Norma Kamali – Founder & CEO NORMALIFE

Episode 254

Legendary designer Norma Kamali is expanding into the skincare industry with her newest company, NORMALIFE. Listen to Norma’s incredible journey and her passion for wellness on this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down but just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone, it’s Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I’m thrilled to have my next guest here who is definitely an icon, somebody who I have purchased many of her branded things over the years and just an incredible, incredible founder and CEO, and human and all of that female entrepreneur as well. But really, really excited to have Norma Kamali here who is the founder and CEO of not only Norma Kamali, but her most recent company that she’s launched, launched called NORMALIFE. And her just this legendary legendary individual is, is going to share so many of what it’s taken over the last many years to do what she’s done. Much of her work is displayed at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian. Like I said, she’s a major icon and fashion and the beauty industry. And some of her recent designs. Actually, I caught on the Sex in the City reboot as well, which is so cool. And we’re just so proud to have her share what it really takes to not only have an incredible products and incredible, credible companies, but also the longevity that she’s been able to have and develop a brand around her own name as well. All of those things. So welcome, Norma.

Norma Kamali 2:20
Nice to be here. Thank you very much.

Kara Goldin 2:22
Absolutely. So you, you launched normal life, I guess back in 2019. But before we get to that, I want to talk about you as little Norma. So share a little bit about who were you as a kid? Did you always know that you were a creator, that you were going to eventually do what you do today? Tell me a little bit more about what’s your memory there.

Norma Kamali 2:48
You know, every time I hire someone, I asked them about their parents and their childhood, because I think the core of who we are really develops that early. So your question about childhood, I think, is really important. So in my childhood, my mother was an extremely creative person. So she was oil painting, every day, there was an easel up, she was making costumes, she could cook anything. She actually at one point even had a hair salon and could do great hairstyles. So she was just an example that you can do anything you want. There is no limit to what’s possible. But her creative spirit obviously had an impact. What I recognized early with my friends, was that which is great for kids to sort of have a group of kids that they are interacting with is you recognize your interpersonal skills, and I realized that I was leader early on, we would play games. And there were a bunch of us and I would see when there wasn’t anything happening. I would make up a game. I would just make it up. I’ve no idea what I was doing. But I made a game up so that we could do things and we’d play the game. And then they’d say, Do you have another game and I would have another game and I would tell people are to do and how to do it. And it’s actually what I do every day I’m making up clothes or games or businesses and I’m directing. And I didn’t realize that that was what I was doing then, but I had this subliminal message that I could lead and and so having that in summation at a young age I think is really important. Because it gives you insight and it informs you on how you can get done what it is you want to do.

Kara Goldin 5:12
Absolutely, I always go back to Steve Jobs and how he said, you know, the dots eventually connect. And and I’m sure you do too, remembering some of these stories. And, you know, it was obvious maybe to other people that you were gonna go and do something big, and you were gonna lead and create. But it’s, it’s, it’s such a fun exercise for everybody to do. So how would you describe what you’ve done as a designer, I mean, I think you’ve really, you’re not about copying other people’s designs. I mean, as I always say, to people in the beverage industry, we not only when I developed my company hint, I not only created a brand new product and company, but an entirely new category around unsweetened flavored water. And at first people would say, who needs it, I mean, what’s wrong with diet, sweeteners, there’s nothing wrong and took a little while for people to understand. But I feel like when I think about your designs, and who you are, as a designer, you’ve changed an industry.

Norma Kamali 6:17
Wow, that’s very, it’s a very nice compliment. And I appreciate it, because I do value, authenticity and originality. as sort of a description of my brand. I think timeless and authentic are really important words for me, as well as innovation. And like you congratulations, by the way, because when you are innovative, and you are offering a different story, than there’s value for you to be in the marketplace, a lot of young designers asked me questions, and I’m always available to communicate or help or answer questions and, and they want to know, what does it take. And what it takes is being original thinking, if your brand is like anybody else’s brand, ask yourself why you’re doing it. If your brand is unique, and has a story that is a unique story, and there’s innovation involved and looking at a space that’s open that nobody’s filling, or realizing there’s a space that open that’s open, then it’s worth all the toil all the sleepless nights, all the hard work, then it’s worth it. But if you’re gonna be like somebody else, if you can describe yourself by saying, I basically what I do is just like that and edit that, but better. Well, yeah, okay, great. But that’s not enough.

