Every fashion designer who just discovered sound baths or the healing power of crystals needs to know about Norma Kamali. The fashion designer and O.G. athleisure goddess was embracing wellness before it even had a name, and has been selling olive oil and green tea-infused products in her Wellness Cafe, in midtown, for the past six years. Over the decades, she’s advocated everything from ear massage and washing your face with green tea to acupuncture facelifts, all in the name of health. Kamali spoke to the Cut about how Jack LaLanne jump-started her wellness kick, meditating in a bathroom stall, her problems with the juicing trend, and why people don’t dance enough these days.
When did you first get interested in wellness?
My mother — this sounds strange, but in the ‘50s, she was juicing and taking supplements. There was a guy named Jack LaLanne that was on TV.
With that famous juicer.
He had a juicer, but he also started out as sort of a trainer. She would do all of his exercises and she was juicing and doing all of these things and embarrassing me to death. Whenever friends came over I was like, “Oh Mom, please. Nobody else is doing this. Why are you doing this?” Of course I rebelled for some years. And then realized that everything she was doing was so smart.
At what age did you start getting interested in wellness yourself, and what form did it take for you?
I did a lot of studying. I went to a lot of lectures. I still do. I’m obsessed with learning as much as possible and understanding that paying attention to wellness as part of a lifestyle is not even a choice for people. It’s something we have to do. I’m developing some products that I feel are really important for people to have as choices. The first group of products is a skin line for men and women. It’s not cosmetics, it’s plant-based products that are really simple. Everything from cleaning to having a beautiful face with no makeup. A “fit face,” as if you came from the gym and you’re glowing.
I’ve always exercised. There was a period of time where I was dancing constantly. There was more dancing than there is now. There’s a lot of going out for dinner now and not as much dancing, which I really think is a shame. Then I started to work out. Of course, everybody had Jane Fonda tapes. That was sort of the common, mainstream [approach]. But I started Pilates very early. Gyrokinesis and things that started in the ‘70s that were very edgy then, and still is to some people. I did Radu for a long time.
When you first started doing these things, did people think that it was kind of weird?
Always. Even today. I think anytime you’re doing something that seems against the grain or different, people react in a strange way. We are in an industry that’s about beauty, and there really is an appeal to people who care about looking good and being healthy. So I think that is the real hook to get people to understand how valuable this is.
Do you think that wellness has become too trendy or that people take a superficial attitude toward it?
Of course. But it still is better than being really bad about what you do. The thing that bothers me is all of the foods and the juices and everything have so much sugar in them. Even real fruit has sugar, and there’s a certain amount you should eat. So under the pretense of something being healthy there is agave and molasses and three apples and, oh my God, more sugar than Coca-Cola. It’s like, wait a minute.
What do you recommend as an alternative to juicing?
If I go to get a juice I just say, “Can I have a green juice with lemon and ginger? Hold the apple. I don’t need pineapple.” I’d rather eat a piece of fruit for that. Those great bowls that are being made now have so much sugar in them. But if it’s the first time somebody is eating anything that’s not processed and there’s a lot of fruit and agave, I say okay — it’s better than the alternative.
Our taste buds adapt to different things. We learned that salt and sugar tasted good. It became a treat. It became something we got as a reward or for our birthdays, or if you’re good you’ll get a piece of cake. Well, we can relearn those things as adults, and certainly we shouldn’t be teaching children that now.
What is the spiritual or mental aspect of wellness for you? Are you interested in meditation, or anything along those lines?
Meditation to me can be as simple as sitting quietly in a room and just not thinking about anything. Just letting yourself sort of dissolve into the space and creating a quiet time for yourself. Sometimes I do that during the day. I’ll go to the bathroom, I’ll put the lid down, turn off the lights, and I’ll sit there and just really kind of quiet myself down, think about the space I’m in, and then stop thinking and let myself just go into the space. It’s the best secret I have that I’d like to share with everyone. No one will bother you in the bathroom. Just go in there and do that whenever you need to. And if it means lighting a candle or doing whatever to kind of complete the experience, keep a candle in the bathroom. Light it when you go in. Sit there maybe ten minutes. It’s fantastic. You can meditate if you like, or just sit there and just let the weight on your shoulders kind of disappear.
I’ve done TM and I’ve done biofeedback and all of that. And I still do formal meditations. But it isn’t always convenient. If everything is an effort, you just aren’t going to do it. It’s not an effort to get up from your desk and go into the bathroom and close the door and just kind of quiet yourself. And when you know you have it any time, there’s sort of a comfort in that too. You always have a place to go meditate, and that’s the nearest bathroom.
Do you think it’s harder to do that kind of thing now just because we have so many devices and it’s harder to disconnect? How do you deal with that?
I am as addicted to my mobile devices as anybody else. But I do think having that quiet time where there’s nothing interfering is necessary now more than ever because we’re so bombarded with so much stimulation. I find it interesting that there are so many young women that I meet that have gray hair and they’re in their 20s.
We really have to take the time to separate ourselves. We brush our teeth twice a day, three times a day. Why can’t we work out once a day, meditate once or twice a day, take five minutes’ quiet time? We can do that. It never is good when you bring your iPhone to the bathroom. I’ve had mine fall in the toilet too many times and I think, Why do I always bring this in here? I’m not gonna use it in here.
You’ve long been interested in the curative powers of olive oil. What are some other ingredients you’re excited about now in wellness?
I think green tea is another staple. It’s something that everybody should look at as an alternative to coffee. It’s fantastic for you. The antioxidants are great. There’re so many delicious delicious gorgeous green teas worth trying and finding the one you like best. I think blueberries — especially for women — blueberries and walnuts are great for breast health and preventative, obviously cancer preventives. I always have frozen blueberries in the refrigerator year-round. I empty a little into a cup and I eat it like candy and it’s fantastic. Delicious. The other thing I really like a lot is raw vegetables with olive oil, lemon, a little bit of sea salt and turmeric. It’s an interesting taste but with the right amount of flavoring it’s really tasty.
Green juice is very expensive and exercise classes can run you $40 a class. What are some of the ways that people can incorporate wellness into their lives without going bankrupt for it?
First of all, we have to put everything in perspective. I think the first thing you should think about is how much was the handbag or pair of shoes you just purchased, or the last purchase? You have to have a reality check on, what am I doing now that could be looked at a little bit more sensibly. I think we spend a lot of money on things that are going to make us look good, but there’s nothing more valuable then looking good because you’re healthy and fit. You can compare that to any handbag and any pair of shoes but that’s the priority because then you could put on jeans and a T-shirt and sandals and you will look spectacular.
So it’s about what you’re prioritizing.
There isn’t a piece of clothing that is more valuable than you and how you feel about yourself. There are ways of doing things economically that are healthy. I think buying certain things in bulk; like, you can get frozen blueberries in bulk and buy them and keep them. You can buy greens from farmer’s markets and then make juices, and you can freeze them for a couple of days and have them. There are so many tricks and things you can do, but the bottom line is that the effort to do that is not as great as making a priority of you, your body, your health, your emotional health and your self-esteem.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.