Not long ago, in fact it can’t have been more than a few months, if that, I shuffled hurriedly out of Haute Living Miami’s Midtown offices in what was an almost-late, mad dash to the Soho Beach House, on Miami Beach. The occasion: an intimate huddle with Naeem Khan and friends (read: famed photographer, Iran Issa-Khan, design talent, Sam Robin, towering beauty, Criselda Breene, mother, wife and stunning scene-fixture, Susy Wahib…the usual suspects) for the private viewing of the Whitney Smith documentary, UltraSuede: In Search of Halston
Of course, films of this type are always appealing to me, the history of fashion being a subject of study for me personally and professionally—I love to hear the first-hand recounts of what it was like to be around these heroes, so to speak, by those who were, around them. There was something, however, that felt different about this particular film-going experience. You see, Naeem—who sat amongst us in the small screening snug punctuated by maybe 10 plush couches, at most—was actually in the film. “My first job as an Indian moving to Manhattan was with Halston,” Khan shared his personal experiences working with Halston, experiences which I hadn’t realized the magnitude of before that night. And his role was quite large, shedding light on the icon’s life and work alongside others who had lived through it, like Liza Minnelli, for example, who herself painted a picture of her dear friend Halston as she saw him.
“I don’t just want to be seen as Naeem Khan, a designer for very affluent people—I want Naeem Khan to become a brand where you have ready-to-wear, accessories, etc.”
But after it was all said and seen, as the credits rolled and the unofficial question and answer portion of the evening began, I was hit with a reality, like a ton of bricks: Naeem, friend to most of the evening’s attendees, was there when Halston happened, and now, as he gears up to celebrate 10 years as a stronghold in American fashion himself, many of the people in that room would be ripe for the picking come time to film his documentary. And so, we bring you Naeem’s story, thus far, from the very beginning, while he’s here to tell it to us himself, and while said story is still in fact, being written.
At a young age, a trip to Manhattan with his father set Khan’s kite soaring. And really, it was all about family; he makes no pretense about the role that his family and their history has played in the development of his business. “Every designer needs a story,” he says, “and what is my story? My story is all about glamour. It starts from glamour because my family has been in the business of glamour for three generations.” Anyone who knows Khan knows that he really embodies glamour at its rawest state—the concentrated kind, bubbling in the veins from birth and taking on new interpretations with every passing stage of his life. And as far as stages go, little did a teen Khan know that his trip to the big city was to be the marker in the beginning of a new and instrumental stage for him: Boy meets Halston; Halston extends invitation to work and learn; boy moves to Manhattan.
An Indian-import left suddenly in the tight grasp of a world unbeknownst to him prior, Khan was about to embark on a journey that would unveil the truth that he would eventually shake the core of the fashion world. The journey was of course marked by lessons, and lessons must be taught; so we’ll introduce the teachers. And they weren’t necessarily of a school of hard knocks, but of very real ones. Khan was submerged into the Halston subculture alongside Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli, Truman Capote and Studio 54. But flash forward, and these people and places have left an indelible mark on who he has become as a designer, someone who has been able to marry a traditional upbringing where art was associated with intricacy and artisanal talent, with that of modernity in the way that Halston exemplified it, clean, simple and posh, to birth a brand that is, at the same time old world as it is envelop-pushing.
Enter: The House of Naeem Khan
Khan vividly remembers the 2003 inception of his eponymous brand and likens the bringing together of each integral piece of the puzzle to a musical group: “2003 was like trying to put together a rock and roll band. The number one thing was to get the right team together; having the assistants, even the right accounting team…I put together a business plan and then I came up with the concept.” And a brilliant concept it was, the first two years were experimental to some degree. The collection was designed and placed in Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue, before it was shown on the traditional runway format. In fact, Khan didn’t put on a runway show until 2005. “I did it really smartly I feel, because I was able to see the way the clothes was fitting the women, and to be successful your clothes have to fit your customer across the board, from New York to LA…you really have so many variations of women across America.” The question of how to design with that in mind was one that Khan was armed to answer; in fact, it was an understanding of fabric that would allow for him to tackle that issue without hesitation and this was another Halston lesson he recalls clearly: “It was about understanding the woman’s body; how to enhance it, knowing that fabric has different ways of behaving, playing with the fabrics to do different things…working with Halston really made me understand how fabrics work and it was a very important learning curve in my life.”
With sales under his belt, he trudged forward as planned. His 2005 runway show was a success and he doubled his business instantly. And the growth was constant. “It was like we were growing every season, 20, 30, 40%,” recalls Kahn. When things got “rocky” as Khan describes it, in around 2009, he planned accordingly. “We did not lose our market share because during that time I changed the collection a little bit and started designing things that were less expensive to give the customer a reason to go in and buy…There was still the Naeem Khan $5,000 cocktail dress, but also the option to buy a top and a skirt; a skirt that you could pair with ten other tops, and it really kept the business going because people were really coming down and spending money.”
In 2011, business started to take off again. Today, Khan says he is back in full force with the high-glamour evening pieces flying off racks. It helps, of course, that Khan’s pieces are draping the backs of such mega-watt women as First Lady Michelle Obama, whose State Dinner ivory Naeem Khan column dress made Khan the third most googled person in the world. Coincidently, his mentor, Halston, was heralded for his designs for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, including his famous pillbox hat.
Khan remains humble and honored when discussing his droves of famous female fans. Florence Welch has been seen donning a Khan thrice of late, for instance. And as we touch upon some of the other honors that have been bestowed on him just this year, he speaks in the appreciative tone of a sincerely passionate man. This year’s Mercedes Benz Presents designer, Khan is overwhelmed by the idea that he would be selected by New York Fashion Week’s presenting sponsor to be the highlighted designer amongst a sea of other deserving talents.
These nods are in-step with a slew of major shifts hanging in the balance for the Naeem Khan brand: “Now I feel that I want to make this brand global. I don’t just want to be seen as Naeem Khan, a designer for very affluent people—I want Naeem Khan to become a brand where you have ready-to-wear, accessories, etc.” In order for that to happen, Khan acknowledges that there will have to be some changes, including the adoption of investors in the company, which he now owns entirely on his own. “This is the first time that I am opening my company to outside investment,” he shares. “We are raising capital to open the first two flagship stores, one in Paris and one in New York; and bringing in teams to create products like bags and shoes that can be globally marketed.”
And while Khan is hot on the heels of celebrating 10 years—which remains a benchmark for its nice, roundnumber quality—we couldn’t wait that long to take the trip down memory lane with the man behind the brand to see where he had been and where he planned to go next. And where that is, he shares in a very decided tone, “By the end of this year, we will be ready to make the big leap and take it global.”
Naeem Khan: Insider’s Guide To New York
How Long In New York: 30 Years
Favorite Restaurant: Le Grenouille
Best Steakhouse: Blt Steak
Best Sushi: En
Best Italian: Babbo
Best Pizza: Patsy’s (Harlem)
Best Place For Late Night Dining: Blue Ribbon Brasserie
Best Sunday Brunch: Fatty Crab
Hautest Lounge: Double Seven
Best Place For A Power Business Meeting: Soho House
Favorite Shopping Venue: Bergdorf Goodman
Best Place To Buy Jewelry: Verdura
Best Spa: Mandrin Oriental
Favorite Charity Event: Alzheimer’s Association
Favorite Cultural Institution: Metropolitian Museum Of Art