x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Derek Khan is getting a second bite of the cherry

Derek Khan rose to the heights of fame, then plummeted all the way into jail. Khan, now living in Dubai, tells James Gabrillo about glitz, his reality show Derek of Arabia and getting back on top.

Derek Khan has started production work for his reality show Derek of Arabia. Jeff Topping /The National
Derek Khan has started production work for his reality show Derek of Arabia. Jeff Topping /The National

Derek Khan is sprawled resplendently on a sofa, wearing a midnight blue dishdasha. Legs crossed, his red cashmere socks peek out.

"I like making an entrance," he says. "It's what I do best."

Khan, who turns 55 this year, is celebrated for introducing high fashion to hip-hop. In the 1990s, he dressed Salt-N-Pepa, P Diddy, Monica and Pink in Chanel, Gucci and Versace, brands that went on to become a part of the rap lexicon.

He also doused them with diamonds. Lots and lots of diamonds.

For a 2002 concert, Khan draped Aretha Franklin in US$10 million (Dh36.7m) worth of diamonds, including a 58-carat piece.

"Bling? Darling, please, I had Salt-N-Pepa dripping in Van Cleef & Arpels," says Khan, who also placed Mary J Blige in a Rolls-Royce and Revillon fur for her career-defining Share My World album cover and masterminded Lauryn Hill's bohemian chic look.

Now based in Dubai, Khan runs Hauteur, a personal shopping service, "for royalty and top-layer families".

"I buy jewels and objects d'art on your behalf. You want John Legend for your party? Angelina, Brad? I can get them for you through direct contacts," he says.

Last month, Khan began production work for his reality show Derek of Arabia, set to broadcast on US cable this year. NBC and Bravo have reportedly approached him for the rights. "Harvey Weinstein, too," he adds.

The series, the first of its kind in the region, will chronicle his life in Dubai.

"I want to show the world the real Middle East, through the lives of my crazy, fabulous friends," says Khan. "Some of them are royals, ambassadors, Russian and Iraqi billionaires."

One of them is Minal Bodani, "a dear social friend". "She's like the 13th richest Indian in the GCC," Khan jests.

After living in New York most of his life, Khan arrived in Dubai in November 2007.

"This is a place that's about the future, not the past," he says. "It gives you a new lease in life."

Khan knows this all too well. In 2003, he was jailed for pawning more than $1.5m worth of jewellery, borrowed from the likes of Harry Winston and Piaget, on the pretence that they would be worn by his celebrity clients. Instead, Khan pawned the pieces to support a lavish lifestyle.

"First-class flights and jars of Creme de la Mer. Four Seasons was my home," he says.

"But being on top for 15 years, you become arrogant. I made millions, I spent millions. The only life I knew turned into a nightmare."

Inside his New York jail cell, Khan consoled himself by reading copies of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.

"It was a slap in the face," he says. "The best and worst moment of my life."

Two years later, Khan was released from prison. His green card revoked, he was deported to his native Trinidad with $10 in his pocket.

"It was a shocker. Barbed wire everywhere," says Khan, who left Trinidad as a kid.

A childhood friend who wanted to help Khan restart his life gave him a plane ticket to Dubai and more than $20,000.

A week after arriving in the UAE, he was approached by the jewellery company Hof to design a collection.

"I knew I was home," Khan says.

"I first met Derek in my charity gala, where he introduced himself by saying, 'I have a history'," says Khan's friend Minal Bodani. "How can you forget anyone who starts a conversation with such aplomb?"

A week after our initial interview, Khan visits Dubai Mall's Louis Vuitton boutique, where he is deemed a VIP. Seconds after entering the store, he has his eyes on a duffel bag. Sales assistants rush toward him.

"This is the Middle East, darling. You go all out," Khan says as he exits the store, new bag in hand.

Mere hours later, a different Khan: at the Dubai Hospital, he volunteers his time for premature babies. "A snap back to reality" is what he calls it.

Khan lives in a DIFC apartment he describes as "glamorously furnished but totally inadequate".

"The decor! It's like somebody ate Fendi and puked all over.

"It's next to a rubbish chute, so I pay for roaches! But I've gone through the best, I don't need it. Everybody thinks I'm royal - don't tell them I was born in a hut."

Khan remembers that when he was four years old, he'd dress up his toothbrush in little skirts he made. "I've always been attracted to beauty," he says.

"Derek has his hand on the pulse," says David Caplan, the head of 51 Minds, the Hollywood studio behind Derek of Arabia. "He's an asset."

"Derek is larger than life, but very gentle," Bodani says.

"I'm at a point in my life where I don't have to please anyone but myself," says Khan.

"The last time I felt this way was two decades ago."

He says his favourite pastime is curiously easy - even he is surprised. "I like watching movies alone. You get carried away to another place," he says, then winks. "Everything is an escape."

Life and times????

- At age 16, Derek Khan dropped out of high school in Trinidad. "I was too different and extremely dyslexic. They didn't know what to do with me."

- A year later, he moved to New York and worked as a sales assistant at Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy and Gucci. His clients included Jackie Onassis, John F Kennedy Jr and his favourite, Greta Garbo. "She only dealt with me."

- He partied at Studio 54 with Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, not knowing they'd be big someday. "Keith would draw on my jeans. I threw them away. How stupid of me!"

- In the early 1990s, he accompanied his friends to audition for Madonna, who was hunting for backup dancers. "We ended up hanging out with her all night and she chose my friends for the 1990 Blond Ambition Tour and the Vogue music video."

- Khan went on to manage the dancers. He dressed them in Versace beaded trousers - so began his styling career and relations with top designers.

- In 1994, Island Records approached Khan to style Salt-N-Pepa for their relaunch. At their Grammy performance, he dressed them in borrowed Chanel.

- The Salt-N-Pepa makeover caught the attention of Motown Records, which hired Khan to work with new artists they signed, including a young singer named Mary J Blige.

- In the next decade, he was the industry's top stylist, working with Boyz II Men, P Diddy, Monica, Queen Latifah, Carlos Santana, Pink and Lauryn Hill. Perhaps his most memorable work is cultivating the latter's bohemian chic look.

- In May 2003, he appeared as a judge on the first season of America's Next Top Model, but had to let go of the gig, because, in his own words, "I had to go to jail". Ÿ Khan arrived in the UAE in November 2007 to "press the restart button".

- He was approached by US networks for a reality TV series about his Dubai life, which he describes as "over-the-top, with a heart". "It's a payback story to the city," he says. Production work has just begun on the series.

jgabrillo@thenational.ae