Body of Work
Norma Kamali is the hottest 67-year-old I have ever encountered. When the designer came to greet me last week at her Midtown flagship (which also boasts a Wellness Café), she was quite literally glowing, bubbling over with energy and enthusiasm. Donning a leather jacket over sleek black sweatpants and a sleeveless hoodie of her own design, she looked slim, tan, and fit. Her blunt black bangs and pin-straight hair perfectly framed her angular face, and her tinted cat-eye glasses served as the finishing razor-sharp touch. Full disclosure, at 28, I had serious body envy.
Kamali works out every day—and she can't remember a time when this wasn't the case. Her athletic lifestyle is at the center of her eponymous collection, which she launched with swimwear in the seventies. It was in the early eighties, however, that she really hit her stride, debuting a range of gray terry looks that were equally appropriate for an aerobics class or a night out on the town.
With the launch of Net-a-Sporter, Yoox's forthcoming foray into luxury sportswear, and designers like Lisa Marie Fernandez and VPL bowing lines of gym-to-evening duds, we're in the midst of our own activewear revolution. Industry insiders are hailing versatile, high-end workout clothes as the hot new thing, which is funny, considering Kamali has been doing it for more than thirty years. Here, the designer talks to Style.com about blind dates in gym clothes, the psychology of athleticwear, and what's behind today's activewear boom.
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You pioneered the concept of activewear as ready-to-wear in the 1980s. What spurred that approach to dressing? And why did it feel right at the time?
The seventies were about the "freeing up" of women. They were about no design, no bras, no underwear. Women were no longer bound by their clothes. Then you go into the latter part of the seventies and Studio 54, and that was all about this freed spirit gone wild. It was a very, very creative time in fashion. There was also an openness about being gay and an openness about [sexual] freedom for men and women, and those movements took on a life. But out of that came a focus on fitness and health because a lot of people who were openly gay were all of a sudden dying of AIDS. So how you took care of yourself and what you did to be healthy was a really big part of what people were thinking.
Is that what you were thinking?
I was actually not thinking about that at all. I always worked out; I either went dancing every night or I was doing something physical during the day. I always swam. Obviously swimsuits are a big part of what I do because I love swimming. In the early seventies, I was doing swimsuits that nobody else was doing, and they were really high-cut, and I got this Cosmo cover with Christie Brinkley [June 1977], and it launched me, shoved me into the swimwear business. So here I am doing swimsuits, and I'm thinking, I need to do cover-ups for swimwear. What do I wear when I go swimming? I put on a sweatshirt from the Army-Navy store. No matter what I had on, whether it was a little bikini or whatever, I would wear a gray sweatshirt. So I bought a bunch of gray fleece, and all of a sudden this explosion of styles came out. I did, like, forty-eight pieces, all gray terry, from evening gowns to tops. You name it, I did it. I couldn't stop. There were lines outside the stores, even Saks. People were ready for it.
In the last few months, there's been an explosion of high-end activewear that aims to take you from work to the gym to dinner. What do you think has spurred this resurgence?
There's been a build around fitness, health, and beauty. I've been watching it closely. Working out is now what you do. Even if you don't do it, you don't want to look like you don't do it. There's a new awareness about being healthy and taking care of yourself. And for us in the fashion industry, it's all about vanity. We will be healthy because we're going to look great.
Whether you like what they do or not, Lululemon deserves a tremendous amount of credit for understanding our age and for using the culture of working out as their platform. They enlisted women who wanted to take care of themselves and be fit, and they gave them a place to explore the different things they could wear. Because of this, Nike and other go-to athletic brands are rethinking themselves, and every designer is thinking they should do active. The good news about that is that now, active is an actual category that people can understand. It's great that everybody wants to be a part of it, but some designers will fall out, some will integrate it into their collections. I have it as a part of my collection the way I have swimwear as a part of my collection. I just put them all together.
You know, I own Norma Kamali and I own Lululemon, and I wear Norma Kamali out and about after the gym, but I refuse to wear Lululemon in public. How do you strike such a seamless balance between performance and style?
