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Norma Kamali


Norma Kamali




New York

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Norma Kamali, Spring/Summer 1990

Norma Kamali, Spring/Summer 1990
DOI: 10.5040/9781350996335.0016

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    Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
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Norma Kamali’s womenswear spring/summer 1990 collection was shown in Central Park as part of New York Fashion Week. Making a statement against mainstream indoor fashion shows, Kamali’s collection emphasized nature and comfort. Female models wore flat shoes and casually walked, jogged, or danced through the park. Garments were constructed in cotton, silk, lycra, and soft leather and consisted of activewear styles from all eras and cultures. The message behind this collection was female empowerment as well as an awareness to save the global environment. Models held signs that read “Earth Children,” “Acid Rain Squad,” and “Ozone Protection Agents,” which their outfits reflected through color, cut, material, and embellishments.

The Collection in Context

Norma Kamali was raised in New York and studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She worked as a fashion illustrator after graduating before opening her own boutique in 1969. Thereafter, she became known for her innovative items of clothing which were worn by celebrities including Bette Midler, Farrah Fawcett, Grace Jones, and Yoko Ono—these included the “sleeping bag” coat made out of real silk parachute material, stretch-jersey dresses, and her modernized swimwear. In 1980, Kamali presented her first “Sweats Collection,” merging activewear with everyday wear. Using materials such as silk, cotton, and lycra, her emphasis was on empowering women through comfort in a similar vein to fellow fashion designers Ralph Lauren, Geoffrey Beene, and Bill Blass. Nearly ten years later, Norma Kamali presented her women’s wear spring/summer 1990 collection at New York Fashion Week in the Fall of 1989. After the excesses of print, shape, and color in 1980s clothing, Kamali remained true to her original style and began the next decade with a developed sense of simplicity and comfort, which many other fashion designers were also turning to.

Several eras of activewear were referenced in Kamali’s spring/summer 1990 collection, including the 1920s as seen by models wearing drop-waist dresses and loose-fit blouses. Outfits usually associated with girl scouts, joggers, and dancers were incorporated to create new and fun daywear. Kamali also drew on her Lebanese and Spanish heritage and combined several cultures and their approach to activewear in her collection, such as the Basque culture, cowgirls, Native Americans, and contemporary club and dance wear. This mixture of references included leather fringed jackets, waistcoats, crop tops, lurex pants and shorts, lycra bodysuits and jogging bottoms, and silk fitted mini dresses. Such items were paired with simple cut cotton and jersey crew neck T-shirts and leggings, which aided comfort. Predominant colors included khaki green, purple, beige, black, red, brown, and white.

As usual for the designer, Kamali’s collection united several temporalities and cultures to create innovative, comfortable outfits for the modern woman, whilst making a claim to save the environment. Models held passively political signs which read “Acid Rain Squad,” “Earth Children,” and “Ozone Protection Agents.” These were worn with statement outfits such as silver studded tops and fitted mini dresses. Kamali also constructed jumpsuits that had the appearance of maxi dresses due to their flared and pleated legs. Accessories consisted of fedora hats, leather gloves, and almost all models wore flat leather pumps in black, nude, and khaki green colors. Aztec embroidered accessories were also worn alongside fringed leather boots. Hair was natural and tied-up, and makeup was minimal and nude.

Presentation on the Runway

The show was set outdoors in Central Park while model Cecilia Rae performed a folk-rock song Moon Motel as the soundtrack to the show. Audience members with reserved bench seats were given T-shirts with the lyrics of the song on, whilst others perched on rocks. A notion of female solidarity inspired the show as models emerged in groups. They not only walked but danced and jogged through the park, highlighting the comfortable nature of the garments. As Vera Wang later said about her in Vogue, Norma Kamali “was someone whom I promoted relentlessly because I really believed in her sense of body, modernity, comfort and line” (Anderson 2016). “I was a ballet dancer and a figure skater, and Norma always seemed to incorporate that naturally into her designs” (Anderson 2016). Kamali’s mode of displaying garments modernized the traditional catwalk experience, making viewers feel as if they were bystanders of an everyday scene in the park. Rather than placing glamorous items of clothing onto famous supermodels to be worn for only a few seconds at a time on a catwalk, Kamali integrated her active daywear into her target audience’s everyday actions and settings and thus demonstrated the clothing’s wearability.

