How to be bold and glamorous at the same time? Perhaps no one knows better than Farah Khan. Her collections tell a super-stylish story of intricate sequin work, body conscious silhouettes and striking motifs. Farah Khan dresses have been worn on the red carpet by the likes of Paris Hilton, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens. But Farah refuses to describe herself as a fashion designer.
“I’m a creative director, not a designer, and I never confuse the issue,” says the Singapore-born entrepreneur, who created her own fashion label in 2007. Born as Chan Keng Lin, Farah was only 17 when she started her career in the fashion industry. After creating a cheongsam-inspired gown, she won a “designer of the year” contest in Singapore in 1972. Farah admits she was “a clueless teenager and I had no idea why I entered the competition in the first place.” But the achievement boosted her confidence, and so she began making her own way in the business.
Fashion is in her DNA, her eye for style as well as her aptitude for tailoring having been inherited from her mother. “My mother had a couture salon and made clothes for society ladies. She had a great feeling for style and she wore Emilio Pucci when I was growing up in Singapore,” she said in a previous interview with Prestige. Pucci is one of the luxury brands that her company represents today.
The young Farah’s dream was to study fashion at Central Saint Martins College in Britain. She landed the offer of a place there, but her parents would not allow her to go and live abroad alone. Two years later, she married a Singaporean businessman and opened her first boutique, The Link, at the Mandarin. The shop was a wedding gift from her husband.
After eight years of “working with the best-dressed list of ladies” in Singapore, she decided to sell the business in 1982. Farah moved to Malaysia after marrying Kuala Lumpur-based businessman Akbar Khan. In the first year of her second marriage, she dedicated herself to being a housewife. But her passion for fashion ran wild and she was soon more than ready to get back in the game. “It’s a passion,” says the sophisticated woman of what makes her stay in the industry. “It’s a very challenging game day to day and if I did not truly enjoy it to the core I would not stay in it.”
Her first step was to open a multi-label fashion boutique at The Weld in Kuala Lumpur. Nine years later, Farah founded a company that made her an international fashion pioneer in Malaysia, The Melium Group. The company is a retail group with a portfolio of international luxury fashion and lifestyle brands. The first brand she brought to Malaysia was German luxury leather goods company Aigner. This was followed by Hugo Boss. Today, her company represents more than 20 brands, including Emilio Pucci, Givenchy, MCM, Stuart Weitzman and Tod’s.
Twenty-seven years later, Melium Group is stronger than ever. Last year, Farah expanded into Bali, where she has a beautiful home, opening the small, ultra-luxury Seminyak Village mall.
Farah has been in the fashion industry for more than four decades now and she doesn’t have any
plans to quit the game. “It’s been a journey of discovering exactly what I’m made of,” she says.
In an exclusive interview with Prestige, she tells why she choose Bali as her new “playground”, her plan to bring her fashion label closer to Millennials and what kind of legacy she would like to leave.
It’s been over four decades since you got involved in the business of fashion. How do you see it now that you’ve become a prominent name in the industry?
Fashion has evolved in so many ways. For one, it is now very much a business. Once, it was almost impossible to distinguish a designer from the brand, but today the brand is monolithic and designers move from one company to another in a game of musical chairs. I come to this from the perspective of having brought some noteworthy brands to Malaysia.
But as creative director of my own label, Farah Khan, I’m very pleased to have been able to exercise the creative vision I had as a young teenager, having won a design award. Of course, I’ve learned and experienced so much since then, and have a better grasp of how to manage the creative and business aspects of fashion. It’s a very fine balancing act.
Recently, you opened Seminyak Village. What motivated you to expand into Bali?
I am emotionally invested in Bali. I love the island, the people, the culture, the lifestyle. Not only do I have a villa there – I spend as much time as humanly possible at Shalimar – but I have such good friends. People make the place, don’t you think? Seminyak Village was such a natural progression, and it is truly a passion project, because it is our first operational mall and it is in my home away from home: Bali.
What kind of experience would you like to give to customers at Seminyak Village?
It’s a beautifully curated resort chic and lifestyle experience that is translated through island life. It’s a space for both residents of the island and visitors from near and far. In my opinion, you can’t help but fall in love with the place. Sunset is the best time to visit, when the entire mall is bathed in jewel-toned lights as a DJ spins music, creating a cool club vibe that will have you making a pit stop at Wahrung’s frozen margarita bar.
I’m always excited when new guests come in to explore the first ever stand-alone MCM boutique in Indonesia, no less, then slip into any one of the homegrown Bali labels housed in the Village, like Lily Jean or Naga by Milo. Seminyak Village is also close to my heart because of Marketplace, a space designed for wonderfully creative Bali-based designers who need a little spot to showcase their work, and Indonesian Emporium, where you can pick up beautifully curated traditional souvenirs and gifts like quality batik print sarongs and artistically-woven baskets. Then there’s the bright and breezy Spring Spa, set partially outdoors with gorgeous stone, wood and water design elements… an incredibly Zen aesthetic from the moment you walk in.
A Farah Khan dress is easily recognisable for its embellishments and body-conscious shape. What is the process behind “the dress” like?
Certainly, the ready-to-wear collection has that body-conscious and highly embellished aesthetic that the label has come to be known for and we have the process down to a fine art. First, there is the base cloth, which is really a stretch net, and then there is a second cloth -- what we call the suck-me-in because it tends to hold your body in. For the embellishments we work with South East Asian artisans who have honed their technique for years, think Maison Lesage for Chanel.
Your fall/winter 2016 collection explores Chinoiserie. What was the rationale behind the theme, and what are some of the unique traits of the collection?
Each season, I am inspired by the influences that film, art, architecture and music offer. When “China: Through the Looking Glass” took the Metropolitan Museum of Art by storm last year – surpassing even the hugely popular 2011 exhibition, AlexanderMcQueen’s “Savage Beauty”, I have to say it really made an impact on me.
After all, art is a reflection of reality, and yet it is also a lens through which we shape our personal views and aesthetic. The exhibition brought to bear an exploration of four main principles, namely: visual art, China itself, traditional-wear and embroidery. But of course, fashion is never set in a vacuum and so this was re-interpreted and updated into what I’d like to think of as Chinoiserie 2.0. You’ll see the elegance of the cheongsam, and then modernity is brought to play in bone china elements of blue and white and used in capes, high-necked dresses and bell-sleeved blouses. In a way, the collection is a representation of the seamless modernity and traditionalism of China, with homage to auspicious reds and gold in forms that speak to the woman of today.
Where would you like to take Farah Khan the label from here?
I think I’d like to build on the brand that we have established so well but also see a younger market evolving for the Farah Khan label. To that end we are exploring a smaller capsule collection that speaks to the Millennial.
What kind of legacy would you want to leave behind in the industry?
That is such a big word, but I’d like to think I made a difference to the way women felt about themselves. That when they put on a Farah Khan dress, they felt like they could conquer the world. Now that’s a legacy, I think.
The article is first published in Prestige September 2016 issue.