Why Strong Bodies Are Fashion’s New Normal

normaPhoto: Courtesy of Norma Kamali.
When we think of costumes, our minds wander to thoughts of animal ears, over-the-top embellishments, and fictional heroes — not something you can wear every day. But, for designers like Norma Kamali, there's very little difference between the clothes you can find on women on the street and the costumes that will be seen in tonight’s Twyla Tharp performance of "Cornbread Duet" with New York City Ballet dancers Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild and music by Carolina Chocolate Drops. Kamali, as we very well know, is far from a typical designer, though. Just go ahead and ask her about anatomy.
This latest partnership is one of several that Kamali has done with the incomparable choreographer. And, while plenty of other designers have lent their talents to the dance world, Kamali brings a knowledge to this project that you might expect to find in a choreographer or in a physician. "Movement and body have always been of interest to me," Kamali says. "So, [designing] swimwear has come very easily for me, athletic clothes, dance…it’s just a no brainer."
While it was her passion for art and the human form that eventually led her to create the iconic Norma Kamali collections, it's possible that's also what made her such a perfect designer to help Tharp achieve her artistic vision. She can truly understand how fabrics stretch, wrap, and fit to a T, for powerhouse dancers and real women alike. And, sitting down with Kamali this week, we got a taste of what exactly happens when designers look at fashion with a clinical eye, and why fashion only truly succeeds when it has movement in it.

You already design athletic clothing, so what do you keep in mind when you’re designing for dancers that you might not consider otherwise?
“I’ve been doing dance costumes and athletic clothes and swimwear for as long as I’ve been in business. So, I think about it all the time. I think about it every day. Not just with dancers, but with everyone. I’m so happy now that a fit body is a healthy body and is more appealing than a model body. I think we’re in a time where people really appreciate a body of someone who works out and is lean and in good shape."


What’s your personal relationship with dance? Is there something that attracts you specifically to working with dancers and designing their costumes?
“My original goal in life was to be a painter. And, my god was Michelangelo. In my room growing up, I had large Michelangelo sketches. And, I had Rudolf Nureyev pictures, because I thought you could not get a more gorgeous man. Rudolf Nureyev was one of the best ballet dancers of all time. I had his picture up — he was really gorgeous and the most fit body you can think of, so that was my influence. I studied anatomy every day. Even in my all-girls’ high school, we had a live-drawing class, and nude ballet dancers would come in the classrooms so we could sketch. My early understanding was how muscles wrapped to the bone, and how the form of an arm has to do with the anatomical connections underneath, and the movement of the arm and what happens.”

Click to page two for more of the interview.

Your understanding of design and anatomy is pretty clinical. Do you think that's something currently missing from some designers' training?

“I think every designer comes to this from a completely different direction. And, it's good because [otherwise] everybody would be doing the same clothes. I think there are experiences that bring people to do things their way. That's why you have different looks and different things going on in the industry. I believe in draping and making patterns, but a lot of designers do it digitally, and their designs are perfectly gorgeous. It doesn’t make it right or wrong.”


Dancers obviously are so expressive with their movements, and the costumes are a second form of expression for them on stage. How do you blend the two together in a way that's complementary?
"Part of the reason I look at the rehearsal a couple of times is to really get a sense of what their bodies are doing when they dance. There's so much overlapping of each other; that's why I thought of having a pattern over their bodies. And, the music made me think about the pattern, too. Having a pattern on their bodies, and having the pattern reflect against the body, and have the pattern going lots of different directions as a result, could be very exciting to the eye to watch. It’s important that every time their bodies are interacting, something new is going to happen that I never even expected. It's fun to see that happening in every movement they make. Another secondary pattern is being created. That is the thrilling part of it: Watching it come to life. It’s just a piece of fabric basically, and then all of a sudden it's wrapped on this body that's extraordinary.”

Do you ever feel that way about your ready-to-wear collections? Is it the same kind of gratification?
“I love seeing it used, whether it's seeing somebody at the gym wearing something, or having Rihanna call and having something made, or seeing someone walking down the street in something I did 30 years ago. I mean, all of it is a nice feeling, because it's being used, which is better than if I would have been a painter, and that painting would just be hanging in somebody's house somewhere and not be participating in the life.”

If you were to take away the expression of dance, how would you re-envision this for an outfit that can be worn on the street?
“It's a time when we are talking about active clothing. [And,] this stuff can be broken up and interpreted into active sportswear easily. That's what's so great about this time. I really love clothes that function and that can be expressive. It can be washed in washing machines and be put on again, and not be a special outfit that you wear every once in a while on the red carpet. I would much prefer to do clothes like this — that have an everyday life and a spirit of spontaneity. This is the nature of the grind of clothes — it is a lot more fun than dressing has been in the other times. The last time dressing was fun was the '60s and '70s. But, it got pretty serious, and still we have a lot of serious clothes. But, I think we are coming into a time where casual dressing in fun and expressive. No rules is just easier.”

As far as dancing goes, do you have a preference?
“I can dance to anything. It doesn't matter what the music is. I really, really do. Except, I have to say, some friends of ours have gone into ballroom dancing, and it’s like 'Not going to happen here!' Not gonna happen. But, I love dancing and I don't care what music is playing, I am there. I'm dancing."

More from Designers

R29 Original Series