As First Lady Michelle Obama was stepping into the spotlight at a White House state dinner wearing a glittering gold gown by Naeem Khan (pictured here), the designer was stepping out of his shower — wearing absolutely nothing. “My jaw dropped and I was speechless standing there,” he recalls as he watched Mrs. Obama on television. “My wife was screaming.” In that glorious moment, Khan realized his life was about to change. “The most powerful lady in the world was wearing my dress.”
During a recent phone interview from his Miami home, Khan talked about the night that landed his design on magazine covers and newspapers around the world, and on TV shows and the Internet. “The world lit up,” he says. “The phone became crazy. My message box couldn’t handle anything. My emails — I was the third most Googled person in this country. It was breaking news on CNN.”
The “Michelle Obama Effect,” which has launched such young designers as Jason Wu, has sewn up Khan’s reputation as an international designer. “It really took my business and my brand to a whole other level,” Khan says. “She is so powerful in fashion that it makes a huge difference when she wears something from you. It was unbelievable.”
Khan seemed the perfect choice for the occasion, honoring India’s prime minister. Khan was born in India and raised in America. He wanted his design to reflect both cultures, as well as the modern influence of his mentor Halston. Khan came up with a strapless design he calls “very clean, simple, classic.” The silver-plated appliqués adorning the gown were inspired by Andy Warhol’s images of poppies and drew upon embroidery-making techniques used in India for thousands of years.
“My clothes are all about celebration,” says Khan to explain why his glamorous gowns sell well even during economic hard times. “Humans have celebrated even in times of recession; celebration is still part of existence. Celebration never dies.”
Speaking of celebration, Khan is in town on August 24 for Celebrating Couture, the Globe Guilders’ annual event presented by Neiman Marcus. “It’s a very, very glamorous show, full of razzmatazz,” says Khan, mixing his fall “love, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll” collection with resort wear. “It’s not like any other show,” he says, “to see it [his designs] on the runway is almost like theater or drama because it’s actually art. And to me the cause is so fantastic, one art to another art. I’m proud that I’m doing it for another form of art.”
So what is the key to great style? “Wearing things that are classic,” says Khan. “It’s not about the trend. It’s what makes you feel comfortable, what fits you correctly, and what the occasion is. You have to keep it simple.” ANDREA NAVERSEN