Celebrity fashion designer Norma Kamali on why she’s never retiring

Some people look forward to retirement for years, planning winter trips to warm places and long afternoons spent relaxing.

But Norma Kamali, who turned 77 in June, never once thought about retirement.

In fact, celebrity fashion designer and owner of Norma Kamali Inc. has just signed a long-term lease for a new office in Manhattan’s West Village.

“I don’t think you can ever retire from a creative life,” she tells CNBC Make It. “Doing this job is like breathing for me.”

When friends or colleagues announce they are retiring, Kamali admits she gets “anxious”. “I think, ‘God, why would you want to do that?'” she explains. “I’m not sure what retirement would even look like for me … but it’s just a different outlook that I have on life and I’m very grateful to be doing the job that I’m doing. I want to take advantage of every opportunity that I can in this life.”

Kamali opened her first store in New York in 1969 with her then-husband, designing clothes inspired by the vintage fashion of the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the colorful clothes she saw women wearing on the streets of London.

Her fashion empire has since outgrown the small basement boutique where she began building it—celebrities including Mindy Kaling, Heidi Klum, Christina Aguilera and Eva Longoria have worn her designs on magazine covers and red carpets around the world.

However, Kamala’s proudest achievement isn’t the accolades she’s received or the fame of her designs in Hollywood: it’s being the sole owner of her own company and having zero debt.

“I really struggled with a creative life and the ability to say no,” she says. “I had a lot of interesting challenges when I was a woman and owned a business, like people pressuring me to sell my business or bring in a partner.”

“I really had to learn how to run a business without any role models or mentors to look up to, and I had to learn how to connect with my staff and get the same respect that men in my position would have.”

Humor is, and continues to be, one of the strategies Kamali relies on to build strong relationships at work.

“Tasteful humor is the best way to offer someone advice, a comment or even a criticism without hurting their feelings, especially when you want the advice to benefit them and still make them feel good,” she says.

Looking ahead, Kamali is excited to continue working in fashion for as long as she can. She says she feels good about getting older – unless someone is implying that her age brings with it limitations.

“When I turned 65, I learned how to do the split,” she says. “Challenging myself, trying something new, and exercising discipline until I reach my goal has given me a tremendous amount of confidence that I take with me to work… and a strong sense of self-confidence makes success more likely.”


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