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Norma Kamali has earned a permanent place in fashion history. The 75-year-old created the legendary sleeping bag coat. She designed jeans for Studio 54. That famous Farrah Fawcett pinup look with the giant hair and the red swimsuit? That’s a Norma Kamali suit. Kamali is literally in museums—her designs are housed in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian.
Other famous designers might spend their eighth decade going on rhapsodically about the good old days, watching the lifetime achievement awards roll in. Not Kamali. She accepts the awards, but she also created a genderfluid line. She prides herself on hiring diverse models, including older models with natural silver hair. She centers sustainability. Kamali’s early works are already considered classics, but she stays relevant—J.Lo and Lizzo have both been seen in Norma Kamali in recent months.
“The idea of democratic and inclusive means that my clothes should be accessible to women of all ages, which they are, and should be available to all genders, which they are too,” says Kamali with the same certitude other 75-year-olds use to discuss parking tickets. “Clothing should be for everyone,” she says. “It should make everyone feel good.”
Kamali gets a lot of praise for appearing so young. She can put her leg over her head, and in her new book, I Am Invincible, she has plenty to say about diet and skin care. But she’s perfectly clear that her secret to feeling young is this: Stick to your values but keep evolving. “I realized early on that my purpose is first and foremost to have a creative life and to service women,” she tells Glamour. “In my 70s, I’m becoming more relevant to my purpose than I ever was before.”
Kamali’s work has always been about women’s empowerment, long before it became a slick corporate catchphrase. For Glamour’s Doing the Work column, she spilled secrets from nearly eight decades of living to the hilt and dressing for success.
How I learned to set boundaries
Well, I’m 75, so I’ve had many years more than you to figure out what works and what doesn’t! I wasn’t born this way; it took a lot of time to figure out some of this stuff, and I’m still figuring out things. The answer, really, is: It’s a process. As long as you’re consciously committed to solutions and to improving and transitioning your life and your mind and your spirit, it’ll happen at the pace it’s supposed to happen for you. I’m still trying to figure life out. But I probably have more things solved than you do, simply because I’m older than you are and I’ve had a chance to make more mistakes and corrections.
How I treat myself after a good day
I don’t really treat myself in that way. That’s not part of my routine. If I have a really good day, the endorphins and the serotonin are working, and it inspires me to think of more new things because I feel confident, I feel good about myself. So I’m rewarded with feeling like an idea I had that I wasn’t sure about might be something that I’ll pursue.
How I treat myself after a bad day
I either try to get a massage or acupuncture or do more meditation, and work out, work out, work out. I go to any of those or all of the above if I have to! That’s an expression of self-love for me, balancing out some of the negativity, the pain, the sorrow of loss. We don’t do that enough—just stop and break the cycle of anxiety with something that’s going to calm you, give you a little break. Working out could just mean walking up and down a flight of stairs a couple of times, just to get the endorphins going, get the serotonin going—the healthy drugs.
A time that I crushed it at work
I’ve had a lot of successes. I’ve had a lot of different kinds of success. And some of the obvious ones that everybody knows about probably didn’t feel as good as some of the ones that no one knew about, like maybe I make a pattern that was very tricky and difficult, and I do it in an incredibly professional way. That’s a self-esteem award. The rewards are so helpful, especially to a young designer; the reward can bring confidence—maybe you’re not sure you can pay the rent, but you realize you should continue with this. But life goes up and down, up and down. When things are going really well, that’s the time to go on high alert to prepare not to have a big swoop down. You have to figure out how to maintain a level. It takes a lot of thought and processing to anticipate the good and the bad and the ups and downs.
My morning routine
I like routines. They’re very grounding, especially for someone like me who has a personality that thrives on change and disruption. A morning and night routine anchor whatever chaos I create in a day. I do take my time in the morning. I wake up super early, sometimes 4:30 or 5 o’clock. I’m working by 6:30, but I have time to meditate, I have time to be slow. I make my bed, feed my dog, put on the tea—I do things in a methodical way. I do an active meditation every morning that’s become so helpful for me through COVID. An active meditation in the morning gets your blood flowing; it gets your mind, your body going, but at a nice pace. You’re not going from zero to traffic. It helps you transition into the day.
How I deal with disappointment
It’s a process as you mature. The first time you have a disappointment, it’s very profound because it’s the first time as an adult that you understand—mommy and daddy aren’t going to help you, and real life is a bitch. But as you have more of those experiences, you learn: When you get knocked down, get up quick. Yes, cry! Yes, feel shitty! But don’t let it go on for days because now you’ve entered a dark zone and it’s really hard to get out of it. Meditation is extremely helpful in giving you a positive attitude when you get up in the morning, no matter how horrible the day before was. If you can have a positive attitude, you’re not as fearful. You’re still afraid, but there’s hope. Every human being who can hope has a chance for resurrecting.
