Known for his sequin drenched red carpet stunners, Naeem Khan talks the culture of India, dressing the inimitable Michelle Obama, and the behemoth undertaking that is one of his collections
How did you start designing? I've been designing since I was 18 years old, and my grandfather's business in India was embroidered high-end textiles for the royal and prominent families. I grew up around that and I learnt through osmosis; the conversations with them and just being there. I went to America at 18 to go to school, but didn't end up schooling and became an assistant to Halston instead. I've never looked back. Life takes you.
Growing up in Mumbai, how did the rich culture inspire your designs? It inspired me tremendously. The history, colours, people and life in India... it's a state of mind. When you're happy, you create good things. I'm inspired by how the fabrics are made and their textures, but I apply it in a very different way. A lot of my embroidery is made in India, but what I create is ultimately a lot to do with being in America as well — specifically, Halston and Andy Warhol. It's East meets West.
Tell me more about the craft techniques you use that are native to India. Some of those techniques are 1,000s of years old. For example, the dress I made for Michelle Obama, the fabric had these little sequins which recalled something I saw being made in my grandfather's factory by hand, in pure gold and silver. Of course, these ones I've used aren't actual silver or gold. The pattern I chose was very inspired by Andy Warhol — a poppy pattern. The shape I chose was a classic American strapless dress, the kind you'd see in a Marilyn Monroe movie. I took something I saw being made in my grandfather's factory, and mixed it with poppies and Andy Warhol. Dressing the First Lady is like a continuation of your father and grandfather's legacy... Of course. I think there is something about what you want in life and how it takes you. It's always been my dream to make these things for such people, and because that's what I wanted, it's become that.
What goes on behind the scenes of a Naeem Khan collection? It takes a long time to make my collection. We have 150 to 200 dresses per collection, of which I only show 48 to 50 pieces. There are many pieces that don't end up on the runway but are available for retail. These are all made by hand and it takes 300 to 600 people to complete a collection. You're dealing with international maneuvering of so many different things to create the clothes. For example, we use lace developed in France, prints made in Italy, cashmere woven in China, embroideries done in India... all while designing in New York. The logistics is very difficult, but we've been doing this for so long that I can convey what I want down to the stitch. In India, people talk stitches in terms of nature. They'll say, "I want an ant of a distance between each sequin." There's also a certain type of bead that is called the eye of the bird. All these terminology I've learnt have made it easy for me pick up the phone to say I've sent over an email with all the design details. It's tremendously amazing.
When it comes to dressing celebrities, what does that process entail? When you make such difficult clothes — which takes about three months to put together — we then don't do one-of-a-kind pieces for celebrities. They have to pick from the collection. The exceptions are made for the First Lady or Kate Middleton. We'll turn through hoops to make it happen for somebody on that level. Otherwise, their stylists call up and pick from the collection.
With the First Lady, do you personally see to the fitting? No, I don't. Her stylist Meredith Coop calls me and she'll give me the breakdown: The First Lady is going somewhere tropical — she won't tell me exactly where she's going as it's always a secret — and she needs something short for a garden party. Other than that, you have carte blanche as a designer and that's something so fantastic about Michelle Obama - she respects your work. She gives you full liberty to do whatever you want, which I love.
Who haven't you dressed that you'd love to see in your designs next? Sometimes, I think about it and there are very few people left to dress. It sounds so cocky but really... I've not dressed Rihanna and I would love to. She's cool — Tilda Swinton too. I've been so lucky that I've got such great recognition across the world. Katy Perry, Taylor Swift... I've dressed so many people.
From Kendall Jenner to... Oh! I'd love to dress Bella Hadid. I used to say I wouldn't want to dress the Kardashians for example — because I don't accept the values of that — but I think I'm kind of warming up to it now.
It grows on you, doesn't it? Yes, I have some friends of mine who say no, we can't ever do that, but I think social media is so important today that you can't not be a part of it. You have to accept the fact that it's the way of the future. In all honesty, I still don't respect their values though. Do you think there's a difference in Asia and America when it comes to style? Apart from certain regions like the Middle East for example, I would say that the woman of today is definitely global. It's got to do with social media and we're all becoming one. With the Internet, we're buying the same things and there isn't a vast difference anymore. Someone from Singapore — in your grandmother's time — would be so distinctively different in her sarong, but it's no longer that. They've now become national identities. Style wise, we're becoming the same. And what do you make of it? It's a good thing for fashion as that's a natural way of progress. But as an art, I hate to lose heritage and history. If I were to go to India and the women stopped wearing saris, that'll be a sad thing. I love going on Singapore Airlines and seeing the stewardesses dressed in the kebaya — it looks so beautiful. You don't want to lose the history but unfortunately, that's not what it's going to be. You can't stop it.
As a designer, do you ever dress your wife? My wife is so difficult. She's so opinionated but I do dress her. We were just at the White House, so I made her a dress for that occassion. She likes things a certain way so it goes like this... I'll say, "You choose," but then she'll ask me to decide. And when I do, she doesn't want it. We go round in circles. With the dress I was referring to, she didn't have much say because it was made two days before the event. If she had a say, we would have ended up with nothing [laughs]. With her being a jewellery designer, do you two work together? I've been showing her jewellery with my collections, but God forbid if I had to give her my opinion! [laughs]
I saw that you collaborated with Christian Louboutin... Yes! Those boots are beautiful, but nobody has them as we don't sell it — it's an artistic relationship we have with Christian Louboutin just for the shows. With Christian, he makes the collaboration process so easy. I'll draw something and they'll go, absolutely. They have a huge production capacity and we can get a 100 pairs of shoes in just three weeks.
And if you weren't a designer, what do you think you'd be doing? A chef, an architect, or a doctor. I was always fascinated with medicine when I was a child — I read many medical books. What's the best dish that you can make? Banana leaf with fish in a tamarind coriander marinate that's my own recipe, over cauliflower — it's like a cauliflower risotto.
Naeem Khan will be showing its spring/summer 2017 collection at Singapore Fashion Week on 29 October at 8:30pm.