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Karima Cammell

1. When do you feel at your most attractive?

I don’t usually play for compliments, but one day I was wearing one of my outfits that’s been more indicative of my style lately, a seven-yard pink print skirt with another print bodice over a Romanian blouse. I had the barista stammering. That was the moment when I realized I was doing something other people enjoyed too. Sometimes I leave the house with the sinking feeling that I’ve dressed like an elf, and I don’t understand where I went wrong. But sometimes it really enchants people.

2. Do you notice women on the street? If so, what sort of women do you tend to notice or admire?

I notice women wearing long full skirts, and I mentally note how exotic and pretty it looks. I’m usually in one myself, but appreciate seeing it on other people because it isn’t done all that often.

6. What are some rules about dressing you follow, but you wouldn't necessarily recommend to others?

Wearing an apron renders everyone incapable of processing your outfit. When I get dressed, nine out of ten times I realize, “The apron is missing.” So I add it. And so when I leave the house with it on the outfit works, but other things happen. I meet strangers and they assume I don’t speak English, that I’m not from around here. But generally speaking I think, “If the outfit’s not working, add an apron.”

7. What is the most transformative conversation you have ever had on the subject of fashion or style?

These conversations happen all the time for me. Besides my family, I talk with other friends and their families about clothing. And it’s not just about what’s current or what someone’s individual style is like. When you can talk about the history and the construction of clothes, it takes the conversation further.

9. Are there any clothing (or related) items that you have in multiple? Why do you think you keep buying this thing?

A few years ago I codified my style into a uniform—a Romanian blouse, a skirt, a bodice, a fabric belt, and an apron. I started making my own versions of each of these elements in multiple. If I mix and match them I can have more than 5000 combinations. They all fit a little differently depending on how I sewed on the zipper. When I come across a new fabric I make another piece. I have to change the patterns because the look itself doesn’t change. The joy of wearing a uniform is that it requires no thinking to just throw it together in the morning.

10. Have you ever successfully given someone a present of jewelry or clothing that you continue to feel good about?

I overheard one of my daughter’s preteen friends bemoan how she didn’t feel beautiful. I told her that beauty’s not innate but is actually a magic charm, something that’s passed along to young girls from grown women. So I took her shopping for a magic spell that could help her feel beautiful. It’s not really important what it is we wear, but how it makes us feel, because then the beauty comes from inside us. The experience helped her mother understand that she was interested in feeling beautiful, and they’re practicing making it happen.

11. Is there any fashion trend you’ve refused to participate in and why? 

I always trash-talk yoga pants as outerwear. I think it’s a ridiculous trend. But last week I put on a pair before I left the house to go to a class. Stepping out into the world wearing yoga pants and a sweatshirt, I felt invisible. My usual clothes transmit my personality out to everyone else. Without them, I feel like I need to go up to people on the street and tell them that I’m actually an artist.

15. Is there anything political about the way you dress?

As far as politics go my style is pretty conservative. I don’t dress provocatively. I think it’s great for a confident woman to dress however she wants, using her feminine power if she chooses to. I want my daughters to have that confidence. When you play with that magic, though, you have to be ready for the reaction, the attention, the results. I explained it to my older girl along the lines of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”—sometimes things can get out of hand.

I’ve written and drawn on dresses in the past to address political topics or to give myself a boost of personal power. Years ago I needed a dose of magic to get me through a tough time, and I painted a picture of St. George slaying the dragon on a simple dress. I wear it each fall to give me courage for the retail holiday season.

16. Please describe your body.

Medium. I’ve never really had a hang-up with weight, or a problem taking off pounds I don’t want. I’m usually vegan, but at the moment I’m creating a wide-ranging cookbook and going to all-night folk-music hootenannies, and those things have brought more rich food and drink into my life. I’m happy with my body, though. I don’t starve myself. So many psychological problems fell away when I started tailoring my clothes to my body, instead of the other way around.

17. Please describe your mind.

I have a keen mind. I used to be more academic. Now I have a tendency to favor my imagination, and it can lead me to worry sometimes. Worry is the dark side of the imagination. I counter the neurosis with work and practicing art, cooking, fencing, and other activities.

