Azeeza Khan had a common problem: she would daydream of taking her passion and making it her career while in reality she was working 9 to 5, sitting behind a desk and counting down the hours, minutes and seconds until she could reunite with friends and family over dinner or happy hour cocktails. However, Khan had an uncommon solution to her common problem. She said “good bye” to her corporate marketing gig at BP Oil, and all the money and security that came with it, and started designing, sewing and creating her own clothing; and people started talking. She grew a following, and eventually had enough clients that she opened a retail store, Azeeza, now located on the famed Michigan Avenue in Chicago. She’s built the business considerably in the last four years, with a presence in New York and Paris, the spring/summer 2016 line well underway, and endless plans for the future.
Khan sits down with Melo to discuss her business, her success and some tips for the rest of us who dream of following in her footsteps and turning our passions into our livelihoods.
First tell us a little about yourself and how you got into fashion design.
Well, one thing that surprises a lot of people is that I don’t have any formal design training. I think with most things in life, it’s all about experience and developing yourself and your skills. Having an innate instinct and talent is necessary, too, of course. I spent a good part of my early career in entry-level and mid-entry level positions working in corporate America and was very successful, but it wasn’t satisfying. I wanted to be an entrepreneur and in control of my life and to have a creative platform. So, I made it happen. Working 9 to 5 was the biggest soul killer for me. I could never go back. And had I not done this, it would have been just another cliché, “What if?”
In what ways has having your brand changed your life?
I feel like it’s more that I’ve developed and refined rather than changed. And I continue to try to better myself every day. Having a business is a super, major struggle in so many facets—in sacrifices of personal time, personal life. Every cent that I make I put back in. I can make seven figures and still feel, like, penniless. So it’s not like I have this super successful business and this amazing revenue, so I’m, like, balling. I’m not. You know? And there’s this perception that I’m in this glamorous situation, and it’s more than that.
Tell us about expanding into New York and Paris. Why those locations?
Paris and New York are the top places for fashion, and I always start at the top. Most people have that bottom-up mentality. For me it’s always top down. And I think that that’s really helped keep the brand elevated from day one.
You have your dream job, but sometimes things don’t turn out how you thought. What are some of your favorite and least favorite parts of the job?
Least favorite parts of my job is definitely the numbers. Well, I take that back. It’s great to see the numbers in total. Like, it’s great to see the success of the business from a numbers standpoint. I actually quantify the success of the business not by the press, not by the publicity, but by the number, and we’re extremely successful from just the one store in Chicago. But I’m a creative person, so math is just torturous for me. My favorite part is creating and expressing my vision. My mission is to instill confidence in women, and I think my clothes really do that, based on the cut and the uniqueness, the statement, the boldness. They’ll definitely make you stand out in a really good way. You’ll own it.
How do you find inspiration? Has this changed since you started?
I just try to keep in mind the women who wear my clothes, and it’s a combination of that and what I like to wear. Going back to the strength and confidence, for example, one of the moods that’s coming up for the spring/summer ’16 collection is women heroes and iconic women, like Amelia Earhart, so with that I research from the early/mid-1900s as to what they wore, what the military/aviation/navy uniforms were for girls and so forth. I do a lot of research and general reading and exploration that’s not related to fashion. I think it’s really important to do that. Even if it’s, like, going to a museum and walking around for four hours and just, like, seeing something that really makes an impression.
What pieces in your wardrobe can you not live without?
Every day I wear my Balenciaga motorcycle jacket. Like, even in the summer because this air conditioning situation—I can’t deal. I’m always cold. Also the choker from my current collection. It’s got great embellishments, so usually I either do the gray like I have on today, like super chill, or I do the black on black. And then lastly, my Dior So Real sunglasses, which seem to be on their way to being super played out in the fashion world, but it’s OK. They’re beautiful. I always lose my sunglasses, and I’ll probably lose them today now that I’ve said this. I literally have bought the most dopest sunglasses, and I lose them all. There’s a lot of lucky people out there that have found them! Hopefully they’re in good fashion homes.
What are your personal rules of fashion? Are there rules everyone woman should follow?
I think fabrication is super important. If it means spending a little bit more for a better silk—even if it’s a cotton, that’s fine, but just make sure that it’s quality fabrication. I also think in this day and age, with so many bloggers and so many influencers, it’s really important not to replicate anyone else’s style. Do what makes you feel confident.
Who are some of your more well-known clients?
We’ve dressed Sarah Jessica Parker. That was an iconic moment for me. The best I would say. It was, like, bone chilling. We’ve also worked with Sophia Bush. And then someone who is kind of emerging who I collaborated with recently is [Jillian Hervey of] Lion Babe. Their new album is going to drop early next year, and I think the skies the limit.
How do you give back?
I’m the resident designer for Chicago Children’s Choir. They’re amazing. They work with the kids to encourage diversity and to have the kids [become ambassadors for peace]. I design and create all of their clothing. In the store, we also have a lot of events that have a give-back component, so a charity will host an event, and then they receive a certain percentage of the sales. It’s really nice to be able to take some of the earnings of the store and give it back.
A lot of people try to start their own businesses, some even in fashion design, and they fail—sometimes quickly. What has made you a success?
You need to be reactive to everything that happens. If something’s not working, and you fail at something in the business, you need to understand why it happened and what you can do to fix it so history doesn’t repeat itself. There’s always trials and tribulations. There are just as many highs as there are lows. And every day I develop and I learn something, and I adjust myself, and I check myself. You have to be very nimble.
On the flip side, you also need to understand what’s working for you, and then you have to push that agenda while still keeping your vision in mind at all times. For me, having such a strong hold on the Chicago market so quickly, I found myself being pulled into the black-tie gala crowd. The gowns were such hot sellers, like $4,000 gala gowns, and I got away from my whole ethos and my vision of ready-to-wear and being a retailer. I was very grateful for that time because it helped sustain and feed the business, but I was very much losing myself in the sales.
Also, you have to be willing to sacrifice. The sacrifices my husband and I have made are unreal.
Tell us something about you that no one else knows.
That no one else knows? I don’t know … oh wait, I know something. I hand feed my dog.
You what now?
Yeah, I hand feed my dog, and everyone hates me for it because when I leave town, everyone else has to hand feed her. It’s probably because I want to hand feed her not because she wants me to. And also, she literally eats organic raw bison or steak, which is pretty much equivalent to steak tartare. So she’s, like, really chillin’.
When your time comes, what is the legacy you want to leave?
I actually think about this in terms of how I want to be remembered. I do want to build an empire that’s sustainable after my time and a company that has a solid foundation and a solid business strategy, that’s global and can succeed without me. We do get really hyper-focused on success, but I think at the end of the day it’s about the kind of person you are. You take nothing with you, right? So you just hope to keep it real, do good things and stay true to yourself.