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Norma Kamali may have launched her namesake fashion brand more than 50 years ago, but the last two years have presented challenges like she’s never seen before. Luckily, working through them has had positive effects on her business.
“Covid and everything that went with it was — for me, in the workplace — like nothing [that’s come before it]. We’ve all experienced this for the first time,” she said on the latest Glossy Podcast. “It really got me to fast-forward the company to where we should be. Plus, it made us more efficient and it made us better strategically.”
It’s paying off: The business has grown by almost 3X since 2019, she said.
Kamali can be credited with pioneering such timely industry trends as athleisure and an e-commerce focus. And, she said, though her business has evolved, she’s held true to her core focuses. In terms of her designs, that means sticking to “clothing you feel good in, that isn’t crazy expensive and that you wear a lot,” she said.
She talked more about her “classic, timeless style,” plus she explained why she’s dedicated to e-commerce channels, and how she’s incorporating wellness into her fashion business.
Below are additional highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.
The roadblocks to Made in America
“Immigration is such a huge issue, right? Trump didn’t want anybody in, and Biden wants everybody in. So, between the two, what we have is a real drought of skilled workers in factories. And we need to train people, because we don’t have the facilities or the labor force to really build Made in America, which we all want. I want it. I’m trying anything I can to do it. There [should be] a doorway that people could go through, where they would get a full medical examination, they would get trained. Companies could get tax abatements, and the labor force could be built and trained throughout the country. So then, if you’re coming into the country, you’d get a … card [saying you’re] trained to be in these factories in different cities.… We don’t have this now. We have immigrants who are here illegally, and I’m not allowed to hire them. You’re not allowed to hire them. They’re hiding. They’re not part of the culture. They’re in this secret underworld that is just not the way we should be treating people. And I am desperately concerned about our desire to have production in the U.S. — how can we have it unless we train people and give people a sense of dignity to be a part of our world? How can we do it in the open and make sure they’re medically in good shape and that everybody who comes in and becomes a part of our world is protected? How can we train them and we give them the hope and the promise and the dreams that we all have?”
Finding comfort in e-commerce
“More than 15 years ago, I decided that e-commerce was going to be where I found my comfort zone — where I could present Norma Kamali directly to you — not through [different] interpretations of it through [different retailers]. I didn’t feel comfortable with those interpretations. And I didn’t feel comfortable with where I saw retail going, because it was clear to me that retail was on a very slippery slope, going down a rabbit hole that I was afraid of. And so I remember telling my CFO, ‘I don’t want to distribute to department stores and retail stores anymore. I really want our company to distribute to e-commerce sites.’ He looked at me and he said, ‘And who’s gonna pay the rent?’ I said, ‘We have to do this now, because we don’t want to have to do it to survive. We want to do it now, before we’re threatened by it.’ So I remember that, for two years, I couldn’t hire anybody. I had to be very cost-efficient, and I had to look at every purchase carefully. And I couldn’t do any forward investments. I had to stay in the moment. And then, we got to the point where we had e-commerce accounts, and we saw the instant response. We saw the information immediately. And it was so exciting. And so today, the majority of our distribution is e-commerce accounts, like Revolve, FWRD, Net-a-Porter, Matches, MyTheresa — the whole gamut. And even with the department stores, we sell to Saks, but not the store, the e-commerce account. We also sell through Bloomingdale’s e-commerce account and Nordstrom’s e-commerce account. For us, that’s a really comfortable place.”
The SJP effect
“I have this dress called the Diana dress. I did this dress in the ’70s — but the fabrics were different then, and it’s evolved through the years, and I’ve upgraded the fabrics. The version we’ve had in the last five years has a bodysuit inside, and it’s washable and easy, and everybody looks good in it, and the price is great. And it’s selling like crazy. Every [retailer] that we sell to is selling that dress, and we’re selling that dress. And we’re selling so many of them that we’re usually in a crisis for more fabric. And so we finally figured out a strategy: Even before we show a collection, if there’s a new color for the Diana, we buy it. That’s even before we get an acknowledgment from buyers that they want it, so that we’re ahead of it. So, we finally figured that all out. But then [in October], somebody sent me a photo of Sarah Jessica Parker wearing the dress [which spiked sales] — so, of course, we don’t have enough fabric again. And that’s a good thing — but it’s bad news about good things. It’s great that everything is selling, but — can we fill the orders? We’re so frustrated because we can’t get the fabric as fast as we would love to.”