I'm the kind of person who goes to a party in the clothes I work out in. I had a blind date with the guy I'm seeing now, and I wore an outfit that I wear to the gym. It was a tank top with a hoodie, and I wore it with printed leggings and heels. It didn't even occur to me that I shouldn't wear it. I don't want to put on anything else. I'm comfortable in it. I feel great in it. And whatever shoes I decide to put on with it or however I want to accessorize it is what I do. It's about comfort and how you feel, and I don't think there should be a line between activewear and ready-to-wear. If you're dressed like you're going to work out all the time, you're more physical with your body.
You've placed a renewed focus on sweatshirt dressing since Spring '14. Why?
I did ten years of sweatshirts. Every color, every shape, every everything. So I needed to rest for a little bit. By the early nineties, you couldn't talk to me about a sweatshirt, and it wasn't until the early 2000s that I started doing them again. The interesting thing is they've been here all along in different incarnations, but people didn't notice them as much as they do now. I actually did a capsule collection for Barneys, and it was so successful that I thought, I really want to bring back the DNA of my brand, and put the active and the sweats back together. I wanted to make it more lifestyle-oriented, not so much a sport-Lululemon thing.
Is it annoying at all that all of these people are calling active-oriented ready-to-wear the big "new" thing when you've been doing it for decades?
Through the years there have been quite a few instances when I've seen people get credit for something I've done. I mean, I patented the high-heel sneaker in '83. And now I see almost exact copies of it. I find it fascinating that a designer would want to copy something. There are some things that have happened recently that are like, "Wow, oh, my God." But if I got caught up in any of that, I would've given up a long time ago. What it does tell me is that what I'm doing is relevant and timeless and that it's working.
Earlier, you mentioned accessorizing. How do you go about styling gym clothes for a night on the town?
I will always love the way gray terry looks with rhinestones or diamonds. It's so great. And I love wearing gray jog pants and a light top with sparkly shoes. Or even just a nothing T-shirt with sparkly rhinestone-y shoes and jog pants. I'm sorry, I think that that looks really great. Why not, right?
Is there something empowering about women wearing activewear as ready-to-wear?
A woman who feels good about herself is invincible. On a good day, when you feel it's all working, it's like, Get out of my way because it's going to happen today. I feel great. If you work out, you will be strong and you will feel strong, and that will have an incredible effect on your psyche and who you feel you are each day. So the working-out thing really feeds in to where we are now as women.
A lot of the designers who are coming out with activewear-ready-to-wear hybrids are women. Is it important that this type of clothing is designed by women for women?
I've never stood firm on whether men or women are better at designing for women. There are times when I want to do clothes for men. I used to in the seventies and I loved every minute of it. But there is a psychological aspect to how clothes feel on, or how they fit, or how they might make you stand differently. There are little things we do that a guy would have a hard time understanding. Now, that doesn't mean they couldn't design something beautiful, but how effective will it be when you're wearing it? For instance, when you're working out, is the elastic on the waist of your leggings going to make a lump? You want a smooth line. I'm working on pants that fix this problem now. I want to make sure that every pant I make can be worked out in.
You have an incredibly active lifestyle. I heard that you go to Physique 57 a lot. You have your own juice bar here. What do you wear to the gym on a daily basis?
It's something different every day because a lot of it is experimenting—I test my samples myself. This weekend I tried these big floppy pleated boxer shorts in terry and they were great. I like to have my boobs tucked in because I don't want to be bouncing everywhere. But I liked having these big, baggy boxer shorts on. It was very freeing, and it really made me think about how I want to approach active going forward.
How often do you work out?
For me working out is like brushing your teeth. If it's something you don't do every day, then it becomes harder. It's kind of like you're a zombie and you just do it.
What do you think about what women wear to the gym these days?
I don't think people really take what they're wearing to the gym seriously. Some people actually look like they're having fun with what they put on, but it shouldn't look too on-purpose. The worst thing is if you go to the gym looking outfitted. You should just wear the pieces that make you feel good. They don't necessarily have to make sense together.