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Fashion Diary: Norma Kamali reinvents the runway

FASHION DIARY Gossip, first impressions, trends in the making, celebrities and style setters. A regular feature by fashion critic Booth Moore.

New York Fashion Week is a little over a week away, and it's shaping up to be a tough season. Not only is the economy a challenge, so is the Internet. The speed with which photos of runway looks travel around the world is making the whole seasonal exercise of fashion weeks seem more and more ridiculous. (Designers traditionally show their collections six months in advance for store buyers and the media, so we're getting ready to see spring '10.) Because by the time a designer original hits the racks, you've already bought the knockoff at Zara or are on to something else completely.

So it's no surprise that designers are rethinking how they can use the Internet to their advantage, including Norma Kamali, whose presentation titled "The Democratization of Fashion" will be held on Sept. 17 at the Soho Apple store. 

 “Between new technology and the economy, the fashion industry will never be the same,” explained the New York designer whose greatest hits over the last three decades have included parachute dresses, sleeping bag coats, Grecian gowns and screen-siren swimwear. “It makes you stand back and say, ‘If I continue doing what I’m doing, I may not stay in business. It’s time to rethink and look at what’s working and what’s not.'”

For the first time, Kamali will be showing clothes during New York Fashion Week that are available to purchase not six months from now, but on the spot.

“The fashion shows used to be such an elite situation, only for editors and very special buyers. Then it opened up and became more of a celebrity-type event. Now there is no elite anymore. You don’t have to be in same country to see a runway show; everybody can see it as soon as it’s over, on the Internet.”

In efforts to make her business more nimble, Kamali recently brought the manufacturing of her high-end line back to domestic factories. “These are factories we’ve had relationships with, and I don’t want them to go out of business. I need them if I’m going to do timely designs that are delivered in season. I need a fast turn.”

She's also continuing to make shopping easier and to diversify her offerings. At her show, Kamali will be launching an iPhone application that lets customers shop her signature line (priced in the $1,000 range), a second line priced under $200 that she's producing for EBay, and her mass market NK for Wal-Mart line -- all in the same place. She's focusing on the Internet, she says, because she has seen her online sales grow over the last few months, while sales at her New York flagship have dropped off dramatically.

“I don’t think people are that anxious to buy clothes right now. They are being cautious and smart, and that’s not a state of mind we can change. We have to address the new reality with timeless clothes, great value and convenience.”

I agree. I hope the season brings more creative thinking like Kamali's. The industry needs it.

Photo: A Christie's staffer adjusts a Norma Kamali parachute skirt and bustier on display at the auction house in London last year. Credit: Sang Tan / Associated Press

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I saw and examined the NK Wal-Mart line for the first time last week. Sloppy sweats and awful, poor quality "career" pieces. But what do you expect when Wal-Mart produces "fashion"? When designers and celebrities hook up with retailers like Wal-Mart and Steve & Barry to produce their "mass-market"- everything under $20 retail, sewn in overseas sweatshops, they speak in euphemisms, calling it "democratization" and "affordable" fashion.

It is a catch 22 situation. The shops cut their budgets, the merchandise is chosen as safe, sober and sombre - that is the last thing that people need - they have their closets filled with that 'stuff' - people still want to buy - they still have very special occasions to celebrate and most of all they want something beautiful and different and in a colour other than biege, black, red or grey. All the stores carry the same cloned collections that are entitled 'designer collection' but this is a term that has been highjacked by big 'brand' based businesses who get their collections produced cheaply in the Far East.

So it is a 'no-brainer' if every High Street and Shopping Mall looks exactly the same people will go elsewhere. AND in their masses they have found the internet. All sorts of goodies from cheap and disposable to glorious creative and rare pieces made by individuals, tiny companies working in their ataliers around the world. It is so exciting.

What is interesting in this feature is that Norma Kamali is giving a customer service in the old fashioned sense - and that is exactly what the customers need to encourage them to buy. If they see something on the runway - they want it now - by the time it is available in the shops - the moment has gone. Good luck to her and anyone else that is challenging the old order.

We, as one of these tiny companies, can now show our work to everyone in the world - not just to a few store buyers who might be able to see the collection if you can get it to New York, Paris or London.

So true. You have to be smart about what you're doing. The spending sensibility of the US has changed over the years and even more so in this economy. I cannot wait for the US mobile technology to catch up with the overseas market. It will take impulse buying to a whole new level.


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