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Naeem Khan: “Studio 54 Was Not Just Drugs, Sex, Rock and Roll”

The designer talks about partying with Halston, dressing Michelle Obama, and the runway show that made his mother cry.

Known for creating elaborate gowns, detailed dresses and his signature embroidered embellishments; it is no surprise that the Indian-born, New York-raised designer Naeem Khan is a celebrity favorite. (He counts red-carpet regulars like Nicole Richie, Vanessa Hudgens and Padma Lakshmi amongst his many loyal fans.) In a conversation with Pamela Golbin, chief curator of fashion and textiles at Paris’ Musee des Arts Decoratifs, at the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) “Fashion Talks” event on Wednesday night, Khan addressed an auditorium full of fashion devotees – including Linda Fargo, the vice president of fashion and store presentation at Bergdorf Goodman, who introduced him – about his transformation from a humble assistant at Halston to a globally-recognized designer responsible for some of the first lady’s most memorable ensembles. (Yes, he was behind that Oscar’s gown!)

Here are five of our favorite moments:

1. Khan learned how to draw from Andy WarholAfter working to create an embroidery pattern based on Warhol’s famous poppy paintings, the legendary artist criticized Khan’s drawing skills and taught the 20-year-old designer how to draw properly. Newly inspired to improve his visual skillset, Khan began practicing under Warhol’s expert tutelage. “Within six months I was drawing better than Halston,” Khan said.

2. But, Halston was still a major influence. See: wild times, Studio 54 days. Halston’s hard-partying antics during ‘70s are legendary, and Khan got in on the action, as well. “It was a wild place,” he said of the nightlife hotspot, “Everyone was doing everything possible.” Despite the disco era’s reputation, Kahn said that Warhol saw his studio as a place for inspiration. “Studio 54 was not just drugs, sex, rock and roll,” said Khan. “Andy was going there to study what people were wearing, the energy – a lot of things came from there.”

3. Khan’s signature style could have been much, much different. If he hadn’t been talked out of one major concept.”Because I was so used to coming from a house of glamour, so used to embroidery, I was sick and tired of it,” Khan said. He wanted, instead, to take his collection in a new direction by using “plain and simple” designs that surely would have been much different than the elaborate dresses now seen on the runway. Luckily (for us), stylist Mary Alice Stephenson urged him to really think about who he was. “As a designer, you need to have an identity,” Khan said, “and my identity is [tied to] glamorous things and embellishments and couture.”

4. The first time he was recognized by a fan was in a Publix grocery store in Miami. “I had no idea how quickly everything would happen,” Khan said about his rapid rise to stardom after First Lady Michelle Obama wore one of his designs – a strapless gown with ornate silver appliques inspired by Warhol’s poppy designs and his grandfather’s old embellishment technique – to the State Dinner in 2009. The morning after the State Dinner, Khan was doing his preparing for Thanksgiving when a fellow shopper who’d seen him on TV the night before recognized him. “I couldn’t believe it!” the designer exclaimed.

5. When Khan showed his collection in March at Lakmé Fashion Week in India, it was the first time his parents had ever seen his collection presented on the runway. Of course, he was extremely anxious about showing his collection in his native country, adding that he felt more pressure than at New York Fashion Week. “It was very anxiety-ridden for me,” he said. “My mom was crying when I came out. I’m over 50, but they still treat me like I’m 16 – which is sweet! But after the fashion show, they have been treating me a little more grown up.”