HER DESIGNS ARE UNIQUE - and sometimes a bit eccentric. Anyone for clothes made out of silk parachutes? How about a coat that's a sleeping bag? Or maybe a suit trimmed with upholstery fringe?
"Norma Kamali is a real fashion original," says Diana Vreeland, former editor of Vogue and special consultant to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Vreeland included the parachute designs in one of her costume exhibits a few years back.)Indeed, Kamali doesn't seem to care what the rest of the fashion industry is doing. If she wants to put studs on tight leather skirts, she does it - even if everybody else is promoting flowing chiffon dresses. If she wants to do hot pants - she's generally credited with introducing them to the American market - well, people can just go ahead and be shocked. She's not going to change her mind and be more conservative.
"I take great pleasure in being myself," says Kamali as she sits in her store at 11 W. 56th Street in Manhattan. "It makes me proud to think I built this design and retail business alone without help from outside backers. What you see here is mine - 100 percent mine. I even call the line OMO - On My Own."
The line always is one of the most unusual and distinctive shown in New York. For fall, clothes are glamorous and fun. Pattern, shape and texture - qualities that have become synonymous with her clothes over the years - rule supreme. Suits, also a signature style with the designer, are everywhere in a host of shapely silhouettes. Coats with sweeping skirts appear. And for evening, fake fur toppers often are slung over full-legged jumpsuits.
Lengths? Mostly long. Very long. But make no mistake about it. The longer lengths aren't going to hide a thing. Quite frankly, you just can't wear these clothes unless your body's in perfect shape. Almost every style, even the full-skirted ones, make no allowances for late-night snacking.
There's far more leeway in the accessories that Kamali is showing with her collection - most of them her own designs and especially made to complement the clothes. They're varied in size and shape - and some are downright crazy. Hats play a starring role and come in versions for both day and evening. There's a flat hat - disc shaped and similar to a flying saucer. There's the two-feather hat that adds an off-beat touch to cocktail outfits.
Shoes - something the fashion photographers love to focus on whenever a show is held at Kamali's store - are memorable. Some have platform soles and wide heels; others resemble laced suede ballet flats.
Such things don't appeal to every fashion customer, Kamali admits. It takes someone who's secure and a bit daring.
But for those who dare turn heads, Kamali is custom made. And there must be quite a few bold ones out there. The store on 56th Street, which only carries her designs, does a brisk business.
"I've always mixed designing and retail," she says. "I love coming up with unique ideas for clothes, but I would never want to retreat to some kind of ivory tower and not have contact with the customers. Getting out on the floor, showing the clothes and meeting the women who like my styles is very rewarding for me. It often isn't easy to keep both parts of the business going, but I wouldn't have it any other way."
The designer, a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology, once thought about being a painter. But the apparel industry soon took precedence, and in the '60s she launched a series of off-beat retail shops with her husband.
The Kamalis rapidly gained a following from New York to Los Angeles, and the styles Norma concocted to brighten the racks put her on cover of Cosmopolitan and got editorial coverage in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.
When the marriage ended, the designer decided to open her own business.
But it didn't happen just like that. To come up with the capital and gather the courage to go on her own wasn't easy, Kamali confides after one of her shows given to a handful of editors. (The designer believes in small, intimate shows where editors can see the clothes up close and ask questions if they want. And she routinely conducts several of these mini productions in her store and showroom during market weeks.)
"I struggled and I had lots of doubts. I moved slowly. But by 1980, I was doing a sweatshirt collection and had a licensing agreement with the Jones apparel group. And then came the Coty Award."
Kamali won a second Coty for fashion innovation in 1982 and launched a children's line. In 1983, her efforts culminated in the Earnie Award for outstanding Children's Wear Design.
A host of design opportunities rapidly followed, and she also began creating her own videos as a means of selling design ideas and merchandise - something that drew praise, lots of emulation and even more awards in the apparel industry.
Along the way, though, Kamali had her battles and disillusionments.
"I've had some terrible run-ins with the union," she says. "They accused me of unfair practices and picketed in front of the store. The experience left me hurt and frustrated. My relationship with American garment workers still isn't good . . . most of the work now is done abroad. It saddens me that it has to be this way in order to make production cost-effective. Something definitely needs to be done on the domestic manufacturing level so that designers can afford to do business at home."
In the meantime, she's not standing still. A licensing agreement has been signed with Zamasport in Italy. She also has signed a licensing agreement with Bloomingdales for exclusive collections to be produced by that store.
When she's not involved with such fashion ventures, Kamali often can be found at home with the man in her life - Ernie, a charming miniature black dachshund. Extremely playful, he has a whole repertoire of tricks that keep her entranced.
Ernie used to come to the office all the time, she says. Then he had to have back surgery - three operations - and things haven't been quite the same.
To get Kamali's sympathetic attention, the dog sometimes will drag his back legs and whine. A clever little trick that worried her terribly at first. Then she got on to it. And these days to find out if he's really in pain or just fooling she'll ask him if he wants a cookie. If he runs to the kitchen as frisky as a pup (and that's what happens nine times out of 10) she doesn't have to worry!