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Fashion archive: Ra-ra sweat skirts

Despite many obituaries, the mini never died; it just had a long enfeebled patch when its only adherents were die-hards in the north of Britain and a few calculating fashion designers in search of sexy catwalk shots. But the mini is an old idea whose time has come again thanks to two designers in particular who have reworked it to create good-humoured, youthful clothes which look nothing like the sixties versions.

The first is the most original designer to come out of the United States. Norma Kamali is 36 and a child of the sixties. Her mini is based on the flirty little skirts sported by leggy American cheerleaders and it is called the Ra-ra skirt. It is made in good-quality cotton and acrylic sweatshirt fabric, known, for reasons of brevity if not elegance, as sweat. The clothes, which include jumpsuits, voluminous pants in many shapes, a variety of tops and massive zip-fronted blouson jackets as well as that skirt, are known as Kamali’s sweats.

And since Joan Burstein and Robert Forrest of Browns saw them 18 months ago and started importing them, they have become the most copied garments since Quant put the first mini on sale in the Kings Road. Their simplicity makes the quick knock-off easy. Like all great ideas, the use of sweatshirt fabric in this way suddenly seems obvious and the only surprise is that no one thought of it sooner.

Kamali is bashful, shunning publicity, asserting that the designer’s role is inflated, that all a customer needs to know is that she likes the clothes and they work for her. She doesn’t need to know about the person behind the clothes. Last month, however, she did give an interview to Ben Brantley of Women’s Wear Daily, the newspaper of the American rag trade, who describes her, just a little testily, as a “shrinking violet in over-sized shoulderpads,” who covered her face with her hands everytime a photographer managed to focus on her.

She grew up in Manhattan, on the Upper East Side, where her father ran an ice-cream parlour and her mother educated her eye and encouraged her imagination by her ability to “make anything from anything,” including exciting costumes for the neighbourhood shows Norma and her friends put on. Brantley reports that Kamali was a posy little girl who would take herself off to school in eight skirts, worn on top of each other and pressed and starched to stick out as far as possible, an angora sweater, and white bucks. If the white bucks got smeared, she would produce white powder from her schoolbag and touch them up on the spot.

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The Guardian, 8 April 1982

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