Kamali’s spring/summer 1990 collection made a statement toward sustainability in fashion, going against contemporary excesses in the fashion world. Simple garments were shown which Kamali demonstrated could be worn in multiple ways. As the designer said that year in The New York Times, “Things go out of style too quickly. Fashion appeals to the emotions and moods of human beings, which change quickly. That’s why we’re in such trouble now” (Hochswender 1990). She suggested that there may be a whole new way of creating and presenting clothes that requires fewer designers and stores, a future of sustainability and slow fashion. Kamali was an avid vintage clothing collector from a young age and from 2000 began selling her collections in her store alongside vintage clothing from her 1960s to 1990s collections, highlighting the need to reuse old garments. As well as this, she was the first fashion designer to open an online eBay store.

The signs held by models in Kamali’s collection were political gestures which highlighted the eco-consciousness of the era. In 1990, the United States government issued the Clean Air Act, which aimed to reduce pollution levels; this coincided with the United Nations conference on Environment and Development in 1992, also known as the Rio Earth Summit. In this era, other fashion designers such as Stella McCartney and Katharine Hamnett also created eco-conscious designs. From 1989, Katharine Hamnett campaigned through her slogan T-shirts against pesticide poisoning and sweatshop labor in textile industries. Similarly, since the early 1990s Stella McCartney has refused to use animal products for her designs, promoting the use of sustainable materials for faux leather handbags and accessories.

Kamali’s later collections focused more on her continual interest in diverse temporalities and cultures, for example her spring/summer 1992 collection was influenced by designs from South America and Eastern Europe as well as style elements from eras such as the 1920s. By drawing her inspiration from vintage and non-Western clothing, Kamali highlights both the cyclical and global nature of the fashion industry. As well as this, her concentration on the environment encourages consumers to reuse and recycle garments to express themselves and create new meanings in fashion. Norma Kamali’s apring/aummer 1990 collection was important in that at the turn of the decade it defined an ideal of the active, healthy, and comfortable modern woman. She remains an advocate of combining fitness and fashion today, promoting universal women’s health and the environment through clothing.

References and Further Reading

Anderson, Kristin (2016), “Bette Midler, Vera Wang, and More Tell the Story of the Iconic Norma Kamali.” Vogue, June 1, 2016. Available online: https://www.vogue.com/article/norma-kamali-history-cfda-award-2016-bette-midler (accessed May 31, 2019).

Hochswender, Woody (1990), “The Green Movement in the Fashion World.” The New York Times, March 25, 1990. Available online: https://www.nytimes.com/1990/03/25/us/the-green-movement-in-the-fashion-world.html (accessed May 31, 2019).

Hyde, Nina (1989a), “Fashion.” The Washington Post, October 31, 1989. Available online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1989/10/31/fashion/6373bfb0-2a61-4f43-b9e6-e5d3d8d5984f/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d943934e625e (accessed May 31, 2019).

Hyde, Nina (1989b), “From New York.” The Washington Post, 5 November 1989. Available online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1989/11/05/from-new-york/b4cd4fb6-f638-4c72-8084-3927bf206ae1/?utm_term=.a834071d4c14 (accessed May 31, 2019).

Palmer, Alexandra (2005), “Vintage Whores and Vintage Virgins: Second Hand Fashion in the Twenty-first Century.” In Berg Fashion Library, edited by Alexandra Palmer and Hazel Clark, 197–214. doi: 10.2752/9781847888815/OCNL0022.

Schiro, Anne-Marie (1989), “Pastels at the Plaza, Cowgirls in the Park.” The New York Times, October 31, 1989. Available online: https://www.nytimes.com/1989/10/31/style/pastels-at-the-plaza-cowgirls-in-the-park.html?mtrref=r.search.yahoo.com&gwh=9969EC4F99D532E71B038C9A2F459239&gwt=pay (accessed May 31, 2019).