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How to Turn a Trendy Hit Into a Forever Best Seller

Norma Kamali has lasted 55 years in fashion by strategically reviving old styles and making them relevant for new customers. The formula requires more than a flip through the archives, though.
Norma Kamali brand models wearing dresses
Norma Kamali's "Diana" dress, first released in the 1970s, has been revived in new ways for nearly five decades. (Norma Kamali)

Key insights

  • The Norma Kamali brand has doubled and even tripled its business with certain wholesale partners in the last year.
  • New styles, core styles and revived archival styles each make up about a third of the brand’s business.
  • Archival styles are re-issued with new fabrications and fits to cater to consumers’ changing needs and preferences.

Over the past six months, Norma Kamali’s Diana dress, a form-fitting, ruched one-shoulder style available in a rainbow assortment of colours, was seemingly ubiquitous.

Paparazzi caught Sarah Jessica Parker on the set of the “Sex and the City” reboot “And Just Like That,” in it. Real Housewives and reality stars wore it in their on-screen “confessionals.” Models and influencers were photographed in it on red carpets and posted it on social media. Glossier chief executive officer Emily Weiss, far along in her pregnancy, wore it to a wedding in April.

The Diana dress may be benefitting from a recent wave in popularity, but the style isn’t a new one. In fact, designer Norma Kamali originally produced the garment in the 1970s.

It’s driving a boom moment for the brand: the Norma Kamali brand experienced a 58 percent growth in sell-outs across third-party luxury platforms in the first four months of the year compared to the same period last year, according to retail intelligence platform Edited. Swim and dresses are driving the sales, accounting for 29 percent and 28 percent of products selling out, respectively. Kamali said her brand has “easily doubled and in some cases even tripled our business, depending on the [wholesale] account, and our e-commerce site has over doubled.”

Brands are lucky if they sell a hit item for one season or for one year, let alone for over half a century. But Kamali’s biggest hits — the Sleeping Bag coat, the Marissa swimsuit, the Diana dress — are often called “timeless,” said Valerie Steele, director of the museum at FIT, and their sales have managed to transcend the trend cycle. But for Kamali, it’s less about making one product last forever than it is about evolving that core style for a new consumer.

“Fashion is all about change, but it doesn’t mean that things can’t circle right back again or serve similar functions for different generations,” Steele said. “[Kamali’s] approach to materials is one of the things that sets her apart.”

The Myth of Timelessness

When Norma Kamali shoppers buy an item like the Diana dress, they often don’t realise they’re shopping an archival style, Kamali said. She likes it that way: instead of leaning on the garment’s past to sell it, Kamali said she focuses on the new ways clothes fit into shoppers’ lives, their needs and how a garment can serve multiple purposes. What doesn’t change, however, are her standards that garments are “washable, [with] easy-care [and offer] modern-type dressing,” she said.

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Take the Diana dress: first released in 1973, the inaugural version was “sort of flimsy,” Kamali said. The brand reissued the style in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The latest version of the dress was released in 2018, this time with a bodysuit sewn within it — a smart addition given the boom in shapewear and customers’ appetite for smoothing styles. The Diana dress remained a top-selling product during the pandemic, its comfort a chief selling point. One publication wrote about the reissue with the headline, “This Dress Is Basically the Leggings Equivalent of a Gown, and I Never Want To Take It Off.”

“The reissues are more strategic and calculating,” Kamali said. “I was thinking about lifestyle, where we are in this time and how that dress fits it so well.”

Kamali’s clothes range in price from $60 for a pair of bathing suit bottoms to $1,445 for a speciality sleeping bag coat, but many items sell for roughly $150. The Diana dress, for instance, costs about $200, a price point that sits comfortably between fast fashion, which sells similar styles at $20 and luxury, which sells them at $2,000.

Swimwear has also been a best-selling category for the brand. Tiffany Hsu, Mytheresa vice president of womenswear and kidswear fashion buying, said their customers love the swimwear because “the silhouettes are very flattering and feminine.”

The Marissa style, for instance, a high-cut, deep scoop neck style that “did really well,” when it was first released in the ‘70s, Kamali said, though she was unsure if it would sell again.

“I thought that a leg that high would be a little too much for now,” she said.

But the $150 suit sold well upon its reissue in 2014 and is still one of the brand’s top-selling swimsuits.

“Some of my swimwear never was taken off the line ever and if I do people send me complaints, like some serious foul language going on,” Kamali said. “So, I know that there’s something about the brand that needs to have that anchor, it’s the culture of the brand.”

With so many recurring hits, Kamali, aged 76, said she is now putting additional focus on building up an expansive brand archive. Today, new styles make up about a third of the brand’s offerings, which may include items that are “revisions or influenced by my archives,” Kamali said. Bestsellers (that may be transitioned into core items) and core items, like the Marissa swimsuit, make up the other two-thirds of the business.

Though she has no plans to step away from the business, the goal is to help identify “what connects the collection to today and the 55 years to give me the intelligence about how to manage the brand designs, whether they’re new or references or inspiration of things I’ve done in the past … so that the brand can literally live without me.”

Making the Most of the Moment

The Norma Kamali brand capitalises on the success of its core items by creating exclusive colours, prints or fabrications for the retailers that carry the brand to help create a feeling of newness. The brand also operates its own direct-to-consumer channel, which competes as a proportion of business against other wholesale accounts but accounts for less than the value of the brand’s combined wholesale business. Revolve is among the brand’s top retail partners.

Creating value for wholesale partners is important not only for its retail strategy but also for its marketing strategy.

“Since we are primarily [e-commerce] distribution, our partners promote the brand extensively as well on social and through their network,” Kamali said. While the brand has not held any fashion shows, its marketing centres around organic social media and influencer posts as well as Google paid ads.

Still, it’s kept a relatively low profile. The Norma Kamali brand is private and Kamali said she has never had a business partner or investor “subsidising” the brand, which she launched in 1967 in New York. And while names like Diane von Furstenberg and Karl Lagerfeld have permeated beyond fashion’s bubble to create lasting brands, “the name Norma Kamali is not particularly known by the general public,” Steele said.

“If people are responding positively to re-issues of things they probably didn’t know about before, they may somehow have that in their mental image Rolodex,” she said.

Further Reading

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