Singapore-born Farah Khan on how she became a fashion mogul and designer

Fashion mogul Farah Khan started her own label to make a statement about handmade Asian beadwork in evening wear

Khan’s (centre) creations on show at last week’s Audi Fashion Festival. -- ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Khan’s (centre) creations on show at last week’s Audi Fashion Festival. -- ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
A photo of Farah Khan (right) that appeared in The Straits Times in 1972 when she won a designer award at age 17. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF FARAH KHAN
Farah Khan (right) with American model and fashion entrepreneur Kimora Lee Simmons at a fashion event last year. -- PHOTO: THE MELIUM GROUP
Singapore-born, KL-based designer-entrepreneur Farah Khan has weathered personal and business setbacks to get to where she is. -- ST PHOTO: MATTHIAS HO

Long before Dato' Farah Khan became the Malaysia-based fashion mogul, designer and high-flying socialite that she is today, she was Chan Kheng Lin, an impressionable Singaporean teen who had just won her first fashion design competition.

The year was 1972, and Khan, then 17, had won a Designer of the Year contest here with a cheongsam-inspired gown she crafted.

"I didn't know anything, I was clueless. How I entered the contest God only knows. But I did, and winning it set me with a sense of confidence to move further with it (fashion design)," she says excitedly, showing this reporter a black-and-white keepsake photo capturing her moment of triumph.

We are in the lobby lounge of a five-star hotel in Singapore and the youthful-looking mother of three is dressed in her own designs.

Khan, who turns 59 in July, looks effortlessly chic in a black sequined vest over a sleeveless cream silk top, paired with a pleated mini skirt. Since winning the competition, she has found her way into the glamorous life of a fashion retail maven.

She is founder and president of The Melium Group, which marks its 25th anniversary this year. It is one of the biggest retail powerhouses in Malaysia, which distributes more than 100 international luxury fashion and lifestyle brands, including high-end brands Givenchy, Saint Laurent Paris, Tod's and Hugo Boss.

Her namesake fashion label launched in 2007, which her group also carries, is faring well too.

It is stocked in 70 cities worldwide and has been worn by Hollywood celebrities such as E! Entertainment host Giuliana Rancic, fashion model and entrepreneur Kimora Lee Simmons and socialite Paris Hilton.

Khan was in town last week for the Audi Fashion Festival to present her fall/winter Farah Khan collection here for the first time.

The chatty designer-entrepreneur tells Life! that Friday's show was a "homecoming", given that her fashion career began in Singapore.

"I visited my father and he actually told me he wanted to come to my show. He's 86 and in a wheelchair. I told him the show would start close to 9pm, it would be past his bedtime," she says jokingly.

Born the third of five siblings of a diamond merchant father and boutique owner mother, Khan was interested in fashion from young. She picked up tailoring skills from her mum, who used to make high fashion dresses for women out of her shop, Le Bijou, at the former Promenade mall in Orchard Road. Khan would sketch outfits whenever she had time.

By the time she turned 17, Khan says her dream was to study fashion at Central Saint Martins in Britain. She landed a place in the school but her parents forbade her to go, thinking it was unsafe for someone so young to live abroad alone.

"I was left here. So I had to create work that involved being in fashion," Khan says, adding that she subsequently married a Singaporean businessman when she was 19 to "get my freedom".

In 1974, she set up The Link boutique in Mandarin Hotel, a designer store that "worked with the best-dressed list of ladies", and stocked luxe Italian and British designer labels such as Genny and Jean Muir. Some of her regular clients included prominent people such as Indonesian philanthropist Katie Sampoerna.

"The boutique was a wedding gift from my first husband, my own shop," Khan says, adding that the name Link was a combination of "lin" from her birth name Kheng Lin, and "k" for Kheng.

Khan, now a Malaysian permanent resident, described those days of running The Link as "glorious times", but she decided to sell it in 1982 to Singaporean fashion retailer Tina Tan-Leo for an undisclosed sum.

By then, Khan, 27, had divorced her first husband. She remarried Kuala Lumpur-based Singaporean business tycoon Akbar Khan, adopted her current Muslim name of Farah Khan and moved to the Malaysian capital. They have since divorced.

She politely declines to give more details about her first two marriages, saying "I prefer not to dwell on personal stories".

She was a housewife for about a year into her second marriage before she decided to get back into the fashion game.

"It broke my heart to leave Singapore because by that time, I had the most wonderful, fabulous customers, and all my best friends were in Singapore. But I got married, so I went, and lo and behold, within a year in Kuala Lumpur, I was so at home, and I loved being there," she says.

