"So let me ask you a question," Norma Kamali says midway through our interview. Facing me across a small, fancy sofa we’re sharing in a central London hotel room, the American fashion pioneer is surrounded by rails of her Spring Swim ‘18 collection. "Have you ever looked at a picture and it’s turned you on?"
We’re discussing the famous 1976 pin-up portrait of Farrah Fawcett, the all-American bombshell and Charlie’s Angels star. Bought by teenage boys the world over, it became the biggest selling poster of all time (or so the story goes). In the image, Farrah smiles broadly, her famous, sun-kissed curls framing her face and falling over her shoulders as she strikes a relaxed pose in a tight red swimsuit. Norma made the red swimsuit, and I’m curious to know how she feels about that, given her current campaign to 'Stop The Objectification of Women'.
Norma explains that the photo was taken by a friend of Farrah’s at the beach, and only later selected as a poster image. "I don't think they knew that poster was going to be a big deal," she says. "Every time I meet a guy he tells me how that poster was a part of his life, how it was an inspiration. So she turned them on; she opened up something in men that they were excited about – and I don't know that that’s a bad thing," Norma says. "I don't think that the objectification experience was the same – like, I've been turned on by photographs of men and women, and I'm not necessarily objectifying them, but they are stimulating something in me."
We’ll return to the topic of objectification (and Norma’s campaign), but first a little history. Born in New York City in 1945 to a middle-class family, Norma is of Lebanese and Basque Spanish descent. She initially wanted to be a painter, and studied illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology, but after a disastrous interview for a fashion illustration job ("It was so horrible that I decided I was never going to be in the fashion business," she says), she took a job at an airline instead. Working in the office (rather than on the planes), Norma didn’t know how to type at the newly installed UNIVAC computers, and she was bored. But she wanted to travel, and used her discount to fly to London – increasingly the epicentre of the Swinging Sixties – every weekend for $29 return.
"You can’t even imagine London at that time. British traditional tweeds and proper dressing was really everywhere. Now, if you don’t hear accents, you don't know where you are. You could be anywhere. Then, there was a very definite difference in each city and this was Britain, clear," she says. Norma stayed in a boarding house in Chelsea, and set off exploring on the King’s Road. "[It was] grey, some art stores, a few things," she says, "and then, all of a sudden, this store with bright colours and music coming out!" It was Dandie, a fashion store that counted the Rolling Stones as investors, and they were blasting out The Beatles. "Who knew The Beatles? [In New York,] we were into Motown – I loved Marvin Gaye," she explains. "The sound of [The Beatles] coming out and the colours, my skin, just everything was tingling. I was so excited I couldn't breathe!"
It was this revelation of style, sound and colour that precipitated Norma’s reentry into the fashion industry. "I began my career actually bringing clothes from London back to New York for friends, and then opening a store exactly this size," she says, gesturing around the relatively small hotel room, "for $285 a month." Six months later, she began to make her own designs, pioneering a number of styles and techniques for which she has only sporadically received credit. In the '70s, her quilted 'sleeping bag coat' – a forerunner of later, 'puffier' versions – brought Norma fame. Fond of a shoulder pad in the '70s (a decade before their ubiquity), she was also known for adjustable drawstring styles in real parachute silk, as well as garments that could be worn in a number of different ways.
Norma’s bright, exuberant clothes are designed to work hard for the women who buy them. And what better way to demonstrate that than by wearing them herself? Tall, lithe and perma-tanned, Norma appears much younger than her 72 years in a skintight monochrome stretch-jersey flared trouser suit of her own design. "You can move in these clothes, you can work out in them even," she says, adding that everything is machine washable ("I don't want dry cleaning bills," she says, "I don't want toxins in my body from the cleaners"), easy care clothes "that fit my lifestyle – and, I think, most women's lifestyles". Norma says she wants clothes that are timeless but not in a boring, conservative way. "A timeless piece can be a striped shirt that you wear with jeans, or a fringe pant that you wear to every wedding you’ve been invited to," she says. "And you’ll have a good time because you're wearing a fringe pant!"
Some have found the promotion of Norma’s (often skimpy) swimwear alongside her movement to Stop The Objectification Of Women paradoxical. "Of course, the minute I started my campaign, everyone was like, 'The swimsuits you make! You're talking about objectification!'" she says. After testing out a rather short-sighted analogy that compares dancers wearing tiny bikinis in rap videos unfavourably with Olympic volleyball players in tiny bikinis ("They are wearing the tiniest things but they are about power, they are about success, they’re about achievements – life achievements"), Norma concludes: "Objectification, to me, is devastating when it affects how you feel. If I do something that makes you feel bad, humiliated, embarrassed, I've done serious harm."
While Norma’s feminist rhetoric may not stand up to the scrutiny of millennial wokeness, neither is she pushing an 'empowerment' narrative based solely on a privileged engagement with fashion and fitness. Yes, she’s wearing a slogan T-shirt that begins, "I am invincible when I feel empowered," but she has also hosted a series of discussion groups where women share their experiences of gendered oppression, akin to the consciousness-raising groups of the '60s. "It’s like AA," she says, "You get it out and it doesn't own you anymore, and we can help each other." The most profound event, Norma says, was a breakfast with women under 25. "Four out of 12 people had been raped," she explains. "One girl told her story, and [others followed]. I thought, 'This can't be happening; the ratio in this room – what does that mean the ratio is in the [wider] world? How common is that story?' – It’s so common," she says. "There’s so much for every age group to talk about, for women to share."
Having lived through the 'Ad Age' (Mad Men era), Norma is wary of how women relate to men in this #MeToo moment. "Boys didn't just grow up misbehaving; they looked at behaviours in the home and they looked at what women accepted too. So undoing years of – I mean, it’s more than generations, a lifetime – of how men and women interacted, and judging that now is really hard," she says. Acknowledging that this isn’t very fair, Norma cautions that "this is the chance to not have another feminist movement hit the wall. To me, that would be the worst thing that could possibly happen."
“It’s up to me to say that you guys, your age," Norma continues, before stopping herself. "Hang on – I'm not apologising for these men, their behaviour. I've had more than 50 years of horrible behaviour. I could cry now telling you as I think about what has happened to me, so I have a lot of pain I haven’t dealt with yet. But I beg all of you to say, 'We want change, we want it to be permanent', don't give up this movement now for sustained anger against men." We can’t ignore boys, she says, "because the backlash is going to be really ugly when [they're] older. We have to really think about the boys, we have to talk to the men, we have to hear their fears and we have to make sure this is permanent," she says. The solution, Norma believes, is to keep talking. "To be honest, I still have stories that I am uncomfortable talking about, and I'm waiting for you or someone else to tell me something close enough to my story so I can share it. I always want to keep that conversation going – okay, now I can finally tell this story."