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

The roster of media mavens, moguls and boldface names spotted today at Michael's.

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.