18. Please describe your emotions.

I can be very emotional. I’ve spent my entire life working to mellow out my wild emotions. Age has been helping me avoid the tide.

19. What are you wearing on your body and face, and how is your hair done, right at this moment?

I’m not wearing any makeup. I’ve got on a Romanian blouse, a skirt, a dress, an apron, and gold sandals. My hair’s in a messy braid. I’ve got on lots of jewelry.

20. In what way is this stuff important, if at all?

Clothing and style has been very important to my artistic life. It’s a thread that ties my community together. I saw my friend Anandamayi Arnold yesterday and the first part of our conversation was all about what the other person was wearing, how we made this or that piece of clothing, how we set the buttons.

26. Do you have style in any areas of your life aside from fashion?

I believe in a full integration of all parts of life. Part of the reason I dress the way I do is because to me art comes first and foremost. It manifests in the way I dress, the way I run my business, and how I school my kids. A lot of people live by dividing. “This is what I wear to work, at home, going out, etc.” I’ve just chosen to integrate it all. Like many artists, I spend a lot of time blocked trying to make room for my inner life. And I tell myself stories that would sound familiar to most artists—“One day I will live in a freer way,” and other thoughts like that. At some point I realized it’s all one life, so I just want to live it the way I want to, right now. One of the first places that kind of commitment can show up is in clothing. I try to live less in the future and more in the now. It takes reminding myself to do it, today and every day. It’s a practice. Anyone can do it. You might not dive in and write the Great American Novel, but you can at least get dressed how you like.

27. Can you recall some times when you have dressed a particular way to calm yourself or gain a sense of control over a situation that scared you?

A while back my mom was undergoing a lot of surgery and I was being scanned for health issues too. It was a rough time. The St. George dress came in handy.

29. Did your parents teach you things about clothing, care for your clothing, dressing or style? What lessons do you remember? Or did you just pick things up?

My parents and my brother make clothes for a living, so I tell people that my mom still dresses me! It’s true though, because every time she comes over she’s got sample clothes to give me. Fashion and style were huge influences in their youth. My birth father was a fashion photographer and my mom was a model who later started her own clothing company. I still call her for advice on how to take care of certain clothes or fabrics. Some families discuss food, but we see each other’s clothes and talk about them. It’s getting passed down to my kids, too. There was some CP Shades clothing in the Sundance catalog, and recently my older daughter, who’s now 11, was circling items she liked and asking my mom about them.

She always gave me cool hand-me-downs in the ’80s, but the result was I ended up wearing “fashion” pieces to school when the other kids were wearing more normal clothes. I always tried to work them up into great outfits—sometimes it was a total flop and made me stick out. That was when I started to understand that clothing is an artistic expression, and my mom encouraged me to follow my own ideas.

30. What sorts of things do you do, clothing or make-up or hair- wise, to feel sexy or alluring?

I’m a painter, and I love painting my face. I wear a lot of eyeliner and lipstick. I don’t know how to do foundation. I wear a ton of jewelry, all the time. When I picture what sexy might look like, I try to channel a look from a painting, a Maxfield Parrish or a Renoir Odalisque. I dream up a fantasy self and paint my way into it.

31. Many people say they want to feel “comfortable,” or that they admire people who seem “confident.” What do these words really mean to you?

Comfort and confidence are ways of measuring how much of your inner life you reveal through your clothes. Everywhere I go, people stop me and say “I wish I could wear long flowing skirts like you do,” and then I think, why don’t they just go put one on? Some people are more comfortable covering up their dreams. They have a fantasy of something really romantic, but they end up wearing something more conventional. It takes confidence to get dressed, whether or not you are dressing for your inner idea of who you are. There are some people who hide their inner life, and others who don’t have trouble letting it out.

32. If dressing were the only thing you did, and you were considered an expert and asked to explain your style philosophy, what would you say?

