer, 1900-1999 (1999) Charlotte Seeling.

Lisa Williams



July 20, 2011 #

My first “real” fashion purchase was a pair of Norma Kamali pumps. Along with the Japanese designers of the time, her influence in the early 1980s was tremendous. Really, no one had ever made non-athletic clothes out of materials like sweatshirt fleece. There was this one NK dress that was everywhere…


July 20, 2011 #

Oops, everyone, sorry about those too large pictures, I forgot to edit them!


July 20, 2011 #

No problem Lisa, I fixed them up!


July 20, 2011 #

I just posted about Norma Kamali too! I can swear by her flattering swimwear. I love the vintage look.


July 20, 2011 #

The red synthetic dress is a style that has always appealed to me over the years and I’ve been wanting to incorporate that sort of look into my wardrobe.

Terrific inspiration!