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What fashion—and fitness—taught legendary designer Norma Kamali about feminism


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Photo: Big Drop NYC/Norma Kamali

Fashion designer Norma Kamali is legendary for a reason. Remember Farrah Fawcett’s iconic red swimsuit? That’s all her. The shoulder pad trend of the 1980s? Same. And, as the Well+Good Council member recalls here, athleticism has always been an inspiration in her personal and professional life. Read on to discover why the style icon sees a strong connection between fitness, fashion, and feminism.

Athleisure and active sportswear are about more than just fashion. The instant adaptation and longevity of casual sportswear is a clear indication of that. As a designer, I’ve been able to witness this firsthand.

The feminist movement opened the door for big changes for women—and I include clothing and lifestyle among these changes. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, women were growing bolder and more empowered. At the same time, they were becoming involved in fitness. Back then, very few gyms existed, and those that did were mostly for men.

Then and now, fitness is one of the key confidence-builders for women.

Then, a game-changer: In 1982, Jane Fonda released her video tapes, and those of us who were into exercise jumped on board. The idea of offering at-home workouts on video was cutting-edge, and it delivered a good workout for women. You could do it whenever it worked for your schedule. I remember taking the tapes everywhere when I was traveling.

Soon enough, everyone was talking about working out to Jane Fonda. You can probably visualize her iconic look, can’t you? Her thong bodysuit over her leggings, sweat band on her forehead, and knitted leg warmers aligned with the beginning of modern feminism. High-leg swimsuits layered over tights was the look for doing workouts. And my workout collection was already in place because swimwear has always been a core part of my collection.

A new idea in fashion, born of fitness

At the tail end of the 1970s, we were just coming off of the whirlwind run of Studio 54. The disco represented the height of fashion culture for the latter part of the ’70s. This was where you could go to dance, sweat, and express the newfound realization of the changes brought on by the feminist revolution of the decade.

In 1979, I came up with a concept that was very different from the fashion of the time. I was an avid swimmer, and I would wear a sweatshirt when I got out of the swimming pool. At that time, sweatshirts were found only in Army-Navy stores, where men and boys bought work clothing. There were definitely no sweats to be found in any fashion specialty or department stores.

I thought, “Why not try swimwear cover-ups in sweatshirt material?”

I thought, “Why not try swimwear cover-ups in sweatshirt material?” And wow, they looked so right. I was excited! I then designed everything you could imagine in gray heather sweats: tops, dresses, jackets, suiting, jumpsuits, and gowns. And yes, a million hoodies and sweatshirts with shoulder pads and fun sleeves, too.

It was a huge success. The momentum for casual clothing was in sync with the spirit of the time. Sportswear finally meant feeling sporty and, in many cases, acting it out.

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’80s style: casual and in charge

The beginnings of casual sportswear and fitness as we know it today, are both rooted in the 1980s. Clothes that were uptight and restrictive were no longer as appealing. Women were ready to uncross their legs, let down their hair, and relax in style. The woman of that era could wear sneakers and move in a different way. She had a relaxed confidence and a new attitude—and she projected it.

Women were ready to uncross their legs, let down their hair, and relax in style.

Fashion reflects the time throughout every decade, and to see women wearing hoodies and jogging pants everywhere was a bold departure. I added shoulder pads to the sweats, Velcro-ing them in so they could be worn or not. Most women wore the pads—not just for the fashion, but because they also represented power.

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Athleisure today: lifestyle, not trends

Then and now, fitness is one of the key confidence-builders for women. When women feel strong physically, it has an incredible impact on self-esteem. If you know you can compete physically, you have the ability to compete in any area of your life, wherever you choose to impact change.

Athleisure fashion is more a lifestyle change then a fashion trend. The look has never gone away, and now, it’s stronger than ever. Just like the impact of the iPhone on our lives, there is no turning back to a more limited time. The comfort, the fun aspect, and the fact that every demographic of women wears it, is a testament to the lifestyle shift.

I believe there is a correlation between the way women move in athleisure and active sportswear, to the attitude they have about themselves. Whether it is the casual shoes, the more relaxed fit, or comfort, there is a feminine swagger that says, “I am in charge of me—and I like it.”

The power of a woman showing her abs versus cleavage defines a different way to express body image.

The spirit of a woman who stands strong has a tremendous effect on her body image. The power of a woman showing her abs versus cleavage defines a different way to express body image. Any woman can change her body through exercise. The confidence she feels shows in the way she carries herself, and her overall attitude directly correlates to her desire to wear clothes that fit her lifestyle. The day of ladies who lunch, and get dressed to shop from store to store, has been replaced by women who are balancing family and career—and making change.

In fashion, we recognize the importance of active sportswear in a woman’s life, and athleisure and the active market have changed the fashion industry. It’s a true sign that a woman who feels good about herself understands her power—and how to use it.

As an entrepreneur and designer, Norma Kamali has always found inspiration for her fashion collections in wellness, beauty, and women’s empowerment. These anchors have fueled her creation of the Stop Objectification movement, which encourages women to celebrate their strength and their bodies.

What should Norma write about next? Send your questions and suggestions to [email protected]