Eighteenth-century Neapolitan crèche figure as interpreted in quilting fabric? Probably that. My personal motto is “Believe in the fantasy,” and I try to live it every day. if you look at the history of art and at pictures of women around the world today, lots of archetypal women wear long single pieces of fabric—in India, Africa, Eastern Europe—and that’s what I do too. It seems counterintuitive to say this, but the rationale is that by dressing in one long piece we’re actually conserving fabric for future purposes, because instead of cutting up this beautiful fabric and ending up with one piece of clothing and a lot of scraps, the long panels can actually be worn a number of ways. When I find scraps, though, I work them up into new pieces. My style of sewing is fairly talentless—any woman could do it. But the overall effect is unique.

33. What is really beautiful, for you, in general?

I find handwork, things that are handmade, really beautiful. I love handmade knitting, hand-embroidery, hand-beading. I like being able to see the human spirit in the work, the skills invested, and the pride in making something. There’s no need for extra embellishment in clothing, but when it’s there, and when it’s hand-done, I find it really beautiful.

34. What do you consider very ugly?

What I can’t stand is when there’s a disconnect between the fantasy and its execution. Polyester pirates, synthetic Renaissance fair clothes. And, for that matter, women who put on extra-high heels to boost their self-esteem, but don’t realize the quality’s not there. It’s just trashy clothing because it’s made super-cheap. They’re trying to add value to their lives, but the objects they’re using to do this aren’t made with any good intention. The same goes for suits. It’s not even that expensive to have real things in your life. You can make them, go vintage shopping, whatever. Just put some thought into what you wear and what it does. When people don’t do that, I find the results really awful.

35. Are you generally a good judge of whether what you buy will end up being worn? Have you figured out how to know in advance?

I make mistakes sometimes, both in buying for myself and for the store. But that’s how I learn—by making mistakes and taking risks. Over the years I’ve become a better judge of what’s going to work.

36. When you look at yourself before going out, and you are trying to see yourself from the outside, can you describe a bit about what this “other person” is like? What do they like, dislike, what sorts of judgments do they have? Is this “outer eye” based on someone you know or once knew?

It’s my own voice, thank goodness, and it used to be much more negative. I would get dressed and evaluated whether I looked dumpy, how my arms looked, and so on. Now I try to tell myself only good stories.

38. What are you trying to achieve when you dress?

For me now, I’m trying to have unblocked continuity between my imaginary self and my external self, to have my clothes represent my vision of how I believe I am. Getting dressed in the morning and having the courage to wear my dreams helps me be brave in other areas of my life. Figuring out what to wear is part of my artistic practice.

42. What is your cultural background and how has that influenced how you dress?

Growing up I lived in a one-room cottage with no money. Sometimes it was just me and my mom. My birth father left the picture when I was really young. Another man, whom I’ve always called my dad, was a World War II survivor from Europe. Growing up with him around, there was always a lot of mindfulness about celebrating life, not taking anything for granted. I had a fairly far-flung family, with generations and extended family spread out in history and space, and so I experienced a lot of my own family primarily through storytelling. The war, my father and his brothers, the Scottish grandparents I never met. The descriptions of hats, clothes, shops, and houses were all important to me. They lived in my imagination. That inner fantasy life has really informed my way of dressing.

43. Do you remember a time in your life when you dressed quite differently from how you do now? Can you describe it and what it was all about for you?

I remember, when I was in junior high, trying to fit in by wearing the right jeans, the right sweatshirt. It made me feel like a fraud. So I tried that momentarily, to run with the pack. But I’ve always known what I want to do, how I want to look, and more and more I follow those instincts. A few years ago I reinvented my look, but in talking to my friends and how they see me, I think I just deepened a style I already had.

50. Do you ever wish you were a man or could dress like a man or had a man’s body? Was there ever a time in the past?

I love my body and love being a woman. Intellectually, though, I think I should have been a 19th-century man. I studied science in school and was about to go into a career in evolutionary biology, but left because of some bad academic and social situations. The gender bias in the intellectual world is still very real. I think if I’d been a man I would have had more courage to publish, adventure around the globe on my own, and generally live in the academic and research worlds more freely.

53. When you see yourself in photographs, what do you think?

A friend once said something really sweet to me about this: “It’s not that you’re ugly—you’re just not photogenic!” That gave me permission not to get so hung up on photos. Things have also improved lately, as I’ve been having more practice having my picture taken. As the daughter of a fashion photographer and a model, I always knew that there was an art to taking pictures. Now I realize there’s an art to being photographed, too.

