Pioneering fashion designer Norma Kamali has, at 75 years young, just released I Am Invincible, a “handbook for women” that, along with self-care tips for navigating any decade of life, chronicles her decades of creating looks for some of pop culture’s greatest style icons. Kamali, who was inspired to pursue a fashion career after several visits to ‘60s Swinging London (where she hung out with the Spencer Davis Group and Jimi Hendrix), got her start in 1970s New York with her eponymous boutique, which was the unofficial “closet” for gender-bending glam-rockers the New York Dolls and was frequented by Robert Plant, Sylvester, and John Lennon. (“There was a period of time where 50 percent of my clientele were men — and I've never made ‘men's clothes’!” she tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume.) Her other regular customers included Cher, whom Kamali thanks in I Am Invincible’s acknowledgements for “helping me pay the rent” in the store’s early days, and Joan Jett, for whom Kamali designed various “Elvis looks,” including a leather American flag jacket that's now on display at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
But Kamali’s arguably most famous garment hangs in another museum, the Smithsonian: The red one-piece swimsuit that Farrah Fawcett wore in an iconic Pro Arts poster that came out 45 years ago and still holds the record for best-selling poster of all time, with more than 12 million copies sold. But ironically, Kamali was never satisfied with the simple maillot’s construction — so much so that when it entered the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in 2011, she actually asked if she could make a new-and-improved version for display purposes. (The answer was no, of course.)
Kamali wasn’t even aware that Fawcett was planning to wear the suit for the historic shoot at her Los Angeles home with photographer Bruce McBroom — because in this pre-stylist era, that decision was spontaneous, and entirely Fawcett’s. Pro Arts had wanted Fawcett to wear a bikini, but she insisted on wearing her own Kamali one-piece, since she wanted to hide a childhood scar on her stomach. Fawcett also selected the photo for the poster, which was captured on McBroom’s final roll of film.
“Farrah shopped [at my store] all the time, and especially, I would say through probably mid-‘90s, most celebrities shopped for themselves and chose their clothes themselves, and collaborated themselves and felt confident to be individuals. And so, Farrah shopped a lot for herself. She really knew her style and her image,” Kamali recalls. “She bought a lot of swimsuits from me. I would test swimsuits in the store; I’d do, like, six pieces to see how they did. And that particular suit, I really had a question in my mind about. I thought, ‘Well, I only did six. I don't think I'm going to do it again.’ And then I started to really hate it every time I saw it on somebody, and I thought, ‘I’m definitely not doing that.’ And then I see the poster — and she's wearing this suit that I literally hated!” Kamali even confesses with a chuckle that the next time Fawcett visited her boutique, after the poster had become a sensation, she exasperatedly asked the actress, “Why that swimsuit?”
The poster was part of 1976’s Farrahmania, going on sale right before the ABC network debut of Charlie's Angels made Fawcett one of the most adored women in the world. The golden girl was the first celebrity crush for millions of Gen X boys, whose bedrooms were plastered with the natural beauty’s welcoming, toothy grin, voluminous beach hair, and that Baywatch-prototype tank suit. Clearly those boys had zero complaints about the swimsuit’s construction, and the poster's pop-culture effect was nothing less than seismic. But Kamali humbly refuses to take any credit for Fawcett’s success.
“The suit had nothing to do with the reason why boys were enamored with Farrah,” Kamali insists. “First of all, she was really extraordinarily beautiful — even more beautiful, I promise you, than the photos of her. And so much of that came through her genuine sort of openness, I think, for all of these boys to feel that she was really the girl next door, that she was attainable, that she wasn't threatening. I mean, there's a lot of stuff going on there. I've been at board meetings with men who are grown and way past even remembering Farrah Fawcett, and they'll say to me, ‘Is it true that you did that swimsuit?’ And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But they remember it as if it were a badge of honor to manhood.”
Farrah’s red bathing suit is hardly the only famous Kamali creation. There’s the much, much more revealing strappy one-piece that Grace Jones wore for a legendary performance at Studio 54’s 1977 New Year’s Eve party, or the sleek white tank that Whitney Houston wore on the back cover of her 1985 debut album. There’s the 1983 wedding dress that Kamali made for Lady Gaga’s mother, Cynthia Germanotta, which Gaga wore in the “Yoü and I” music video and has since named her favorite fashion item. Other fierce women who’ve worn Kamali’s garments include Madonna, Bette Midler, Etta James, Donna Summer, and Diana Ross, all of whom are thanked in I Am Invincible. (When asked what is her personal favorite design moment — since it’s clearly not the Fawcett swimsuit — Kamali cites the Emerald City costumes she made for Ross’s 1978 movie musical The Wiz. In a chilling coincidence, that film’s other young star who greatly impressed Kamali on the Wiz set, Michael Jackson, died the same day as Fawcett, on June 25, 2009.)
Many of Kamali’s older customers, like Ross, Jones, Madonna, Midler, and Cher, are still living their best vibrant lives today, and it should be noted that when Fawcett’s career exploded in ‘76, she was already a “mature” 29-year-old who’d been steadily working in Hollywood since 1968. Kamali recalls that when she turned 18 years old, her own mother warned her that it was “all downhill from here on out” (“I literally started crying!”), but Kamali and the role models she’s worked with have since demonstrated that fabulousness and fierceness can be achieved and maintained at any age. “These women are major, major thinkers. They are the corporate leaders. If you compare parallel universes, they are the power, even bigger than their male-counterpart corporate leaders. They've masterminded industries around themselves,” says Kamali, who is still a busy and much sought-after swimwear/athleisure/couture designer and lifestyle guru today. (Her more recent clients have included Beyoncé, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, and P!nk.)
And while Farrah Fawcett tragically died way too young, at age 62, from cancer, Kamali is proud that she contributed to the enduring image that forever captured the blond bombshell at the peak of her powers — even if Kamali isn’t entirely proud of that red suit and describes it as an “afterthought” of the poster. “Who's looking at the swimsuit,” the designer laughs softly, “when you see that face, that hair, that smile, that body?”
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The above interview is taken from Norma Kamali's appearance on the SiriusXM Volume show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation will air on Feb. 18.