Norma Kamali on Her New Book and Lifetime Achievement Award From the CFDA

By Diane Clehane Comment

lunch at michaelsI knew I was in trouble the minute I ordered my usual Diet Coke. “No, you’re not,” said Norma Kamali, who clearly did not approve of my beverage choice. She’d just asked for hot water with lemon to accompany her salmon. In fact, she was so horrified by its toxic presence on the table, it was banished from the photo taken to accompany this column. I guess I shouldn’t have been all that surprised since Norma and HarperCollins’ Lisa Sharkey joined me at Michael’s today to talk about the new book, Facing East: Ancient Health + Beauty Secrets for the Modern Age by Dr. Jingduan Yang written with the iconic fashion designer. “If you want to age, keep drinking that,” she told me. Where’s that hole in the floor? Since the 70-year-old designer doesn’t look a day over 45, I’m thinking that just might have been my last glass of soda for a while.

Dorinda Medley and Diane Clehane

Lisa Sharkey, Diane Clehane and Norma Kamali

I’ve long been fascinated by the legendary designer, who will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in June (more on that later). Her uncanny and unerring ability to be ahead of the fashion curve before everyone else has been a hallmark of her career.  Her “sleeping bag” coat and activewear inspired sportswear predated today’s many different versions of the look, her use of exaggerated shoulder pads in the ’80s helped define a decade and her swimwear caused a sensation when Farrah Fawcett wore her red bathing suit on what remains to be the best selling celebrity poster of all time. (The suit now hangs in the Smithsonian.) She was also the first designer to create an online store on eBay and, unlike her colleagues who refuse to give up the sinking ship that is brick and mortar retail, has fully embraced the digital world. “I don’t go to a store to shop, everything is on my phone,” she told me. When it comes to reaching her customer, “I don’t want to be in stores [in the United States]; I want to be on their websites. Department stores are not meaningful. There are so many problems in stores. I’m putting my money into my global site and mobile technology. It’s the social [media] aspect of how we connect to clients that’s most important. That’s the best way to have a healthy business.”

Health in all its iterations is clearly one of Norma’s true passions. In 2002, she opened The Wellness Café in her flagship store on West 56th Street and has a website of the same name, where she sells plant-based health and beauty products from multiple vendors. “The biggest luxury in life is health,” she said. In 2010, while on a business trip to Beijing, Norma learned about an acupuncture facelift and set out to find the best practitioner do it. Enter Dr. Jingduan Yang, a world-renown physician who is classically trained Western medical doctor and fourth-generation practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture and alternative medicine. “He refused to do it until I learned about Chinese medicine,” Norma told me. Never one to do anything half way, she made the two-plus hour drive to South Jersey and Philadelphia for multiple two-hour sessions with Dr. Yang. “I asked him if I could tape our conversations and he said yes right away. When I met Dr. Yang I knew I was meeting a master.”

At the same time, Lisa, who had met Norma at Physique 57, also came to know Dr. Yang separately through his book agent. Clever Lisa, who used to book Dr. Mehmet Oz on Good Morning America during her days as the show’s senior producer “before he was Dr.Oz,” came up with the inspired idea of having Norma and Dr. Yang collaborate on a book. “The concept was so authentic. I wanted to take what was happening in real life and make it a book,” said she between bites of red snapper.

Facing East: Ancient Health + Beauty Secrets for the Modern Age is the result of the hours of conversations between Norma and Dr. Yang. “It’s really his book,” Norma told me. “It’s a handbook that underscores what you need to know about the body and aging and helps you find ways to heal yourself and create an optimal immune system.” Divided into three parts entitled ‘Your Energy,’ ‘Your Body,’ and ‘Your Mind, Heart, and Spirit,’ the book breaks down basic concepts of Chinese medicine for the Western reader and introduces health-saving practices that can be easily incorporated into our daily lives. Norma’s “musings” on many different topics are highlighted throughout the tome. “I realized the simplicity of the information was one of the best sources of inspiration because it is easy to adapt into your lifestyle,” said Norma, who was so taken with Dr. Yang she began bringing him to events in the city so he could meet her friends and colleagues. “I was convinced I had to make people aware of what he knew and of what I’d learned and they’ve been very receptive.”

