Fashionistas know the name Norma Kamali, the star designer, as the creative force behind Farrah Fawcett’s crimson swimsuit in Charlie’s Angels, shoulder pads, flowy silk parachute dresses, and hot pants. We know her as a passionate and devoted missionary of olive oil. “The life of an olive tree is eternal,” Kamali says. “Olive oil is more important than fashion.”
With a Lebanese mother and a Basque father, Kamali’s childhood home in New York was always stocked with the golden elixir. Her family used olive oil for “every reason—in the kitchen, of course, for my hair, to keep us regular.” Kamali’s mom juiced decades before the activity was a verb, She used olive oil for a number of home remedies and passed on her passion for vitality and health to her daughter.
Kamali received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1964. A mere four years later, she opened her first boutique in New York. Since then, she’s been a champion of experimental design and technological innovation.
Ancient olive oil doesn’t seem to fit neatly into the constantly changing, novel, trend obsessed world of fashion. Olive oil is “timeless,” Kamali says. “The olive tree has been a very important part of our history, of the culture of our planet. It’s at the core of who we are.”
For Kamali, fashion and olive oil are indeed inextricably connected. “Olive oil is a method of preserving fitness, health, and beauty…when your skin, your hair, your overall well-being are in a really good place, it almost doesn’t matter what you put on — you will look great.” Beauty starts from the inside and nurturing out bodies with antioxidants and healthy fats found in olive oil is essential. “With fashion people, I talk about how it makes them more beautiful. That gets their attention.”
Kamali’s ethos is embodied in her Wellness Café, a health and beauty shop meets café, tucked into the back of her flagship midtown Manhattan shop. Customers can try out her different olive oils drizzled on air-popped popcorn, a blank slate on which to experience the flavor of her oils. Everything in the shop is plant-based, certified organic, and carefully chosen by Kamali herself.
Shortly after September 11, inspired less by fads and more by what was important and eternal, Kamali began a quest to learn as much as she could about olive oil, to visit olive groves and take part in the harvest. “We drank a lot of olive oil and became experts on the trees, their age, the effects of finishing and processing, acidity, we became friends with the growers.”
Kamali’s olive oils are “bottled and packaged as if they are a fine product like fragrance or wine because they are.” She respects great extra virgin beauties from Italy, Spain, and beyond but fell in love hardest for the oils of Provence. She cares deeply that her olive oil is the finest quality and as fresh as possible. That’s how people will fall head over heels, as she did.
She also has a line of stunning soaps, massage oils, and lotions infused with olive oil. Her mom would be proud.
“Olive oil is where food began. We’re going back to square one,” Kamali says, “the wild, unprocessed side.” It also happens to be mighty delicious.
Norma Kamali will be a speaker at the NYIOOC Conference on April 15.