NEW YORK — Whether dishing about his early days at Halston or more recent ones dressing Michelle Obama, Naeem Khan has a tendency to speak in the present tense.
Although Khan’s signature business is now in its 10th year, he said his achievements are a compilation of all his experiences over the years. During a Q&A Wednesday night at the Alliance Française with Pamela Golbin, Khan spared no details.
The Indian-born designer recalled seeing Michelle Obama wearing one of his gowns to the administration’s first state dinner with the prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, in 2009. “I was in Miami in the shower, which was this open glass cube thing that I can see the TV from. When I saw the First Lady, I literally grabbed a towel and stepped out soaking wet staring at the TV,” Khan laughed. “Later I was watching CNN [to see his interview] and I see ‘Breaking News’ flash across the screen. It’s not as though the world is ending. She’s just wearing a dress.”
Khan was still chuckling Thanksgiving morning when he ran out to the local supermarket for his wife to buy a larger turkey pan. “This woman behind me asked me to reach up and get one for her. When I turned to hand it to her, she said, ‘You’re Naeem Khan.’ Not a pretty moment. Here I am in a T-shirt, shorts and my little sandals with an aluminum pan in my hands at the local Publix, and I am the new designer for the First Lady of the United States.”
He was surprised again by her surprise appearance at the Oscars in another one of his gowns. Khan declined to elaborate on the politics of dressing FLOTUS, but he did say, “The First Lady likes her shoulders; she loves her shoulders. When you’re designing, you have to give her what she likes.”
Asked about the sex, drugs and alcohol at Studio 54, he said, “There was a lot of that. It was a crazy place, especially going with Halston. Everybody was doing everything.”
The scene at Halston’s Olympic Tower headquarters weren’t exactly sedate. “High tea was really high tea — we got stoned,” Khan said. (He also got an indelible drawing lesson from Andy Warhol.) “Within six months, I could draw better than Halston,” Khan said.
With distribution in more than 100 doors worldwide, Khan now has his two sons, Zaheen and Shariq, working for the company. His jewelry-designer wife, Ranjana, also runs her own business from the West 36th Street offices. In regards to his Timeless label for HSN, the designer said he can sell 2,000 dresses on-air in two or three minutes.
Interestingly, Khan does not foresee the Mumbai market growing as rapidly for American designers, since it remains dominated by Indian ones. Conversely, Indian designers are not compelled to take the risk and expense of setting up shop in the U.S. (For more on Khan, see the story on page 12 on Lakme Fashion Week.) “Designers are set in India. For them to come to America to deal with store markups and have a fashion show to make themselves relevant is super difficult,” Khan said.
As for what it takes to be successful in the U.S., Khan said, “Well, you need a lot of money. Everyone needs talent, but a lot of money too.”