x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

'Halston thought people rode elephants to work'

With customers such as Michelle Obama, Penelope Cruz and Queen Noor, the Indian designer Naeem Khan talks about his life in fashion.

Naeem Khan believes that making clothes is about vision and instinct.
Naeem Khan believes that making clothes is about vision and instinct.

With customers such as Michelle Obama (who wore one of his creations to the first state dinner given by her husband's administration), Penélope Cruz and Queen Noor, the Indian designer Naeem Khan talks about his life in fashion. My earliest fashion memory is of lying under yards and yards of fabric stretched out across our house in Mumbai, then called Bombay, watching the tailors make clothes for my mother and my aunt as hundreds of pairs of hands rose and fell, stitching beautiful embroidery.

My grandfather started his business in the 1930s, making embroidery and fabric. My father joined him later, which makes me the third generation in my family to be involved with fashion. Growing up in Mumbai was most amazing. It was like being ensconced in a womb of love. I have a large family and am the eldest of five siblings. We're all very close and I try to visit them as much as I can. I've lived in New York since I was 20 and my family lives in India, but in spite of the distances, we're still very close. When my designs require embroidery, it is my brother who takes care of it back home.

I feel like I was born with a love for clothes. I remember liking beautiful, colourful things since I was very young. My parents recognised this and helped me with my exposure to fashion tremendously. Still, I believe that what I do isn't about making clothes, it's about making art. Technical detail is important of course, but making clothes is about vision, about thinking outside the box and following your instincts. There are lots of people who go to fashion school only to find out that it isn't their calling. I believe that you either have it or you don't.

When I decided that I wanted to study fashion, my father accompanied me on a trip to the United States to look at colleges. While there, he had a meeting with the designer Halston about exporting embroidery and fabric and he asked me to come along. Halston and I connected immediately. He was charmed by India and thought it was a land of snake charmers where people rode elephants to work. He told me that I would make the perfect liaison between my father's company in India and his in New York and asked me to work with him. When I expressed concern about my studies, he handed me a copy of Life magazine. He was on the cover.

He promised me that I would want to work for him after I read the accompanying article, and that he would teach me more than I would learn at school. I joined him shortly after that, and so began my career in fashion. There are two fashion buys that are very important to me. The first was given to me by my parents when I was about seven or eight. It was Eid, always celebrated with great joy at our household. My parents bought me a shirt; I still remember it today. I remember being fascinated by the fabric, the texture, the colours. I wanted to show it off to my entire family.

The next significant purchase came years later, when I was working for Halston. When I got my first pay cheque, I visited the Yves Saint Laurent boutique and asked for a tuxedo to be custom-made for me. Halston and I would visit Studio 54 often and we were friends with people like Andy Warhol and Liza Minnelli and a host of the world's most glamorous people at the time. Looking sharp was very important, and that was not lost on me. I think about that tux fondly. It has seen some very good times.

There are aspects of the industry that can make you question it. Being an artist is one thing but making money is another. I knew what it was to make my first million by the age of 25, but I also knew how it felt to lose it. I was young and I didn't know how to twist and turn with the ups and downs of the industry. When I showed my first collection at Bryant Park in 2003, it was received incredibly well. My business tripled in that year alone and stores from all over Europe and America wanted to stock my clothes.

I've been fortunate with the relationships that I've built with the press, with department stores, with general management. They've helped me build my business. Last year when the recession hit and everyone was affected, my business didn't see a downturn. It was also the year I designed the dress Michelle Obama wore to her first White House state dinner, given by the Obamas for the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and his wife, Gursharan Kaur, in November.

That was the greatest moment of my career. Things have changed since then and the pressure has increased although I'm not sure whether it comes from within or without. Everybody's watching, and I want to prove that I can go further, that I can do better. I believe that to be a good designer you need to have a working knowledge of all aspects of life. I love to entertain, to cook, to drive fast cars, to decorate and to make beautiful clothes. There's not much difference between creating a fine dress and a fine meal. You have all the ingredients at your disposal, but the resulting product is completely personal, completely unique, and all yours. That's what I love about fashion.

I may not be Giorgio Armani yet, but I'm now showing my collections in the same league of designers and soon I'll be there. Naeem Khan's collection is available at Saks Fifth Avenue, BurJuman, Dubai.