“Norma was the catalyst,” said Lisa. “Dr. Yang was well-known, but he wasn’t a name everyone knew in New York City. She created an opportunity for a deeper understanding of Chinese medicine in this book that is really a handbook, something you can refer to again and again.”

Norma and Dr. Yang proved well-matched indeed. After many, many unsuccessful attempts to design the right cover for the book (“At one point I had 40 different versions on my desk,” said Lisa) their newfound friendship proved vital to the final result. “We tried a lotus flower and all the different Chinese characters and nothing was working,” said Lisa. Then one day, Norma and Dr. Yang took a selfie and used it to mock up a cover. Lisa knew immediately she had a winner. “This is radiance, this is beauty,” she said, pointing to the smiling faces of the co-authors that adorn the book. Said Norma:  “The traditional images didn’t work. It’s modern and of the moment.”

If I had to summarize Norma in one word, it would have to be “modern.” For many designers, being honored with a lifetime achievement award from the CFDA signals being closer to the end of one’s career rather than starting anything new.  Not surprisingly, Norma doesn’t fit that — or any — preconceived notion. “Every decade is like another lifetime for me. This is a great marker,” she said, adding she was “totally shocked” when she learned she’s be receiving the award. She has several new initiatives in the works, including one that she’ll announce to coincide with the award (She told me what it was, but I’m sworn to secrecy) and is in the middle of penning a new book which she describes as a “inspirational.”

While she says she’s “still very much a designer,” she believes “there’s too much” on offer from the fashion industry and the growing trend towards simplification in every facet of a woman’s life reflects that. “Women are smart now and are choosing to simplify everything from the way they eat to the way they dress. If you see someone who dresses like they are ruled by fashion you think, there’s something not right about her. It’s not like it was years ago. It’s a very different time now.”

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. Avenue’s president Randi Schatz celebrating Susan Kramer’s birthday with a table full of friends

2. Peter Brown

3. Andrew Stein

4. Showtime’s Matt Blank. We wanted to go over and tell him we’re totally obsessed with Billions — especially Malin Akerman’s steely character — but we didn’t get the chance

5. Hamilton South, Mitch Rosenthal and Jim Abernathy

6. Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina, Michael Kramer and Andy Bergman

7. Donna Lee, mother of Michael’s manager Danny DiVilla  with sister-in-law Serena and nephew Anthony

8. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia

9. Estee Lauder’s Alexandra Trower

11. Joan Hamburg with The Weiss Agency’s EVP Heather Cohen

12. The always dapper Robert Zimmerman

14. Amanda Urban

15. Paul Caine and Michael Kempner  — nice to finally meet you!

16. Jon Steinberg, CEO of his new firm, Cheddar, with his CCO Peter Gorenstein and Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin, co-founders of The Skimm

17. Claire Atkinson

18. LAK PR CEO Lisa Linden and Gary Zarr

20. Lynn Nesbit

22. Suzanne Dawson

24. D.A. Miller

25. Larry Dunn

26. Designer Robert Marc

27. Norma Kamali, Lisa Sharkey and yours truly

And kudos to The Kelly Gang on a great event at Michael’s last Wednesday evening. A record breaking $110,000 was raised for the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club. In attendance: The New York Post’s Keith Kelly, Ed Kelly, Greg Kelly, Ray Kelly, David Pecker, Lucy Kaylin and Patrick Connors. The festive evening (at one point Michael’s GM Steve Millington stepped in to pointedly shush the crowd during the speeches) included a live auction featuring two unique experiences lunch (at Michael’s of course) with retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly and a meet and greet with host Megyn Kelly. Thankfully, Donald Trump was otherwise engaged.

Diane Clehane is a FishbowlNY contributor. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.

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