With the introduction of her newest venture Normalife, a line of lifestyle, wellness and skin-care products, veteran fashion designer Norma Kamali is taking a big step into the health and beauty space. But to be clear, it's far from her first.
After losing two of her closest friends to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Kamali became enthralled with wellness education, traveling out west to study with Dr. Andrew Weil, someone she considers to be one of the first proponents of an integrated, proactive and healthy lifestyle. She opened a wellness cafe in 2001, long before the concept had been realized on every city block of lower Manhattan, where she sold olive oil, juices, alkaline mouthwash and soap to use in lieu of toothpaste. It was a concept conceived for the post-9/11 world, when Kamali knew that "a layer of stress was going to be a part of everybody's life going forward," and understood how that too could affect the immune system.
Now, Kamali is packaging her proactive and holistic lifestyle for the masses beyond her East 56th Street outpost with Skinline, the first offering from her Normalife concept. Meant to be a pared-down system of simple, timeless and effective ingredients for everyone regardless of age, gender or skin type, the range is one Kamali sees as democratic. It spans only four core products: Clean, a soap-free cleanser for face and body, Glow, a universal take on self-tanner, Smooth, an exfoliator and Soft, an everyday face and body moisturizer that Kamali tells me is "magnificent for three-year-olds and up," though she plans to get it tested for babies, too.
There are no artificial fragrances or synthetic colors, parabens or phthalates in any of the formulas. Each one is dressed up in bright tubes that are 100% reusable and recyclable, with prices that range from $30 to $50. It is Kamali's hope that anyone who wants to buy into the lifestyle she's selling — and so firmly believes in — can.
"I think [people] should be thinking, 'My face is my face, this is my nose, these are my lips, this is my skin tone, this is what my eyebrows look like, and you know what? Nobody else has it, and that's my power,'" she says. "Adding the healthy lifestyle to that too, with sleeping and what you are putting in your body, and then using simple ingredients that work — I mean, that to me is what the future is about."
I sat down with Kamali in her Manhattan studio to talk about inclusivity and unlearning preconceived notions about organic and natural beauty. Read on for the highlights from our conversation below.
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Why did right now — years after your initial launch of the Wellness Cafe — feel like the right time to launch Normalife?
I think that more and more people are buying anything and everything, and I've obviously talked to so many women, and I see and listen to what they're doing, and I think to myself, 'Oh my goodness, this really could be so much easier.' Everybody has drawers full of products that they've tried, and because the eye cream or whatever didn't work in two weeks, they gave up on it. There is so much of that, and some of it just seems a little crazy.
And so Normalife was something I decided was important for me to do at this time, because I felt the amount of information, the quality of the information and the endless stream of products with promises that I wasn't quite convinced were the best promises to make, really needed an answer. And to me the answer I felt I could present was a simple concept that was universal, inclusive, and democratic.
There is a huge focus on inclusion in the color makeup space within beauty, but how do you see skin care, and this line specifically, as being inclusive and democratic?
It means that everybody can participate, everybody can use the product because the ingredients are timeless. I've learned from my first ventures what those ingredients are, and I'm using them in the product, and I've been using them myself for many, many years. So, I want to include men. I think it should be for all ages, and I think every skin type and color should be able to use it. I want it to be affordable. Wellness is not meant to exclude anybody, right?
What ingredients did you know you wanted to focus on in order to keep the formulas as simple and effective as possible for all skin types?
First, aloe. It's timeless, it always works, everybody's going to benefit from it. What does aloe do? It it's a healer for skin. It is a nurturing plant that works miracles. Next, charcoal. You are not going to want to use stripping soap to wash your face or your body right? Charcoal is antibacterial, another timeless ingredient. With both of these ingredients, you can consume them and you can put them on your skin, that tells you there is something really basic and good here. Together they make a great cleanser. Same goes for olive oil. I know everything about olive oil. It is the safest, best fat I can think of. I consume it every day. It can clean your liver. If you drink too much, olive oil. If you need to go to the bathroom, olive oil. It does so many things.
Those ingredients were paramount to your earlier offerings at the Wellness Cafe, but they've evolved for the launch of Normalife. Can you speak to that process between your team and the labs you worked with?
It was up to me to upgrade it and bring it to where it needs to be today. So, it's been evolving through the years. Now, I feel it's just simple, very simple. The questions now are: Is this clean? Is it natural? Is it organic? Of course, if I'm in this world of wellness, those would be the questions I'm asking every one of the people I work with in putting this [line] together. You can ask my team, I'm not a yeller or screamer, but I came so close so many times just being so frustrated to get a straight answer.
The minute you see somebody isn't answering your question directly, you know there's a problem. I researched every ingredient I went through. I asked a million questions. Then you have to have everything tested, so we tested for different parts of the world. The European Union has the most stringent testing, even more than Asia. So, I got on a plane and I went to Manchester where this testing for our EU distribution takes place. I said, I'm so happy you agreed to meet with me. I need to know why, in Soft for instance, the two main ingredients are olive and lime water. That's like acid and olive oil. I said, how can I have this in my ingredients? They said, well, you're not a chemist. So, if you want to know about chemistry, you can take a course or you can trust us and listen to what we're going to tell you.
How did you react to that?
Well, I'd spent a year and a half as a lunatic really sort of terrorizing these people saying, you don't understand my name is on this! I wouldn't put it on myself and I wouldn't ask other people to. They were like, 'calm down, lady.' So, I really was a little embarrassed realizing everything. I learned a lot from them. I think I need to talk a lot more about the fact that sometimes chemistry is better than 'natural' or 'organic.' Poop is organic, isn't it?
When a celebrity or fashion designer spans into the beauty space, it's common for the public to be skeptical about the quality or the founder's involvement. What do you say to those people?
Some people are fine with following a certain brand or celebrity, and that's obviously their choice. I am trying to talk about several things in addition to what the product is. Obviously, Normalife is built on a healthy lifestyle, so that message is a big one for me to communicate. What I'm presenting with the Normalife brand, starting with the Skinline, are tools for people to look at as options in the way I started the Wellness Cafe. Here are the options that can be positive alternatives to what you're already using. So, it's more important that people understand the story of what I am saying, so that they understand my commitment to it, and how they can benefit from it.
I really will be talking about what you're putting in your body, and what's happening to women in their 20s versus their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s. Every decade has a different set of challenges and opportunities, and I've gone through all of them. It's a bigger story in that way, than just putting my name on a product. I'm committed to this on every level.
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