Industry and Academia: NY Fashion Week Fall 2012, Norma Kamali Presentation

When I first left the fashion industry to pursue the study of dress in the academic realm it felt like a bit of a break-up to me. We’d had great times, there was definitely some chemistry, yet the relationship was often unsatisfying and I found myself wanting more. As the world of costume history opened up to me, I imagined the doors of the industry slowly closing, as I moved on to a new life where books replaced magazines and every garment was worthy of contemplation–regardless of what the fashion critics might think. While both of these statements can be disputed in their own ways, with time I’ve found that my initial attitude regarding the dichotomy of fashion scholarship and the fashion industry is not as distinct as I had initially presumed.

While my earliest investigations into fashion history quickly highlighted the enduring value of periodicals as an important source of primary research, fashion week, contemporary design, and emerging designers were of less interest to me than delving into the past. It’s not that I didn’t believe that it was important to keep abreast of the conversations and ideas that are permeating society in the times that we are living through now. It was more of a reactionary response, like the trauma that friends experience at a chaotic restaurant after years of waiting tables in college. Fashion week for me, did not conjure the glamour and drama that the media so often portrays. What lingered in my mind were the endless rearrangements of the seating chart and the accompanying debacles, or a frantic search for a missing piece while the movers waited. The sensation of hot paper fresh out of the copier with last minute run of show pages and the stress of running them across the park in time were far more haunting than the impression of flash bulbs, loud music, and the world of ‘beautiful people’. For all of these reasons and more, the thought of returning to the tents was unappealing to me.

Over time this attitude has slowly changed. While it’s true, that without the filter of time, it can be difficult to discern what might be historically significant in the future, over more recent years I’ve become re-aware of the value of engaging with the current industry and participating in the ongoing dialogue between the past and present that comprises fashion. After all, there is no primary source more valuable to the researcher than your own personal experiences. This is an idea that has become demonstratively important to me especially throughout my experiences in the costume collection at the Museum of the City of New York assisting Phyllis Magidson. Phyllis is actively involved with the current industry. She visits showrooms and ateliers in the same way that curators of fine art pay studio visits. She participates in numerous fashion organizations and actively works to support and promote the work of new talents and local designers such as exemplified in the current fashion installation at the recently re-opened South Street Seaport Museum. All of this is important to do sometimes, as a young scholar it is an investment in your future, and as an experienced curator like Phyllis, it is a way to share your expertise in a meaningful way. For all of these reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about the bridge between industry and academia, and I was excited to receive an invite to Norma Kamali’s F/W 2012 fashion week presentation yesterday.

On her collection intro Norma writes:

My Fall collection is the first time I have looked back in a long time and it is a nod to the most timeless, modern decade in my estimation, which is the late thirties.

1939 was a year that spawned films like Snow White and The Wizard of Oz.  There was the World’s Fair that looked way into the future with real insights into a lifestyle we take for granted.  Then there were Cary Grant and Carole Lombard, who would still be considered fashion style powerhouses.  Their wardrobes could walk any red carpet today, and the hair and makeup styling would fit beautifully into any brand campaign.

Rather than conduct a traditional runway show, Kamali offered an alternate fashion week presentation of a more interactive nature.  In the cavernous dim of the Chelsea Piers, an installation was set up with oversized flat images of models in her latest designs–strategically spread throughout the studio space–somewhat reminiscent of the figures in the Jon Kessler show currently on view at Salon 94.  But there’s another reason that art comes to mind, and that is due to the unique atmosphere that such an arrangement creates.  At one end of the room Kamali fashion films were projected against a dark wall.  The oversized shadows and shapes of the model maquettes cut into this imagery in a way that recalled surrealism, with the silhouettes of the crowd blending seamlessly into the mix and creating dancing shadows.  Yet amidst all this, photographers and video crews ran around the space from piece to piece slicing into the dimly lit room with their powerful lights.  Bright spots of red, white, and silver from the clothes further pierced the muted lighting, invoking the feel of the theatre and the glamour of 1930s and 40s cinema.  Viewers were able to wander and revel at their leisure, circling around 360 degrees and easily taking their own photos or videos, creating their own personal experience.

One area of contemporary fashion that I find extremely compelling are ideas about democracy.  Many of Kamali’s design and marketing practices speak to this idea, and I found her fashion week presentation to be an interesting extension of this in many ways.  While the gesture of the cut-out figures emulated the exaggerated proportions of the typical fashion croqui, half of the room was devoted to displaying her new Kamali Kulture collection, clothing that is all priced under $100.  It’s fascinating to see an established designer continue to innovate and evolve with the times so seamlessly.  Since the late 1960s after she graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology, Norma Kamali has continuously been bringing interesting ideas to fashion.  Kamali stands out in particular for how these ideas relate to lifestyle and the needs of real women rather than the aspirational desires that fashion is often linked with.  Ideas like using parachute fabric to create garments, and the practicality and style of items like the sleeping bag coat have endured with time.  Even the simple red slip maillot swimsuit that the actress Farrah Fawcett wore in the iconic 1970s photo was about practical clothing that was intended to flatter the wearer, rather than draw attention exclusively for the novelty of the design.

All of the images (including her invite and 3-D glasses) are from the installation.

While I headed straight to the New York Historical Society for a research appointment afterwards as many others rushed off to other fashion shows, it still felt great to indulge in a little fashion week activity.  With shifts in technology and accessibility over the years, there’s all the more reason to take a mini hiatus from life to catch up with what’s happening currently.  Many shows are streamed live now, and it’s not even necessary to navigate all the pop-ups that come with sites like  Here’s to hoping everyone enjoys the last day of NY fashion week and finds something to be inspired by in one way or another!

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1 Comment

  • Jenna February 21, 2012 08.30 pm

    Thanks you for this brilliant, insightful, and marvelously enjoyable post. I relate to your account of the dichotomy between the current and historicized aspects of fashion and am so pleased you put this relationship into words from your experience.


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