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The razzle-dazzle of Naeem Khan
Despite his penchant for highly technical and sumptuous designs, designer Naeem Khan likes to be cozy.
Ensconced in a 10,000-square-foot location, Khan has fashioned his work studio into a place for entertaining. He explained that he liked bringing warmth to working at the Naeem Khan brand. In addition to the ground floor of the atelier, there is rooftop access and a full gourmet kitchen, where he and employees can gather for communal meals. In fact, he’s so comfortable in his environment that he was spotted laying on the floor between model casting calls on Thursday afternoon, roughly a week before his 20th anniversary showcase on Tuesday.
“I just like the idea of coming to an office that looks like a house, rather than a corporate environment,” he said.
Khan said that after his atelier reopened following Covid-19, his team tightened its operations in early 2021 to reduce their three-month production lead time to two months. There were several motivations for this, partially the drive to infuse cash into the business by getting inventory to retail partners sooner after a lost year of business. But also, factories were experiencing production constraints, so asking for less, appeared to help ease bottlenecks. And overall, fewer garments are being produced and sold, which has prevented excess inventory from flooding the market and requiring retail partners like Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman to put items on sale.
“In order to do this, the No. 1 thing that changed was attitude,” said Khan. “No. 2 was ensuring that we have all the tools to implement [new processes], whether that means [hiring] more people, or implementing Gerber systems to make electronic patterns and hiring the right people to [manage] it.”
The other big change to the atelier was the addition of a bespoke offering in 2021, allowing people to visit the New York atelier for a custom dress. Such dresses range from $10,000-$30,000, and the brand sells upward of three a day, Khan said. He declined to share the brand’s overall revenue and year-over-year growth.
“The idea is keeping the business small but profitable, and to be able to go home and sleep knowing that there aren’t 10,000 [excess] dresses that I don’t know what to do with,” he said.
Khan could be described as a designer’s designer, much like Alaïa or Lagerfeld. Trained under Halston at 18-years-old, he can just as easily discuss indigenous Guatemalan methods for dying natural fabrics as he can about how the gauge of a thread impacts the graceful movements of sequins on chiffon. Khan said he considers his designs to be artwork and hopes his legacy includes opening a design school for students in Florida where he can teach. Tuesday’s runway showcase of his designs was an homage to his 20 years as a standalone brand and nearly 50-year career, featuring antique gold metals, baroque prints and plenty of ostrich feathers.
But Khan and his label are unpretentious. Someone devoted to the technical aspects of design is clearly how he’d like to be known.
Khan’s runway show was, in many ways, meant to elevate the dresses and the women who wear them. One could hear the bristling of geometric paillettes against the runway floor while dashes of emerald green and fringe shimmied down the catwalk.
Notably, following the Balenciaga controversy in Nov. 2022, Demna Gvasalia said to Vogue that he’d like to pare down the brand’s runway shows to better emphasize the clothes and speak less to the spectacle of fashion. But the memo was not entirely received at New York Fashion Week, where Rodarte hosted its show at the Williamsburg Savings Bank. CNN called it “[a] banquet populated by gothic fairies.” On Tuesday, Bach Mai held its presentation at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, where models reminiscent of sirens floated throughout a fog-filled room while a pianist played dark, mystical music. Meanwhile, Carolina Herrera hosted its show at the Plaza Hotel on Monday, as did LoveShackFancy on Tuesday.
“Fashion shows are both [art and commercial]. You’re showing your product, but you’re also creating an aura or vision for the consumer. And to get your name [to break] through social media is so important,” said Khan. “To me, this collection is all the different women I’ve dressed in my life. She’s sexy or modest, she’s Arab or Japanese. I want all those women [in] this collection.”
Ultimately, Khan is here to support the special moments in people’s lives, whether a wedding or bar mitzvah. He tells a story with deep sentimentality about a woman he met at a fashion show who told him that her mother loved one of his gowns so much that, for her 83rd birthday, that she requested to be buried in it. He’s also built an archive of his designs filled with past collections, and he’s catalogued every pattern and technique. The intention is that his fashion house will be able to continue long past him and preserve the techniques he learned through hands-on experience. His own fashion journey began working in the textile business with his father, who had worked with his own father in the field. Khan’s sons, Zaheen and Shariq, have been trained on the business, as well.
“[Learning] is what makes me do what I do, because I’m so intrigued by everything,” he said. “Many people don’t even realize how much technology has gone into making [clothes] and where those techniques came from.”
Indie beauty goes backstage
Typically, big brand names rule the backstage beauty scene. That includes TreSemmé, MAC Cosmetics and Pat McGrath, to name a few. But this year saw a slew of indie brands across fragrance, hair and skin make their own foray into backstage. On February 13 at the Bibhu Mohapatra show, 2-year-old fragrance brand LilaNur displayed a scent station available to models, press, influencers, stylists and VIP attendees. Paul Austin, co-creator of LilaNur Parfums, explained that brand awareness is key for an emerging brand like his. LilaNur is currently distributed only through Bergdorf Goodman in New York and Harrods in the U.K., underscoring the need for more people to experience the brand. Front-row guests left with a sample of the Davana Cèdre scent, which was diffused throughout the runway, creating a “truly multi-sensory experience,” said Austin.
“At the Bibhu show, we can express ourselves in a larger format and engage with an audience in a meaningful, immersive and intimate way,” said Austin. “This is especially so when you add the layer of scenting the runway show.”
Engaging with tastemakers was the key for luxury skin-care brand Ourself, as well, according to Vimla Black-Gupta, co-founder and CEO of Ourself. Ourself was present for skin preparation at the Altuzarra show on Tuesday after participating backstage at Brandon Maxwell in Sept. 2022.
“It’s not only that it’s a desirable press opportunity and natural alignment with another brand we admire, but it’s also a chance to showcase Ourself to those that have a very specific sphere of influence within the beauty and fashion world,” said Black-Gupta. “[At Brandon Maxwell] the entire look ended up being no makeup whatsoever, so of course, that was amazing exposure to say that our skin care truly delivered a runway-worthy finished product.”
Starting shows on time has always been a sticking point for fashion week. Days before the official start of NYFW, Madonna’s daughter Lourdes Leon made headlines when she was denied entry to a Marc Jacobs show for being too late to the Park Avenue Armory event. Invitations to Naeem Khan and Colin Locascio insisted people arrive by 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., respectively, as each show would start precisely at those times. Yet, both shows began closer to the half-hour mark, the typical start time. Perhaps if brands insist on punctuality, they should start on time.