Kara Goldin 8:05
Absolutely. So, share when your first designs went to market, can you set up? Exactly what what that was? What What were those first pieces? And how did you actually get it to market?

Norma Kamali 8:19
First of all, I’ve been in just to give a little context. I’ve been in business for 55 years. And I start and I’m still the sole owner of my company, and I have no partners. And that, for me was part of my original purpose, right to have a creative life and be an independent, independent in my choices and getting that done. So my first designs really came about as a result of me finishing school and going on my first job interview and really having a miserable experience of objectification like a lot of young women do when they go on job interviews. And, and so I decided I maybe it’s good for me to travel. So I got a job at Northwest orient airlines in the office. And for four years, I traveled round trip for $29. And I was in London every weekend. And that was right when this big 60s Revolution was going to unfold and it unfolded and in front of my eyes, and I was a part of it. And so I started to bring clothes back for friends and then I opened a store so that I could sell those clothes in my store so I had clothes from Biba and bus stop and Aunt Aquarius. And then I started to think about after like two years of having the shop, I started to think about styles that I felt would be great that I wasn’t seeing anywhere. And I started to make some of the clothes. My mother actually helped me at the beginning. And, and before I really could get my bearings on it, I had like six months into doing it, I had a full page in Vogue magazine, and I had a page in bizarre, and it was like, Oh, my God, they’re gonna find out that I don’t know, anything, I don’t know, what I’m doing is what is happening. And so all of a sudden, I I, I said to myself, I have to I am this is for real. Now, this is, I have to grow up really fast and do this. And I was very young, obviously. And I opened the store with my husband, I got married at 19. So smart, don’t do it. I got married at 19. And we did this, you know, he was studying at Columbia. And he would sell the clothes when he wasn’t in school, and then I would make them and bring the clothes back. And, and it was sort of this process that developed. And then 10 years after we were married, you know, when you grow up, and you realize we’re two different people on two different paths, I had to kind of formulate in my mind, now I would have to be a business person. And and that was very challenging, because at the time, you have to remember in the seven days, women didn’t really open businesses, they and especially designers, you know, it just wasn’t happening anywhere. And I didn’t have any examples or people and women that I could connect with. And so a lot of men were very helpful, gave me a lot of advice, but leaving a business that I developed, and realizing that the difficulties of being married in a relationship that wasn’t healthy, and having to leave the business and having to leave the marriage, all at the same time was extremely challenging, especially since I had $98 to my name, part of the control of marriage was somebody controls all the money, then they control the person, right. So, so that was at, you know, at 29, I was definitely at a big crossroads. And

and so that was the beginning of me understanding that you can’t just be a good designer without being a good business person. That was a revelation for me. And actually, I enjoy the business side of this company as much as I enjoy the design part of it.

Kara Goldin 13:37
So what So what did you do when you had that realization about the business side? I

