Malaysia’s first lady of fashion, Farah Khan, on 30 years in the industry, and the Muslim market

  • Worn by celebrities such as Gigi Hadid and Selena Gomez, her outfits are seen around the world
  • Farah Khan started her fashion company 30 years ago in Kuala Lumpur
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2018, 8:47am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2018, 8:02pm

In the centre of downtown Kuala Lumpur stands Pavilion, a gleaming shopping centre. Since 1989, the Melium Group, which operates several stores inside the mall, has been shaping Malaysia’s luxury industry.

The retail empire now distributes over 100 luxury brands, including Givenchy, Max Mara and Lanvin. In Pavilion, the multibrand store M Pavilion also includes cult and emerging designers.

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The group was founded by Farah Khan, known by the title Dato’ Seri Dr Farah Khan in Malaysia. Born and raised in Singapore, she moved to Malaysia as a young woman and now calls it home. The 63-year-old fashion magnate has the world at her fingertips.

Throughout the year, Khan’s calendar is filled with trips: as a buyer, on behalf of the Melium Group, and to fashion shows for her own label Farah Khan. Then there are the personal invitations for parties and social events – her personal network that includes celebrities and CEOs in all corners of the world.

These days, she works on strategic planning for the Melium Group rather than day-to-day operations – “the macro side of things”, as she puts it. “But of course I follow the micro side of things, because we are in the luxury business and a lot of the micro is what makes the macro.”

As the company’s president, Khan has steered the Melium Group through three decades of changes in retailing. When she speaks, she has the calm, measured tone of a diplomat.

“[The Melium Group] is Malaysia based, and we wouldn’t expand – not at this point,” she says, although opportunities have arisen in other countries in Southeast Asia.

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“We are conservative about what we know and understand. Every single region of Southeast Asia is different. You’re not doing business in the same way as you would in your own city. One hour’s flight away, things are very different, and brands are beginning to understand that.”

Next year, the Melium Group celebrates its 30th anniversary. To date, it has survived the Asian financial crisis, the fallout from the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak and the global recession of the noughties. “Each time it’s been very tough going,” says Khan. “And we’re still in a difficult period.”

“In Southeast Asia, there have been changes like [a change of government] in every single country,” says Khan. “It does take time. People need to be patient, but we hope for the very best. Malaysia deserves it.”

It’s a discreetly optimistic response, as you’d expect from someone whose own social circle includes the wealthy and powerful. Then again, she knows the importance of adaptation. Malaysia is a country where diverse cultures absorb and evolve from one another. “That’s one of the strengths, and why I love living here”

If the Melium Group is managed with pragmatism, the Farah Khan designer label allows more space for play.

“When Farah Khan started, it was started really as my joy,” says Khan. “It was my hobby, [I loved] the creative aspect of being able to create and brand a product from start to end, without interruption.”

Created in 2007, the brand has been worn by celebrities including Selena Gomez and Gigi Hadid. At the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians earlier this year, Henry Golding’s wife, Liv Lo, wore a sparkling blue and pink Farah Khan dress.

The Farah Khan label creates couture, cruise and ready-to-wear collections. The couture line is known for intricate beadwork – each piece takes three to four months to complete. The ready-to-wear line has a youthful appeal, with a street wear edge such as beaded bomber jackets in bold colours.

In June, Khan exhibited her latest couture collection at the Halcyon Gallery in London. Entitled the Art of Style, the collection is inspired by the art of Matisse, Chagall and Klimt among others. The pieces are cut in classic silhouettes, glowing with lavish detail and sparkling beads.

The exhibition also showcased a capsule collection of bomber jackets based on Andy Warhol’s advertising prints. Notably, some of the original artworks were displayed alongside the clothes – a curatorial statement that caught the attention of international publications such as Vogue.

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Contemplating the fashion scene in Asia, Khan is frank: “In this part of the world, we’re still in [our] infancy in terms of what we offer our talent. So they go abroad to study, to find opportunities, internships, experiences and manufacturing,” she says. “Platforms are not as easy to create as people think.”

She notes, however, that the Muslim fashion industry presents an opportunity for designers from Malaysia and around the region. The Farah Khan label has previously collaborated with the Islamic Fashion Festival, creating one-off pieces for Muslim women. According to Thomson Reuters, the global Muslim fashion market will be worth an estimated US$368 billion within the next three years.

“It’s not one look. It’s covered but different,” says Khan. Understanding the differences of style between Indonesia and the Middle East, she says, will give local designers an advantage over those trained in the West.

When Khan reflects on her career as both an entrepreneur and a creator, it’s the destinations that stand out. Her work has taken her to places such as Windsor Castle and the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. “Being in some of the most interesting places in the world is, to me, extraordinary,” she says.