Norma Kamali has survived the roiling currents of the fashion industry for almost 50 years by being a genius at two contradictory impulses: She is a pioneer. She is conservative. Many would disagree with that latter description, but hear me out.
She has introduced and popularized trends such as the use of unusual materials and, instead of constantly moving onto the next new thing as many designers feel compelled to do, she has continued to keep them in her rotation. They have endured because they're timeless.
You'll see for yourself at "Norma Kamali — City: Fashion+Art+Culture" at the Tampa Museum of Art, a sort of retrospective. I use the words "sort of" because it's small for such a show, with just 25 examples of her designs. But they cover a lot of territory.
Also included are videos, sketch books and one gallery filled with her Glamazons. They're larger-than-life foam-board cutouts affixed with some of her designs that she uses to illustrate her seasonal lines. They're an alternative to runway shows, which she does not have, believing them to be outdated. Instead, she presents her collections by appointment using animated stills that demonstrate how the clothes move in natural actions rather than exaggerated model walks.
Kamali also doesn't have an archive, as most designers do, so she re-created many of the clothes for this exhibition.
Kamali recently received the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the industry's equivalent to an Academy Award. Her thank you was a scroll through the years of all the people to whom she is grateful, from Elvis Presley ("for buying multiples of the same white gown through the years for the women in his life") to Lady Gaga ("for wearing the wedding gown I designed for her mother in 1983 in her music video").
At 71, she's still going strong, designing on her terms. Here are some of her greatest style moments.
From her early days, she had a following among the fashion world and celebrities. Bette Midler is a longtime admirer. She has designed for Diana Ross and the Twyla Tharp Dance Co. The late John Lennon frequented her New York shop with Yoko Ono. Robert Plant wore her oversized shirts, made for women but looking great on him.
Her sweats collection in the late 1970s is among the many examples of her prescience. At the time, her most popular line was swimsuits. She realized she needed coverups for them and, because her favorite was a sweat shirt, she bought fleece material for that purpose. But she started making other items of clothing with the material — dresses, skirts, trousers, even evening wear. They were to-die-for chic. They were a smash. And it anticipated today's athleisure craze.
SLEEPING BAG COAT
The sleeping bag coat is perhaps the single most famous of Kamali's creations. It first debuted in the 1970s, inspired by a camping trip she took. She had to use the bathroom one night, she was cold, so she wrapped her sleeping bag around her. The light bulb went on and the "it" coat of the year was born. It's on display in its original form and various iterations. Even more, she created a new market for down coats, which, before Kamali, had been the province mostly of skiers.
Kamali revolutionized swimsuit design, being the first to make the leg cutouts higher, giving the suit a more flattering silhouette. We see examples of them, including the famous red number Farrah Fawcett wore in her 1976 poster.
She said she was grateful for the exposure but "it was not a good suit." Among a new generation are some suits featuring metal grommets, which have been worn by a new generation of celebrities including Kim Kardashian West.
Yet some of her designs have been, from the beginning, throwbacks to the 1940s.
They have lower legs, draped bodices and the two-piece versions have high waists. Their glamor transcends their pinup quality. Beyoncé has favored them.
Kamali began using nylon parachutes as fabric after a friend gave her an antique silk one. The thin ropes on them made a clever mechanism for raising and lowering the hem length.
She advocated for shoulder pads. She made a jersey all-in-one dress that could be transformed into different styles. They're still popular. We see them in different colors and patterns and a video shows us how easily they can be wrapped.
All of these innovations are remarkable as fashion statements, but they have made such a huge impact on the way women dress. Kamali made her message more accessible, going beyond brick and mortar stores, as the first designer to sell through an online shop. Of course, she was among the first to move beyond fragrance and into lifestyle.
Did I mention that she seems to have invented the flash mob? A film from the 1980s has models descending on downtown New York, mingling among unsuspecting citizens.
Contact Lennie Bennett at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.