56. What would be a difficult or uncomfortable look for you to try and achieve?

Whenever I’m invited to a modern nightclub or anywhere people are expected to wear something sexy, I’m at a loss. I don’t have pumps or a little black dress or anything that ends above the knee. I own tons of fishnets and corsets, but they always end up hidden under layers of other clothes. Any time I try to dress more conventionally sexy it ends up feeling like more of a patch job.

58. Is there anyone that you are trying to attract or repel when you dress?

I don’t think so. I sewed a beautiful apron using mola panels I bought in Panama. I had no thought going into it that it would have any effect on people, but I was getting shouts of praise from across the street. People might think that sort of positive attention sounds nice, but it can be exhausting dealing with commentary. I still love that apron, but now I only wear it at home.

61. What are some things you need to do to your body or clothes in order to feel presentable?

My routine hasn’t changed that much since I was a kid. I don’t do anything too complicated. I shower and brush my hair every day. I brush my teeth a few times a day. My clothes are machine washed and hung to dry. I don’t iron anything. Somehow I’m still able to have a lot of glamour in my life.

75. Were you ever given a present of clothing or jewelry that especially touched you?

There are so many. Many of my extended family ties are fairly weak, so I hear about relatives mainly through stories. I never got to meet my paternal grandmother. She was much older than my parents and from a very different culture, in Scotland. My uncle, her son, gave me her jewelry box as a gift once. In it was a mirrored Indian necklace I’d seen in a photo of her. A gift like this really collapses the distance instantly. As soon as I received it I felt like I’d known her my whole life.

77. How and when do you shop for clothes?

The reality is that mostly I make my clothes or I get them from my mom. Recently I saw that Romanian blouses were in fashion. That’s been a staple for me for a while, and so I’ve picked up a few at shops. I like to go with my friends when they shop for clothes. But shopping for myself is rare. I do it when I see the right piece.

78. Do you like to smell a certain way?

I used to be a huge fan of Laura Biagiotti’s perfume Venezia. As soon as I had kids, though, I realized that so much of our communication was based on scent. I wanted my kids to know what I smelled like. As they get older, I think about exploring perfumes again.

80. How does money fit into all this?

Coming from a family of entrepreneurs and shopkeepers I have a strange relationship with shopping. I don’t spend a ton of money on clothing, but if I see something I like I just get it. I don’t do it for myself that often, though, because I mainly satisfy my shopping bug by buying things for my store.

82. Did anyone ever say anything to you that made you see yourself differently, on a physical and especially sartorial level?

I think everyone grows up with comments from their family that stick with them, for better or worse. In my family I was known for my “sausage fingers.” There was a family friend I really respected, though, a father of one of my friends. One day in summer when I was reading on the couch, just being an awkward teen and feeling really ugly, he walked through the room and said, “You have the hands of the Madonna.” That was really nice, and it affected me. Since then I’ve realized that we tell ourselves stories about how we think we are. It’s better if it’s a nice story.

83. Do you remember the first time you were conscious of what you were wearing? Can you describe this moment and what it was about?

I have an early memory from when I was around three years old of putting my sweater on my baby doll Cindy. She was a big doll, but still the sweater was large on her. This was the first time I had any perspective of my size, shape, and the fact that we all get dressed.

What’s your birth date? 
Where were you born and where do you live now?

I’m a Gemini, vintage mid-Seventies. I was born in Berkeley, California, and I’m still here.

What kind of work do you do?

I’ve owned and run Castle in the Air—a wonder shop in Berkeley—for the past dozen years. We call it “a studio for the imagination,” with classes, an art gallery, and lots of outreach in town and online. The original intention behind the store was to give me time and a venue for my painting, and more and more I’ve been putting out illustrated books through a publishing company I run in tandem with the store.

Are you single, married, do you have kids, etc.?

I’m married and have two children. We all live in a house in Berkeley.


Karima Cammell is an award winning author, painter, and book publisher in Berkeley, California. She is the proprietor of Castle in the Air, a studio for the imagination.

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