03/27/2006 at 01:00 AM EST
Visiting London in the 1960s, designer Norma Kamali was inspired by mod fashions yet to surface stateside. So on her return flight, "I sewed my skirt up to the miniskirt length," recalls Kamali, then 19. It was a style choice not every Yank was ready for: "Coming off the plane, I was yelled at—it was so provocative to show half of your thigh in public!"
Kamali, 60, has continued to push buttons ever since, whether bringing novelty items like high-heeled sneakers to the world of high fashion, or eschewing the industry practice of loaning clothes to celebrities. "If somebody likes my clothes and wants to buy them, it's great," she says. "I think it's inappropriate to ask them to sell my clothes for me." She instead prefers to stay true to designs that "fit our lifestyles but still give us the fun, glamour and fashion."
Hence her introduction during the 1980s of casually chic sweatshirt clothing, which allowed women who didn't have time to dress up to still look put together. That same aesthetic is visible in her new design ventures: a line of jersey knit separates (ranging from $12 to $89) that Spiegel began selling in January and a sweats-based line for the Everlast brand (with skirts, tops and dresses mostly priced under $200) carried at stores like Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom.
Although these collections mark a return to the retail spotlight for Kamali (who continued to sell her designs online and at her Manhattan boutique throughout the '90s as she also focused on her spa and wellness products), her look has never really gone away. Demand for classic Kamali at Resurrection vintage stores is "hot, hot, hot," says co-owner Katy Rodriguez, noting that Marisa Tomei picked up a silk-and-velvet patchwork dress, while Claire Danes
snagged a short-sleeved hoodie. "Our customers see it as hip and young." Indeed, at a time when Kamali has been around long enough to warrant a career retrospective—her designs are part of the Anarchy to Affluence exhibit at New York City's Parsons School of Design, on view through April 2—"Kamali is still pioneering," Rodriguez says. "She told me she's thinking about a design that oozes vitamins and nourishes your body!"
A talented painter during her New York City youth, Kamali won grants to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology. But after her 1964 graduation, she decided to skip the starving artist scene in favor of steady work at an airline. Frequent trips to London taught her "fashion design didn't have to be this coordinated matching hat, bag and shoes," she says, and in 1975, Kamali hit it big with what would become one of her signature designs: the sleeping bag coat. She also debuted high-cut swimsuits, which revolutionized the industry, ("She made the hip the new erogenous zone," says model Christie Brinkley), as well as clothes made from parachute cloth. "Everything we see today for casual," says Joey Harary, president of Jacques Moret, which has a licensing deal with the Everlast brand, "comes from the [sweats] she did in the '80s."
But even when she was helping define '80s style, Kamali was never one to run with the Hollywood crowd. "Do I look like that type of person?" she says laughing. "I truly love my friendships, and that is where I want to spend my time." When she isn't working, that is. The divorced Kamali (who shares a Manhattan apartment with her dachshund Zeke) rises most days at 5:30 a.m. to check e-mail before going to her studio. "When I'm doing patterns, I can put on a whole day of movies and a good baseball game and be totally content," she says. "And I can design up a storm!"