Norma Kamali 13:41
mean, here I am. And I was very shy. And nobody really knew me. They knew him. He was very charming, very handsome, and he was in the store. And so I was in the sample room, hidden. And coincidentally, an editor from the LA Times, really was very aggressive about wanting to meet me. And I finally, before I left, I agreed to have lunch with her one day. And the day I was supposed to have lunch with her was the day after I left the company. And I left very abruptly. The sales girl that my husband kept hiring back because he was dating her came to me to say she wanted me she was going to be the designer and she wanted me to do some of her designs and I just quietly said, okay, and I walked out, oh my God, and so I had my $98 but the next day I was supposed to meet with this editor, and I didn’t know how to come Hector, first of all, we did not have cell phones. And it meant, you know, getting somebody at home or wherever they were. And so I met her at the restaurant, and my face was swollen from crying. And she looked at me and she said, Did something happened. When I, I never told anybody about how insane My marriage was, and what was going on. Nobody knew there was ever a problem. And I just poured out everything. And it was the first time I ever said anything. And she said, Well, then I’m going to help you. And I was so shocked, because it occurred to me that when you tell people your story, they have the ability to help you. If you don’t tell anybody, your story, you’re really in a corner by yourself. And so I understood communication was going to be an important tool that I would have to use. And so I told her, and then I spoke to friends, and people actually wanted to help me. And I borrowed money from everybody that wanted to help me and I set up a system to paying back everyone. And I had a lot of help. And I was so shocked, actually, that people trusted me and the banks, definitely nothing to do with a woman and designer who had $98 to her name, I had quite a portfolio of press clippings, but that they were very clear that this you know, they kept looking for the man that was going to run it for me. And so I it was a little struggle, and it took some time, but I opened a store. And within a short time, an incredible opportunity came my way I did a collection of sweats. And this was before people were wearing casual sportswear and Women’s Wear Daily saw the collection and they said don’t show it to anybody. You need to do a license with this. So it can be distributed globally, and I did license with Jones apparel. And that’s when people started to know who Norma Kamali was, so I was able to pay everybody back. And then I learned how to do licensing and I had a lot of licenses and for accessories and all kinds of things and I became a business person as well as the designer of the company and I learned a lot about this next phase of my business.

Kara Goldin 18:05
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Norma Kamali 20:28
Well, in the 80s, and early 90s, a lot of my friends were dying of AIDS. And I personally, my way of dealing with grief. And when I say a lot I’m talking about a lot, I’m talking about a lot of people who were a part of your life, and now they’re not there. And so when you’re young, and this type of thing happens, it’s an extraordinary, you know, it’s it’s as powerful as the pandemic, it has this, this effect that impacts everybody in a different way from me, the way I dealt with my grief was to find out more about the immune system, because what was happening is the, if your immune system is compromised, and you have a virus, let’s say you are more vulnerable, and you can die. So I wanted to know about the immune system. And so I started to research, where to go to learn about it. And one of my first mentors was Andrew Weil, who was really early in the discovery process of healthy lifestyle. And he would have these seminars in Arizona and I met Dr. Lowe dog who was is an Native American medicine woman. And and Michael Pollan was just writing his books and starting conversations about how we grow our food and the food we eat. And, and then eventually down the road, I met horse to started Aveda. And so I really had a lot of really innovative mentors about healthy lifestyle. And I started to change my life and the way I was living and the food I was eating and how I was taking care of myself. And when 911 Finally, hit us again, I thought the stress of this event and stress really can deteriorate your life, your your health and well being and obviously your immune system, I decided to open the wellness cafe and make a place where you could find not only information, you could interact, you could work out you could go to seminars, we could have films, authors who are writing about healthy lifestyle, and people who and nobody was really talking about this, then it was a very sort of underground thing. And so people came from underground and started to become a part of the Cafe. And I gathered products together. So instead of say a regular toothpaste, I sold a tooth soap that also did pulling and pulling bacteria from your body and a mouthwash that alkaline to your system. And so I started to put together these products that I thought would be great alternatives for people to use so that they could maintain a healthy immune system, when this extraordinary amount of stress would be a part of our lives forever, we would always think there’s a chance that there could be terrorism on our soil. Now of course he can magnified that stress.

Kara Goldin 24:22
Right. And so the wellness cafe in New York City, I should have mentioned that earlier and I remember going in there and and just all just super innovation going on and in with innovative products like some of the ones that you’re mentioning. And again, Norma, Kamali? I mean somebody who is known for fabric and designs but all of a sudden she’s gone into this new industry. It’s so interesting to hear the backstory on that and then there’s a few years in between this but then you decide to come out with this Incredible skincare line and 2019 normal life, which is so amazing. So what was the thinking behind these particular products?

