In the beginning
For Naeem Khan, it all started with his family’s Mumbai-based business. Khan’s first trip to America came when he went to New York at the age of 19, essentially to assist his father in business deals related to textiles. “I came from a very humble and stable home and my parents have been in the business of fabrics and hand embroidery for decades,” he begins.
His parents had a shop in Colaba, which sold saris, lehengas and other Indian wear for the royal families in various Indian states. With three brothers, Khan was the only one who was fascinated with fashion and design. “I remember looking at magazines as a five-year-old kid and deciding what looked nice and what didn’t,” he recollects.
Though Mumbai was turning into a business hub, his father was hoping to expand and rope in some international deals. And so Khan accompanied his father to New York, looking for educational opportunities and an international clientele for his family business.
The big break came when they landed an appointment with Roy Halston, whom Khan considers one of the biggest names among New York fashion designers.
Since he spoke better English than his father, he was the one who pitched their deal. “Halston was impressed with my enthusiasm and expressiveness. He saw a natural instinct for fashion in me and offered to take me under his wing.
Though surprised by this idea, my father and I came back to India wondering if he was really serious,” Khan explains.
Both thought it a crazy idea, which would not work. Just when they decided to forget all about it, Khan got a call from Halston’s office to find out when he would be joining them since they were beginning a new project. And that is how Naeem Khan got on his way to becoming a big time fashion designer when he was just 19 years old.
As can be expected, he made good use of his opportunities. “It is not enough to be a good designer. I used to work till 2 or 3 in the morning. Not just designing, but socialising. Everyday after work, I would hit the world famous disco, Studio 54, and mingle with stars like Elizabeth Taylor,” he recalls.
“Gradually I wanted to go independent.
When I told Halston he was very angry.
I was designing all the glam part of his business. But it needed to be done,” the designer says. He explains how he designed his first few collections simply
for “commercial success.” His very first collection, which comprised of 22 outfits, was named after his mother, Riazee.
Though it was a success, Khan did not want to become a runway designer before getting the business aspects of his work in place. He continued working for various retailers and picked up the commercial and business aspects of designing, rather than heading straight for fame and the bright lights. “Fashion is a proper business in NY where you sell more by quality than by your name. Retailers return your outfits if they don’t sell. I finally launched on the ramp in 2003 and that was the moment when Naeem Khan the brand was born. They took me in. I was from another country competing with the biggest names of NY fashion. It was tough and it needed a lot of guts. But I have never looked back ever since,” Khan tells us at length.
He has been very careful not to limit his brand to some stars. At the same time, he does not do business with any and every retailer in New York. “Don’t let anybody control your image. Red-carpet dressing is a stepping stone to building a brand and I did a lot of that initially. Designing for socially active clients has to be controlled.
Celebrities can be monsters sometimes.
Get the right PR first,” he says.
The Obama effect
The one thing Khan is regretful about is that despite being in the heart of America, no one in India cared that there was an Indian-born fashion designer who was going great guns in a fashion capital where few get a chance. “You know I am surprised and it pains me sometimes to think that your own nation refuses to acknowledge the great work you are doing. There was no designer except me who was making a name outside of India. The fashion industry and the media here in India never noticed me until Michelle Obama happened,” he says ruefully.
Describing his dress for the First Lady, Naeem is all excited. “When her designer, Goldman, got in touch with me, he didn’t want to influence my style in anyway. He just told me what the event was and that they needed an outfit for the First Lady.
While I was contemplating making her dress in the traditional Indian style, I thought the American touch would be lost.
What finally emerged was a great classic combination,” Khan explains. He used silver sterling plated sequins on the gown, in an old technique in India where 24 carat gold is used with handwoven sequins.
“It is called the teiki work - something I had seen my grandfather do for the royal families.” This outfit was given an antique feel with a tarnish, for a champagne-like hue. He designed five other outfits for her as well.
My precious secret
Khan refuses to reveal his net worth but drops a hint when he tells us that he is richer several thousand times over from where he started. But the man is as much about his family as he is about his business.
“I met my wife Ranjana Kapadia during my partying days in Halston when I was 20-years-old. She was an Indian model and was in NY and it clicked. She had to make the tough decision of leaving her work and home and settling here with me.” Ask him if she ever regretted it and he is emphatic, “No way! Are you kidding me? I had the best life then. I had a private jet at my disposal to take me around. With a lifestyle like that, there were no regrets.
And it has been 30 years of married life now.” Today at 51, Naeem Khan is a happy family man, with two sons, Zaheen and Shariq, and a thriving fashion business. His future plans include conquering other aspects of fashion and retailing in India as well in the next four to five years. “Indian fashion is not on the world stage yet. Westerners here knew only kurtis from India sometime ago. But it is getting better,” he opines.
Ask him about the most valuable thing he possesses and he grins, “My mother’s hand-mixed curry powder – a combination of 23 spices which comes freshly ground every two months from India.”