“What a great opportunity to be with the rest of the Asian designers and to come to this beautiful place so locals would get acquainted with my brand and I can get acquainted with Singapore,” enthuses the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) member, who makes his runway debut in Asia at Singapore Fashion Week (SGFW).
Born and raised in Mumbai, Naeem Khan has built a name for himself in New York’s high society and celebrity circles for his exquisite dresses that defypassing trends. “I have faithful followers across the world. I’ve been to some of their homes — they have a huge cupboard, with a row of my clothes. They’ll buy two this season, one that season and they collect them,” he says.
The red-carpet darling shrugs off differences in demands between Western and Asian consumers because he designs for the modern woman, he says. A walking testimony of an Asian designer who’s made it in the West, Khan also believes that talent and intelligence will bring you success, whoever you are. “The challenge is within yourself — to be different and the greatest. And that is the challenge you need to have.”
He pinpoints global exposure as the key to elevating the Asian fashion industry so that it is competitive far beyond the region. “Designers can get so happy in the local market, they don’t try hard enough to make a move out of Asia,” he opines, warning of complacency. “SGFW is creating global awareness of the fashion industry in Asia, but it can only take you to the well. It’s up to the designers to make something out of it.”
After a long day of castings and interviews, Khan is relaxed and candid for our chat, without betraying the fact that the punishing time difference has kept him up since 3:30am. His stamina is a sobering reminder of his perseverance in the business — it’s been 39 years since he moved to the US to attend school, only to end up working for Halston at the age of 20 instead.
Despite an early start, he only launched his namesake label in 2003. “All those years when I wasn’t ‘Naeem Khan’, I was learning how to navigate my way through the fashion business through fictitious companies. I was selling, producing, marketing…putting products out there and experimenting with them. It was in 2003 when I had the courage to say I’m ready. I had strong factory support, strong finances, all without investors. I made it all by myself,” he shares proudly.
Building that foundation allowed him to venture into bridal a decade later. “Walking down the aisle is the ultimate red carpet. You don’t have to a be a celebrity to have your own red-carpet moment,” he says.
Khan isn’t just a savvy businessman, he’s a genial boss too, judging from the lunches he whips up for his team three to four times a week. “My sales director just told me that his favourite dish of mine is risotto that I made out of cauliflower. I made it my Asian way because I’d use cilantro and parsley, and I’d include fish,” he reveals.
He attributes his efforts in eating healthy to Michelle Obama. “I learnt from Mrs Obama that you have to influence people. My staff would always grab a sandwich from some deli. I wanted to teach them that good food can be made simply. I made the girls take turns helping me in the kitchen. Now some of the girls who hated cooking are making the most amazing meals for their boyfriends!”
“And what happens with cooking and eating together is you’re making all these bonds that are so amazing. That keeps us happy in the office and helps us in the business. The whole idea is: How do I create a happy environment where we don’t treat work like work? We approach as though we’re coming to have fun and from it, we’re creating beautiful things and these are taking care of us,” he adds.
Bearing bubble tea, the lanky creative director and co-founder of Self-Portrait breezes in, all smiles. You wouldn’t be able to tell that he’s been squeezing interviews on an afternoon packed with castings for his show two days later.
His easy demeanour echoes his casual-chic pieces that have been creating buzz from runway to red carpet. What’s astonishing is It girls such as Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner are clamouring for Granny-esque guipure lace tea dresses, which can also be yours at purse-friendly prices, available in more than 300 international retailers.
Exclusivity? Not here. “I enjoy designing for women who have moderate income. I want them to look good, because there is nothing on the market for them. It’s either high fashion or high street,” he explains.
“We never set out to be the cool kids in fashion. I always start from what women want. Because they’re worn so close to your body, clothes are intimate items,” adds the Central Saint Martin graduate, who fits clothes on his colleagues.
He must be doing something right — women are buying his frocks as their wedding dresses, which led to Self-Portrait’s first bridal collection in January 2016. “It’s so effortless and you can have fun on your big day. I feel sorry for brides who get stressed out over that one dress.”
The born-in-Penang, based-in-London, shows-in-New York Fashion Week designer made his first ever runway appearance in Asia at SGFW. “In Asia, you need a platform like SGFW to showcase all these talented designers. It wasn’t hard for me to say yes because I can get to know my customers in Asia better. In fact, we’re having a trunk show with Club 21 the day after the show.”
On what it takes for an Asian designer to compete in the global area, he feels nationality has nothing to do with success. “You need to understand the business. If you want to go international, is your product addressing the international audience?” He emphasises the value of gaining industry experience, because it teaches you real-world lessons you don’t learn from schools. “Fashion is a business — it’s important to understand what it takes to build a brand. I worked with various companies for eight to nine years before starting Self-Portrait,” he shares.
Known as the first Chinese haute couturier, Guo Pei had been creating bespoke pieces for China’s elite for nearly 20 years before she was invited to join the prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture as a guest member. “Till then, I did not consider going to the West. I’m not ambitious and I didn’t think that the Chambre mattered to me,” Guo confesses.
An afternoon tea with a few Chambre members changed her mind. “I was asked: ‘Have you thought about what you can contribute to the Chambre?’ That set me thinking. People often think of gaining from others. You want to learn and level up. But have you ever thought about your value and what you can give?”
A natural conversationalist with a flair for thought-provoking replies, Guo radiates warmth — something which has endeared her to Chinese celebrities and distinguished figures. “There’s no strategy or method to become a popular designer. It’s about creating pieces that capture the imagination. Getting clients from your fame will only create stress. You should stand behind your work [so people can admire] and not stand in front [and obscure its ingenuity].”
Also happy-go-lucky by nature, she brushes off any insinuation that she faces extra challenges as an Asian female designer. “I don’t see much of a difference between a male or a female designer. I solve problems as they come and I don’t anticipate difficulties,” muses the petite woman Time magazine named as one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People of 2016. “When I set up Rose Atelier, I didn’t think how big it would grow. I only wanted a space filled with the romance of roses, where I can work with liberation to realise my ideas and dreams.”
SGFW may mark the Beijing-based designer’s fifth time in Singapore, but that does not dim our enthusiasm for her couture pieces. This round, she even brought with her the infamous canary-yellow robe that Rihanna wore to the Met Gala in 2015 for a special meet-and-greet before her opening show. Weighing a hefty 24.9kg, it required three men to help Rihanna walk up the stairs then, as memes went into overdrive, flooding the Internet.
“I think SGFW’s merge with Digital Fashion Week (DFW) is a good idea. Great strength comes from unity,” she also observes of the year’s new format.
Unity is also what’s needed for the region’s designers to flourish, she urges: “We shouldn’t be seeing China, Japan, Korea, Singapore and other countries as individuals but as a family. SGFW should take the lead in the unification…And when young designers reach the international stage, I hope they stay faithful to their personal aesthetics. It’s important to preserve their views.”