Norma Kamali 25:10
Well, when I opened the wellness cafe, I did a lot of traveling and research and I sourced some of the best olive oil in the world. And I still am very connected to these orchards. And in my travels, I found very interesting products. And there’s a moisturizer that’s actually pull the linen men in, in the in this part of the world and the all about and it’s, it’s an ancient formula, and it’s used on the farms because it does everything, it protects you from the sun. It if you get rashes, as a farmer, it clears up the rashes, it’s great for bed sores for the elderly and diaper rash for baby does everything. And so I started to use it just as a moisturizer. And I was just unbelievably impressed with my skin, my body, everything. And so I put it together. In in the wellness cafe, I also did a similar line with one or cosmetics that was made it was a skin line. But using sea algae and the concept is the same as the concept I have now, which is that you can you can improve your skin in such a way with great natural ingredients, so that you don’t have to cover it with makeup. And so my skin line then evolved into where we are now with normal life, making it accessible globally on my website. And this product is for products that are so simple, they’re for any age, any gender, and you can use it and not wear makeup, I haven’t worn makeup since I did the first skin line. Because that was the goal for me to be able to show my skin, not cover it. And the minute you start to show lines on your face, which is part of life, you the objective is not to hide it as if you’re embarrassed by your age, but to live a healthy lifestyle, do everything that’s good for your body. And nurture your skin so that you can show it and feel good about it. And that’s really the premise of the skin line and its face and body. And I use it every day. And I love it. And when I don’t use it I’m I see a difference. I think the simplicity of having this moisturizer, by the way that farmers used for years and years. And that it works so well. As an all purpose sort of Lindemann I, you know, I feel really good about sending the message. This is not makeup that makes you look like you’re not wearing makeup, this is your you don’t have to wear a makeup, this will really enhance your skin. And as you get older, the more you cover, I don’t care what it is, I think the less you were, the better you look. And the healthier you are, the better you look. So it’s always beauty is actually defined by good health.

Kara Goldin 29:09
What’s the toughest thing that you would share with entrepreneurs who are starting companies that you’ve been through? I mean, you’ve started multiple companies and multiple industries. Now what do you think is is there an overlying theme with all of these that you think, you know, you wish somebody would have told you,

Norma Kamali 29:31
you know, the most important thing for me especially being a woman and not having resources that the way maybe other people had in in not just for gender but because I was a designer early on that was sort of look to have it’s not a good investment and I think you’re the ability How to Talk to people tell people what you’re doing and ask for help, ask, ask questions. If there’s one of the things I did was if somebody was doing something that I thought was really good, I would call them and say, do you have 10 minutes? Can I have a cup of coffee with you? And and the worst they could say is no, and it doesn’t take anything away. You’re not losing anything by no notion be a frightening word. I’ve heard know so much in my career that if it was an intimidating word, I wouldn’t be talking to you now. So I think but most people want to help. And you will be surprised at how many people want anybody that calls me I’m definitely, definitely will give them time because people did for me. And I learned so much by asking questions. And people are brutally honest. And they’re really, they really will answer your questions. So that’s very important. I also think the most people think, Well, I’ve never done that before. So I don’t think I can do it. If it’s the road to getting to what you want to do, well, if you’ve never done it before, how are you going to get down that path unless you’ve just do it and, and find out how to do it, and learn as much as you can to get to the place you’re going. So every day, I’m doing something I never did before. Every day, if I’m going to do something new and evolve, it’s going to be something I didn’t do before, if you keep doing what you’ve done before. I think it’s a very short lived goal. And you probably will get phased out in some way. Right? So being adventurous is, is really key if you’re, if that is fearful for you, then working in a company where there’s structure and you can blossom within that structure is probably a better place. So understanding who you are, my sixth grade teacher wrote in my graduation book, know thyself. And I really didn’t know what she meant by that. And then I started thinking about more and more. And if you know, you know what you are about, and if adventure is frightening for you, and you like the known and the stability of a situation, then find that and find that place and blossom in that place. But if you’re curious and adventurous, then then you’ll enjoy being an entrepreneur and it won’t be as frightening as it may be to somebody else who just doesn’t, is totally not into risk and taking chances. I believe in calculated risks. I’m not you know, I’m not a gambler. I would never I don’t even do the scratchy things that people do. I don’t I don’t gamble on anything. But I do gamble on myself but it’s a very calculated gamble. I’m, I’m find out all the information and Plan B’s and the downside risk. And what do I do if that happens, and then Then I take the chance, and there’s a chance that it’s going to go wrong, there’s a chance that could happen. And if that does, and you’re you know, you you fall, you get up fast, just get up fast, give yourself a good cry, do whatever but then up, move on, keep moving forward. And it’s not easy being an entrepreneur, but you can totally fully express yourself and be independent at the same time.

