Naeem Khan and the Diplomacy of Fashion

Cathy Leff

Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Hsien Loong, Ho Ching
President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching, wave from the Truman Balcony of the White House in Washington, during a state arrival ceremony, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

After First Lady Michelle Obama wore one of his creations for her first state dinner with India’s Prime Minister in 2009, Mumbai-born, New York-based fashion designer Naeem Khan’s career went stratospheric. Since then, the House of Khan has become a global powerhouse with a clientele comprised of the world’s most influential ladies in politics (FLOTUS and Kate Middleton), music (Beyoncé), food (Padma Lakshmi), tech (Marissa Mayer) and film (Penelope Cruz, Eva Longoria and Mandy Moore, whose navy caped dress with a plunging neckline stunned on the Golden Globes red carpet this January). Today, on the occasion of the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, Khan reflects on his work for and with Michelle Obama.

How did you come to design for First Lady Michelle Obama? I received an unexpected phone call from her stylist asking me to design a dress for the first State dinner. They gave me total freedom. There is a level of trust that came from spending time with her. She knew from the first dress I got it right. We wanted to make it easy for her; I knew she didn’t have the time for 10 fittings.

How did the relationship develop from there? For her Cuba trip, I designed a dress for a dinner in a garden, something less formal with lots of flowers on it. And when she went to China, I designed something in red out of respect for the Chinese people. I embroidered chrysanthemums throughout the fabric. It made a political statement. I’m conscious of location, occasion and what it’s going to say. When the Prime Minister of India came for the first state dinner, I designed a dress with multiple messages— the cut was very American, the fabric was handmade using an old Indian textile technique. The pattern was inspired by Andy Warhol. The dress was a mix of American and Indian cultures symbolizing the two countries that were meeting.

Why Warhol? Earlier in my career, I worked for Halston. Andy was a big part of the entourage. We created certain dresses with poppies, and Andy and I would sit down together and draw a lot of poppies. I would then have them embroidered into the textiles.

What do you think Michelle Obama tried to convey through fashion? She wanted to demonstrate she was a normal person, but she understood her role. Her dresses showed her respect for the person she was greeting or honoring. She dressed for them, and she did that so wisely.

Britain’s Prince William, along with his wife, Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, pose in front of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, Saturday, April 16, 2016. Agra is the last stop on the royal couple’s weeklong visit to India and neighboring Bhutan. (Money Sharma/ Pool photo via AP).


For what other leading women on the global political stage have you designed dresses? Queen Noor of Jordan. She’s a good friend. I met her through the Aga Khan. I’ve also designed for royalty, from the sheiks in the Middle East to Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge. They all like things that are made exclusively for them. Middleton wore one of my dresses during her visit to India. It was for that iconic photograph where she was sitting where Princess Diana sat in front of the Taj Mahal.

Do you find there’s a common thread shared between the women you dress? They want to be elegant, classically chic and want something timeless. They don’t want to be trendy. The work has to be high quality. What I designed for the First Lady I wouldn’t make for anyone else. Each piece is fashionably correct for the personality and occasion. I consider how much sleeve, how open the neck, how does it look when she’s entering the room. All these things matter. If she’s going to be dancing, I think about how much train.

Naeem Khan SS17 Look at New York Fashion Week. Courtesy of designer.

What fashion statement caught your attention during the election cycle?Donald Trump’s baseball cap! It helped get him so many votes. He took that baseball cap, made it his own fashion statement, and connected to so many people. I think he sold something like eight million of those hats. For me, men’s suits all look similar. But the cap connected to his base, and he hit a home run with that. It’s incredible that with so little money, it had such an impact. There’s something to be studied here.

How has the work for Michelle Obama personally affected you? It humbled me. Michelle Obama has done so much for society and for education. I’ve learned so much from her. We are in conversations with the school board about building a fashion school on the site of my future studio. In Miami, this will create interaction between students and the industry, allowing me to pass my art on to the next generation. This is the first time a public school and fashion house will be next to each other. We will create 100 to 150 new jobs in Miami. Being around Michelle and her interest in inner-city children influenced my desire to inspire children.

Is there anyone for whom you wouldn’t design? I wouldn’t design for a dictator. Otherwise, I put my own political beliefs aside when it comes to my work.