She started with a multi-label fashion boutique at The Weld, a shopping centre along Jalan Raja Chula near KLCC in the early 1980s. Then in 1989, she set up The Melium Group, bringing in German leather brand Aigner, followed by menswear label Hugo Boss.

Today, The Melium Group operates 38 stores in Malaysia. She declines to say how much the 900-strong company makes annually.

The company runs Aseana, Malaysia's largest luxury multi-brand boutique which carries more than 30 labels including Victoria Beckham, Mary Katrantzou and Herve Leger. It also owns and operates a chain of 18 Dome cafes in Malaysia.

With her own label, which is known for designs that marry intricate South-east Asian-inspired beadwork with classic but modern dress cuts, she hopes to fill the gap in evening wear.

Her designs are inspired by her travels, architecture, art, music and the people she meets from all over the world, she says.

"I work with over 100 designers and I felt that area - handmade Asian beadwork in evening wear - was missing. I knew it was a small niche in the globe, but it was a niche nevertheless to make a statement," she says.

"I'm proud of being Asian and I wanted something very Asian. The beadwork is all handmade and this heritage is for us to continue developing."

The road to success has been littered with business and personal setbacks though.

Her second foray into the Singapore market - a 3,800 sq ft Aseana store in Millenia Walk in 2002 - failed, and the shop was forced to close after two years.

"The concept was not well appreciated and the traffic was low," she says.

The Aseana concept back then was an upscale Asian lifestyle boutique that carried a range of fashion and home accessories from around the region.

She recalls the 1997 Asian financial crisis as one of the toughest periods for her business, during which sales took a bad hit - sales dropped by more than 25 per cent - and she was forced to consider a retrenchment exercise. In the end, she chose not to axe anyone. Instead, the company decided that management staff take a 10 to 30 per cent pay cut.

"It was most difficult, I cried for days because it was something really difficult for me to do but it had to be done. But I was so proud of our people, this was when I became more committed to them," she says.

She also battled stomach cancer about 17 years ago, when she was given six months to live. Somehow, she defied the odds and pulled through.

Khan says she spent six months undergoing chemotherapy in Singapore, and spent another 11/2 years in New York, where she received treatment at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center until the cancer was in remission.

"Being here and now, it's a miracle," she says.

Ms Jasmine Raj, 45, who has known Khan for more than two decades, calls her friend an "absolutely compassionate" individual who would "drop everything to be there for you".

The owner of an interior design company in Malaysia says: "She is absolutely confident and very focused on whatever she embarks on, whether it is business or friendship. One would think that she mixes only with the creme de la creme but she has friends from all walks of life."

Another long-time friend, Ms Lee Jim Leng, who has known Khan for more than 10 years, says one of the best qualities she sees in her friend is her "ability to reinvent while at the same time leading a balanced and purposeful life".

The managing director and chief executive of an investment bank in Malaysia, who declines to give her age, adds: "Fashion today is such a challenging industry with many well-established players. She started her brand from a modest label to what is now considered highly successful. That requires vision, boldness and passion."

She adds: "At home, she is a doting mother who adores her children and always spares time to give back to society."

Indeed, Khan says she is a "very good chill-out person" who spends a lot of time travelling and holidaying with her family.

She has three children, a 35-year-old son and a 33-year-old daughter from her first marriage, and another son, aged 23, from her second marriage.

She has been in a long-term relationship with Greek businessman Dimitri Pantazaras, 58, who works in real estate development.

Khan rents a summer home in Italy every year because of her love of the Italian lifestyle.

She says: "I love the way the Italian people live. They appreciate every moment of their lives and it makes me appreciate my own life."

Fashion has also allowed her to pursue charitable causes.

Working in the glitzy industry has enabled her to rub shoulders with Malaysia's social elite, who have supported her charitable causes. Next month, for example, she will hold an auction event to help raise RM2.5 million (S$970,000) for a range of Malaysian charities.

The 60 items on auction, which include luxury handbags, watches and trips on a private jet to island getaways, were mostly sponsored by her friends.

"Being in fashion means dabbling in business, banking, finance, design, public relations and being part of the community.

"Through fashion, I was able to develop the charity side of what I want to do and in creative ways."

Asked where she sees her company heading, Khan says the economic slowdown in China will have a trickle-down effect in the rest of Asia.

But she says: "We will just try harder. People will buy less and be more discerning, so people will have to produce better products; stop, think, learn and do better. We all need to learn to be resilient."

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