The Unexpected Ways These Designers Launched Their Careers in Fashion

Norma Kamali, Anna Sui, Anne Fulenwider
Norma Kamali, Anna Sui, Anne Fulenwider.
Courtesy of Fashion Group International

When fashion icons Anna Sui and Norma Kamali, got together for breakfast this morning New York’s iconic The 21 Club, the two reminisced about their beginnings to a discussion about the challenges in today’s fashion industry.

The frank conversation, before dozens of industry insiders, was hosted by Fashion Group International and moderated by Anne Fulenwider, editor-in-chief of Marie Claire.

According to Kamali, who’s dressed high-profilers, including Rihanna and Lady Gaga, it was a job at her stepfather’s candy store that sparked her interest in fashion. “I was arranging the candy bars by color, pretzels by size,” she said, adding, she also learned how to sell. “I found what I knew I could do.” There, she said, she earned money for supplies for art class.

And while apparel is at the core of her business, Kamali told Footwear News she always had a passion for shoes. “I love all kinds of shoes,” she said. “I’m shoe obsessed.”

For Sui, who’s current favorite shoes are a pair of black velvet Fenty Puma’s, a job at a dry cleaners, introduced her to the world of fashion. “Customers would bring in their designer clothes,” she said. “I loved fashion and clothes and spent my money on clothes for myself.”

It didn’t take long for the two to launch their own brands, garnering a following among celebrities and models. Sui recalled taking a trip to Paris to attend fashion week with photographer Stephen Meisel that included a stop at Madonna’s hotel to give her a lift. “She was wearing my dress,” said Sui, adding she soon developed a loyal fan base among models such as Naomi Campbell.

For Kamali, a turning point in her business was linked to a camping trip. Trying to keep warm on a trip to the bathroom, she wrapped her sleeping bag around her shoulders. The next thing she knew, she was in her studio cutting it apart to create her first sleeping bag coat, a forerunner to today’s popular puffer coats. “I’m still using the same pattern today,” she said.

According to the designers, it was the encouragement of their families that contributed to their success. “It was a sense of urgency to be as good as you could possibly be,” said Kamali, about her parent’s support. Her mother, of Lebanese background, and her father of Basque, both embraced hard work.

Sui, whose parents were from China, admired her father’s work ethic, having obtained a master’s degree from the University of Michigan, then landing a job as an engineer in Detroit. Her mother, on the other hand, was a creative spirit who had studied art. “My parents were always in the front row of my fashion shows,” said Sui.