When Michelle Obama made a surprise appearance at the Oscars, you could have knocked Naeem Khan over with a feather. As she presented Argo with the Best Picture award, the first lady wore a sleeveless beaded tulle gown that Khan custom made for her — though he had no idea if she would wear it.
"A lot of designers design for her, so you don't know if it's going to happen," Khan recalled at Tootsies while offering a sneak preview of his gowns in anticipation of next fall's Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Grand Gala Ball. "My PR people keep it away from me because they don't want me to be disappointed if it doesn't happen. I had no idea. Then the screen came down and, oh my god, it was amazing."
It was also good for business, too, when worldwide attention continued after the Iranian government Photoshopped the gown to cover her arms.
"It's very interesting to see how the press blows up when a first lady wears these dresses. She truly is a great spokesperson for the fashion industry. She's helped us so much. As an American company, to get our business globally recognized and to have her there wearing and promoting it is really, really amazing."
Khan is getting used to such attention. When good friends Matt Damon and wife Luciana renewed their wedding vows on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia earlier this month, she wore a chiffon gown with V-neck and metallic beaded waist from Khan's fall 2013 collection. The couple's daughters wore custom dresses that Khan designed. Khan and his wife, Ranjana, attended the festivities.
Such attention has propelled Khan to the A-list of celebrities clamoring to wear his designs. Now he is methodically working to expand his presence into day wear and accessories.
And at the Oscars, Stacy Keibler (George Clooney's main squeeze) drew raves in a silver-studded sheer racer back gown, also from Khan's 2013 fall collection. "She has the most amazing body and the dress was so perfect for the occasion and for her body," Khan said.
Such attention has propelled him to the A-list of celebrities clamoring to wear his designs. While clearly enjoying the moment, now Khan is methodically working to expand his presence into day wear, shoes, handbags and a secondary line of clothing.
"I want to slowly educate the woman who is buying my evening to come to me for day wear. So I am infusing 10-12 pieces into my collection — the printed stuff for spring is blowing out of the stores. These were all experiments to see how things will sell. I own 100 percent of my business, so it's not like I have some big company's money. I have to be careful of how I take my steps."
But his loyal customers shouldn't be concerned that he will veer too far way from the embellished pieces that have drawn so much attention.
"That's my signature. I was told at a very early age when I was starting out my design collections that you need a signature. I was trying to run from it because I had done it all my life and I thought I need something new. But you know what? I had to find newness in this. So I keep finding newness in this signature and that has become part of my vocabulary, part of my brand."
The theme for next fall's MFAH Grand Gala Ball is India, and Khan's appearance seems the perfect opportunity to generate some buzz since his collection incorporates hand-beaded fabrics from his family-owned factory in Mumbai and has a South Asia vibe. Windi Grimes, who is co-chairing the gala with husband David, welcomed such Houston fashion trendsetters as Diane Lokey Farb, Jeanie Kilroy, Aliyya Stude and Elizabeth Petersen to Tootsies, where a percentage of sales benefited the museum.
"Think about it: India is so colorful, so interesting. It has such a deep history," Khan explained. "You've got the maharjahs, you've got the cultures of the world that met and came to India during the conquests of different times. People are fascinated with the culture. And also it's great business opportunity. India is on the rise, like China."
So will his collection always have stay close to his Indian roots?
"I don't even consciously say that I want to infuse India into my collection but I think what flows through my veins is India," Khan said. "And it just comes on its own."