Photos: Norma Kamali circa 1993, Francesco Da Vinci /GettyImages; I Am Invincible; Kamali in 2017, John Lamparski /GettyImages
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I Am Invincible
Fashion designer Norma Kamali, 75, has penned a memoir where she extolls the virtues of self-love and looks forward to turning 120 / BY Shaun Proulx / June 25th, 2021
“As you can see, I started a minimal lifestyle,” legendary fashion designer Norma Kamali says on a Zoom call, gesturing behind her. Her New York office space has vast white walls and a stark black desk with barely anything on it.
Dressed in a simple grey and white shirt, Kamali appears decades younger than 75. Her signature look is as clever as her clothing, like the genius, now iconic, sleeping-bag coat she invented. Bangs cut into her dark, straight, shoulder-length hair; her teeth, exposed often in broad smiles, are gleaming white; and her tortoise-shell glasses have a soft tint.
She looks fantastic, but it’s due to more than smart beauty hacks. A devotee of veganism since 1980, daily exercise and lots of sleep, Kamali exudes energy. She is in the moment and happy; she has a younger woman’s voice and an easy laugh. She vibes cool.
It’s an inspiring package. Kamali knows this, but beyond superficial impressions, she also knows she has gleaned valuable wisdom from her seven-and-a-half decades — stuff people want to access. Hence, she created and penned I Am Invincible, a concept book that came out in February, born from a collection of advice and lessons learned that she gave to a friend who was turning 50. Since then, many others have asked for a copy.
I Am Invincible is part memoir (she shares her rise to fashion stardom after leaving her husband with less than $100 in her pocket), part self-help guide (with recipes and how-to-meditate lifestyle tips) and part manifesto. Like a guru, Kamali discloses what to expect in each decade of life from one’s 20s onwards.
She says the book is ultimately about self-love, but not in a narcissistic way. “I’m talking about it in the best sense of the word,” Kamali emphasizes. “Self-love is the key to absolutely everything.” She believes the energy we exude draws to us the right people, opportunities and relationships – or not. “Self-love projects a confidence and power that’s silent. People pick up on it, and they treat you differently. If you are not treating yourself well, and you are abusing yourself, you attract people who take advantage of that.”
Kamali knows this from experience. At 19, she married Mohammad (Eddie) Kamali, who openly cheated on her. Back then, she only had love for designing clothes – not for herself.
“I hardly spoke,” she recalls. Because “men were considered better at business than women,” Eddie took care of the finances. “So when I started to get a little recognition, because people were starting to write about the clothes and pay attention, I think he had a fear that he needed to control. So my percentage in the business kept diminishing.”
If Kamali needed cash, she had to ask for it. Although they shared the business 50-50 when they opened their New York boutique in 1967, by the time she left her husband 10 years later, it was 90-10, and not in her favour.
“When the salesgirl he was seeing – that I fired three times and he rehired three times – came in and told me she thought she was going to be the new designer going forward, I said, ‘Time to go!’” Kamali remembers.
She was 29 and had $93 to her name.
“Had I stayed, I would not have fulfilled my purpose,” she says, philosophically. “She pushed me out, and the universe made that happen. I am forever grateful to her because she was the reason I was able to go to the next place.”
She struck out on her own, launching OMO Norma Kamali in 1976, which stood for “on my own.” She built it into an empire, with the Norma Kamali brand now encompassing clothes, including a gender-fluid line, as well as skin care and home de´cor, all of it embodying her minimalist aesthetic.
Kamali’s 50s were a “really profound decade,” which inspired the dramatic change. “How you get through this transition really defines the rest of your life in so many ways,” she says, likening it to a snake shedding its skin. “Everything you have been doing has been to prove yourself to other people.”
For Kamali, it meant selling her beloved home in Manhattan, and all the possessions within — “Carved marble and cherry wood! Furniture I had made or restored myself. Beautiful things!” — at a Christie’s auction. “I was starving most of my early career, and here I was in this beautiful home I finally had. I was looking around and realized that the beauty was trapping me. That I would not be able to grow or evolve if I stayed there.”
Enter minimalism. Kamali doesn’t own an object unless it has a function. “If I finish a book, I give it away. If I’m not using something, I give it away. I don’t keep it. The minimal environment allows me to create. That was a huge change. My possessions don’t own me. I don’t have one thing that I couldn’t live without. Everything except people and my dog and friends, that’s what’s important.”
Kamali believes no one age is better than another, and you take life one decade at a time. “You survive, evolve and grow out of that decade and go to the next. You should get everything from that decade, the good, the bad and the ugly. Each decade for me had big learning experiences, big rewards, some pain, but they were all relative to that time. So, for me, now is the best decade. The present should be the best decade.”
Kamali, who announced last year she is engaged to the “soul mate,” New York lawyer Marty Edelman, whom she met when she was 65, eagerly anticipates the decades still to unfold. “I have so much to do; to share information I’ve gathered from 53 years in business and 75 years of living.”
She has a long game plan, something she feels is unique to people in their 70s: “I interview a lot of people who are experts in aging, and scientists, and when I heard that at 120 the last cell turns over, I thought: ‘Okay why don’t I look at 120?’ I’m not even going to look at my genetic composition or pay attention to that. I will look at what I can control, like diet and exercise and sleep and self-love, and look at 120. Who knows? Let’s see!”