Kara Goldin 34:28
Did you ever think about I’m sure people have approached you to take money and and partner in some way you’ve done partnerships but have you ever thought about that?

Norma Kamali 34:38
There are many times when when you are going to do something yourself? There are many times where you think I’m I don’t think I’m going to make it till next week. This doesn’t look good. I’m gonna really need money. And then somebody with money comes to you and says I can you know, I can help you out here and then you Think about what that means. And, and so I’ve been very close, very close. And I’ve had really wonderful offers, but I just didn’t want to give up a creative life. And I felt that there may be a compromise to what my definition of a creative life is. And a partner’s definition would be. So I haven’t done it. And there were times where I thought I might have to. But because that purpose was so embedded in my brain, I, I’m intuitively a survivor, I guess. And I found a way or things just sort of came together with a new opportunity or a license agreement or a partnership in a project came about and, and so fortunately, that worked for me through the years. So it’s Know thyself, though, you know, really? Yeah. I love that. And I don’t think I would be telling you I was in business 55 years if I did, right, I don’t think I don’t think partners would feel the inclination to stick out something longer than I personally did. So there were times where I had to make decisions. 15 years ago, I decided I didn’t want to be in department stores anymore, because I just saw that they were running their businesses in a way that would take me down if I continued to work with them if, if I couldn’t control what the decisions they were making. And I remember telling my CFO that I didn’t want us to sell to department stores. And he looked at me like how are we going to get money? How can we get how are you going to move forward with this. And I just said, we have to find a way and we’re, this is my plan. And I had some ideas and we tightened our belts, I couldn’t hire anybody. I had to be very careful about any fabric we bought. I was very, very frugal about everything. And it took me it took a year and a half but actually two and a half years before it all leveled off and through COVID, I have to tell you, it was probably the best thing that happened to us as a company that we were ecommerce base our accounts are all ecommerce accounts and our own e commerce site did really well so but sometimes you have to make dramatic moves. And before that happens to you, you control how you’re gonna make that transition. So there are times where you have to you have to make a big choice, a big decision for the company.

Kara Goldin 38:33
Thank you so much for sharing all of this wisdom, Norma I mean, you are just somebody to not only follow but also watch everything that you’re doing next. I keep staring at you in the screen thinking I can see the little girl coming up with her next new thing. Because you really haven’t changed that much you’re continuing to surprise us and develop amazing things and really developing a brand that sticks and so normal life

Norma Kamali 39:05
Yeah, normally is available on our website. It’s also available to do some of our other accounts and normal life also encompasses the home collection. And the home collection is all cut and sew furniture. And its matches is launching it next month in in your Carlos play site in London and it’s a great indoor outdoor collection and it’s a lot of fun. And we also have a new Bridal Collection that’s really priced beautifully so that you don’t, you can put your down payment on a home and take a trip and you don’t have to put it all into a dress but you can still have a fabulous dress. So yes, I’m doing a lot of things and normal cosmoledo Come in normal life, and you’ll see it all. They’re

Kara Goldin 40:04
incredible. Well, thank you so much for coming on Norma and for sharing all of your wisdom. And thanks, everyone for listening. We’re here every Monday, Wednesday and just launching our Friday episodes as well. So three times a week, don’t forget to subscribe to the Kara Goldin show where you can hear from incredible founders and CEOs like Norma Kamali, and hear about great products. Definitely give this episode five stars it definitely helps the algorithm and I can be found on all platforms that Kara Goldin definitely pick up some hint water and my book undaunted, which shares my journey of building Qantas well, and thanks, everyone for listening. Thanks again Norma and have a great rest of the week, everyone. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight send me a tweet at Kara Goldin and let me know. And if you like what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara Goldin. Thanks for listening