77-year-old celebrity fashion designer says she's never retiring: 'This work is like breathing for me'
Some people look forward to retirement for years, planning trips in the winter to warm locales and long afternoons spent relaxing.
But Norma Kamali, who turned 77 in June, hasn't thought about retiring once.
In fact, the celebrity fashion designer and owner of Norma Kamali Inc. just signed a long-term lease on a new office in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan.
"I don't think you can ever retire from a creative life," she tells CNBC Make It. "Doing this work is like breathing for me."
When friends or colleagues announce their retirement, 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 point of view that I have on life, and I'm so grateful to do the work that I do. I want to take advantage of every opportunity I can in this lifetime."
Kamali opened her first store in New York City in 1969 with her then-husband, designing clothes inspired by vintage fashion from the 1930s and 1940s as well as the vibrant outfits she'd see women wear in the streets of London.
Her fashion empire has since outgrown the small basement boutique where she started building it — celebrities including Mindy Kaling, Heidi Klum, Christina Aguilera and Eva Longoria have worn her designs on magazine covers and red carpets across the globe.
Still, Kamali'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 company and having zero debt.
"I really fought for a creative life and the ability to say no," she says. "I've had a lot of interesting challenges being a woman and owning a business, like people pressuring me to sell my company or bring in a partner."
"I really had to learn how to run a business without any examples or mentors to look up to, and I had to learn how to connect with my staff and get the same respect men would get in my position."
Humor has, 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 advice, comments or even criticism to someone without hurting their feelings, especially when you want them to benefit from the advice and still 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, too — unless someone implies that her age brings limitations with it.
"When I turned 65, I learned how to do a split," she says. "Challenging myself, trying something new and practicing discipline until I reached my goal gave me a tremendous amount of confidence that I bring with me to my work … and a strong sense of confidence makes success more likely."
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