Derek Khan's life is the stuff of best selling fiction. Born to a humble Trinidadian family, he immigrated to Canada as a child, then moved to America, where a chance encounter led to him styling Madonna's dancers. From there, Khan's inimitable style and irresistible charisma resulted in Mary J. Blige, Pink, P. Diddy, Lauren Hill, Salt-n-Pepa and other major acts demanding his services. Bored by the typically sporty look of most of his clients, he was the first to marry haute couture to street style, and Ghetto Fabulous (or "Bling") was born.
But Bling was more than just a look - it was a way of life, and an expensive one at that. Khan's income as a superstar stylist and judge on America's Next Top Model couldn't fund the dinners at chic restaurants, first class travel and designer clothing to which he had become accustomed, and so, seized by panic, he did something very stupid: he pawned million-dollar jewels lent to him for clients by Harry Winston and other major jewellers. Khan admits he, "made a stupid mistake."
Of course, he got caught. Of course, he served time. And of course, the flamboyant, tanned, white-toothed, Vogue reading ex-stylist became "everyone's bitch" (his own words). He lost his famous friends and his green card and was deported to Trinidad.
This would be enough to break most people, but not the perpetually optimistic Mr. Khan. When a friend called him with an offer to design, of all things, a jewellery line in Dubai, he jumped at the chance and has never looked back.
Now residing in the UAE, a country that is "too busy focusing on its future to dwell on the past," he is once again the toast of the town. I met with Mr. Khan to reflect on his career as a stylist, and to discuss what's next for the King of Bling.
First, I want to talk about hip hop styling. Why did you initially think, back in the day, that hip hop artists needed a makeover?
Hip hop stars were just beginning to cross over to the mass market, and to make this transition, their images needed a little polishing. My first real paying client as a stylist was Salt-n-Pepa and the mandate from the ladies and the record company was to upscale their look. These ladies already had a sense of style, but my task was to introduce them to couture, and select fashion for them at the highest level.
Did the big fashion houses have a negative reaction to putting hip hop artists in haute couture?
No, not at all! Most were thrilled, especially Chanel, Dolce and Gabbana, Versace and Harry Winston. They usually hire top PR personnel, who in turn are attuned to the latest trends in entertainment. Hip Hop was on its way to the top and [everyone involved in fashion and styling] knew it!
But that was then...whose style do you think is the most "current" today?
Tilda Swinton! She's so ahead of the game. Of course, the over-the-top styles of Lady Gaga and the rapper Nikki Minaj demonstrate that these are bold women with a unique and fearless sense of style.
Preview of Derek Khan Fine Jewelry
What makes for a great stylist?
Considering personality first! Getting to know my client is the key: their likes and dislikes. [I need to] show their best assets, cover up their not so best assets - certain undergarments can hide body imperfections. [A good stylist] makes sure that in public, the client feels comfortable and confident, no matter what their profession may be.
Do you see yourself styling more celebrities in the future?
While I love fashion and all the beauty, creativity and drama that comes along with it, my main focus in the coming year will be my reality television show, "Derek Of Arabia" to be shot in the Middle East: the first of it's kind and primarily for the American market. There are so many misconceptions about this region. I aim to show why I love this different yet wonderful place...the people, the sights, the customs, the over-the-top lifestyles will all be explored. My jewellery line and some other surprises will be debuted on the show.
I am also busy now with assisting the representative of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for this region, helping identify the right individuals from my network who can make a positive impact on the Foundation. Hopefully in some small way, my work can count.
One final question: is Bling dead?
No! Just look around...kids today still wear huge watches, glitter t-shirts, jewelled sneakers...and as long as there are customers willing to spend money on fine jewels, there will always be Bling! In this region (Dubai), showing off fabulous jewellery is commonplace. It may be out of season for a short while, but it always comes back with a vengeance.
Out of season for a bit, but back with a vengeance. That's Khan.
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