My dream job as a child
I wanted to be a painter. Michelangelo was everything for me. If you saw my room as a teenager, the walls were covered with anything Michelangelo. I was studying anatomy at a young age, and I just thought the human form was so fantastic—the movement between the muscles and the bones, and the skin over the bones, the gestures and the hands and the expressions on the face—that was very compelling for me. My mother brought to my attention that she did not think that was going to pay the rent, and that she did not see herself paying my rent as an adult. I got the message. Fortunately I got some scholarship and some painting grants. My painting helped me get through college, and I ended up taking the fashion illustration major at FIT [NYC’s Fashion Institute of Technology].
My first actual job
I hated fashion [in the early ’60s] because it was Mad Men fashion—it was very unlike my personality. Corsets, garter belts, girdles, stockings, matching hats, shoes—I didn’t fit it. I appreciated it later on, but at the time it was just too constricting for me. And so my first job interview in the fashion industry was devastating. It was one fraught with objectification. I remember running out of the office crying and deciding to look in The New York Times where you could find jobs, and there was an opening to work in the office of an airline. I don’t know how I got the job because I still type with two fingers today, but I got it, and I was able to travel every weekend round-trip to London for $29. It was London at the very, very, very beginning of what would be called the revolution. It had such an impact on my thinking. I related 100% to the fashion, to the music, and the art and the films. As a baby boomer, I was with my people! Everything I do now is as a result of the seed that was planted at that time.
My stance on perfectionism
I’m a perfectionist and I take pride in it. For a long period of time, being called a perfectionist was a criticism. But I believe in trying to reach excellence. It’s very hard to do it, but the harder you try to get there, the closer you can get to it. Very rarely can you get to it, but it teaches you what you’re capable of doing. Anything that’s not easy to attain is worth having because to get it, you have to rise to the occasion. We’re never going to be perfect, that’s the part you also have to have in your head. If you’re not perfect, you’re human. But perfection should be part of the conversation.
What people don’t understand about my job
It is a dream job because it’s a creative job, and if you’re a creative person, it’s extremely fulfilling. Every time you do a collection, it’s very addictive because you want to do the next one. What most people don’t realize is—the commitment is huge. It’s an enormous commitment in time, in personal energy; it’s all-encompassing.
The best money advice I’ve ever gotten
It’s really important to know about business and the economy. I chose to be the sole owner of my company, which means I’ve reinvested my money in my company throughout my career. For me it meant freedom to make decisions and not have to design by committee or get approval from business people who maybe understood the business side of it but not the essence of the creative and the essence of what people need at that moment in time. I decided to try to do both.
My go-to hostess gift
Olive oil. I make products with olive oil, I sell olive oil, I have an olive oil that’s a special blend just for my company. Olive oil is a gift that everyone can enjoy, and it’s a product that has been part of our global history for centuries. I’m in love with it, so I love sharing it.
How I found my path
Early on in my career, I had a moment of thinking, What am I doing? People are finding cures for cancer, and I’m worried about an inch on a hem length. Is what I’m doing worthwhile? I was very serious about how conflicted I was about my career choice. And then I decided to start to really pay attention, and I realized that clothing—not just my clothing but every designer’s clothing—really impacts many life experiences. When you meet the person you’re going to marry, or when you’re having a special occasion, a wedding or whatever it is, what you wore is part of the sensory experience. I started thinking [about my work] how I relate to music—music accents a moment in time. Any moment that was meaningful to me, sound was so much a part of it.
My workday essentials
I have green tea in the morning and then I have ginger and lemon throughout the day. I make them myself. And if I’m going to be traveling or not able to do it at home, there are a lot of those little bottles of detox of ginger lemon, and I buy those and keep them in the fridge here at work and put half a bottle into a cup of hot water. I use my reusable Starbucks cup every day. I bought one for everybody in the company so we could stop throwing away paper cups.
I use an iPad for everything else, but I have a little notepad to sketch things. I tried sketching on my computer, but I just love the paper under my hand. I travel light because when I’m at work, I’m in the sample room, the sales room, the studio room—we have five floors. I like the Moleskin books—a typical Moleskin will last me a week. I have them filed for a certain amount of time and I can refer to them if I’m looking for notes or sketches, and then when a season’s over, I throw them away. I use felt-tip pens a lot; they’re easy to fill in shades, and these are usually quick types of sketches, so I can cover a lot with a thicker pen like that.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
Originally Appeared on Glamour