Q&A with Azeeza
Azeeza Khan is the Chicago-based designer with color theory and embellishing expertise. With free-flowing dresses, embroidered accessories, and hints of exoticism, Azeeza represents elevated luxury from a personal perspective. As the leading fashion house in the windy city, Azeeza crafts her garments with prominent creatives, which led to an exclusive partnership with Barneys. While her garments are traditionally viewed as evening-wear, you can find Azeeza in Nikes and a dress most days. Despite a low-key attitude, the success of her brand outshines all reservations. We sat down with Chicago’s favorite in-house designer to discuss the evolution of her career.
Your designs express elegance and incorporate aspects of minimalism. Walk us through your inspirations during the design process.
I respect that you have that perspective because I think that a lot of times the designs get lost in the volume, color, or embroidery. Minimalism is something that I do strive for, and it's not always kind of absorbed. It either comes across as over the top or too much fabric for someone who's looking for more of a tighter silhouette. For me, I think that even with the volume and all of that, there’s always an element of demure, like a subtle sexiness, but not outright so. I do a lot of deep open backs that are more alluring. There's always some sort of allure that I try to hold on to. In terms of inspiration for the design process, to be quite blunt, I make what I would want to wear that season.
First and foremost, color is the most substantial part of our DNA as a brand. Color is how I start the mood. It's not a vision or a mood board that drives me; it’s more about color and things that I personally would love to have. Our production is pretty traditional, but from a design element, it’s a natural process. Being a brand that's self-invested, we do have to apply that commercial layer of what we think is going to sell, but it’s also vital for us to stay true to our core and not directly follow the mainstream.
Many designs are subtly exotic. What’s the connection there?
it's definitely about being differentiated. In terms of the fabrications and all of that, our racks sit next to Valentino at Barneys [New York]. It's definitely about that elevated luxury. I was born in Chicago but background wise, my parents are Indian. Some of that Indian heritage is reflected in my embellishment and beading, but it's crucial for me to make sure that modernity is still there and that it's not perceived as a South Asian piece or brand.
Is there a particular design or collection that holds the most meaning to you thus far?
In terms of aesthetic and wearability, Resort 18 was solid for me. It was strong both in the market as well as visually. It was the first collection where I felt like I finally figured out my brand DNA and voice because, as a new brand, I spent the first couple of years experimenting. I think that was the first season where I felt everything was super cohesive and reflective of me. Usually, when we create a collection, we make almost 50 designs and edit down to 30. For resort 18, we found ourselves barely editing down. Concerning a particular design or collection, it would be my earlier collections during my experimentation process. I didn't have that mentality of, “oh my god, I need to sell a dress.” When I first started, I was a little bit more carefree, but that is still reflected in our aesthetic today. Especially with my beaded work, there’s a sense of synergy, you know? That lime dress over there [pictured above] was in my first collection ever. Now, it’s apart of my permanent core collection. Our core collection is a conglomeration of designs that have remained timeless over my five years in business. Maybe we’ll change the fabrication, color, or applications and embroidery to make it different, but they hold true to the evolution of my brand.
Tell us about your exclusive partnership with Barneys.
We've been exclusive now for three years, and we're one of their top evening bestsellers, which is exciting. As a new designer, I think Barneys was instrumental in providing legitimacy and credibility to a brand like mine. At this day and age, anyone can start a fashion brand and easily buy a domain, Instagram handle, and create any product. The market is saturated in terms of startup businesses and especially in something competitive like fashion. So having them sign on was such a blessing. While I do have a lot of friends with credible influence, the truth behind this partnership with Barneys is that I cold-called them. I didn't know anyone there, and now I have great relationships with the team. That was something I had to do on my own and not through a connector. It was an organic relationship, and we both listen to each other, and I think that's important. We are on the second floor for designers sitting next to The Row and Balmain and Valentino, and personally, it's very gratifying.
At the end of the day, we are a low-key brand; I don't go out of my way to do celebrity dressings or red carpets. I don't try to be the “It” brand because that's not who I am or who I want to be. Most people walking into Barney's have not heard of my name, so to sell next to amazing designers, speaks on its own. We've gotten a lot of celebrity requests over the years, and even if they have a good following, I won’t do it if I think they don’t embody my brand. We're very selective about that. I don't know if that's the best thing from a sales perspective, but it’s more important to protect your DNA, your aesthetic, and all that.
While you’ve kept your circle small, you have dressed credible influencers and celebrities. If you could dress anyone in your designs who would it be?
So I'll give you two; living and dead. The first person has passed, unfortunately, and passed before I even started my brand. Michael Jackson; I’m obsessed with him and everything that he did creatively. I know Rushka Bergman, his former stylist and I see her at all the fashion weeks; she's cool. She did amazing things with him. Between my beading and his aesthetic, something beautiful could have happened there. He's always been so inspiring, and I think that from a fashion perspective, he was great, you know, he's the goat. So that's someone who's passed- and far too soon.
The biggest fomo that I have is not dressing Michelle Obama while she was in office. Obviously, there's still an opportunity to do that now, but to have dressed her as the first lady would have been dope. It’s kind of sad too because I'm from Chicago and we grew up with Obama as our senator; they're royalty here. And she's so fly. I mean, she broke the Internet last week with those Balenciaga silver boots! Hopefully in the future that will happen.
While Chicago has nurtured many talented creatives, most move and set up camp elsewhere, how did you decide to keep your headquarters in Chicago?
Chicago has been very supportive to me as a brand, especially when I first started. I honestly started the brand thinking that it's not going to be successful because I don't have any formal fashion training, and I have no business training, but I did it realistically. I thought, “hey, I want to try this because if I could do anything in the world, it would be this, and I have to say I tried it and if I try and fail, great, at least I can like move on.” So it was one of those things, but the immediate reception in Chicago was beautiful. The first year, I operated out of my living room, and our sales were terrific. It was a word-of-mouth type of thing, and the top ladies of Chicago were coming through. I'm grateful for that kind of sustainability in cash they brought the first year because it allowed me to stay self-invested. I will say that Chicago is home to me; my family is here, I was born here, and I went to a Chicago public school. Nowadays, traveling to New York is like driving to a Chicago suburb because it’s so close. We’re such a central city, and it's a shame that it’s not recognized for how commuter friendly it is. I think that staying here has been a blessing; we have a great team here and we’re able to be honest, and work with amazingly talented people because we're one of the few fashion brands operating here. Because of that, we do have outstanding talent acquisition, whereas in New York we’d compete with all these other brands. I think that there's a lot of different benefits to it. Could there be some harmful elements too? Absolutely. But it allows us to be us and not be influenced by the market. We're in the Louis Vuitton city guide, and that wouldn't be if I were in New York or LA.
As one of the most prominent designers in Chicago, how do you hope to inspire fellow mid-western designers?
I think that it’s essential to build up that community here. I'd love to carry some other brands that are emerging and aid the new talent here in Chicago. Hopefully, at some point, I can give that platform back to them and stock those designers. There are undoubtedly many creatives that come out of this city and end up leaving; I think Virgil is the best example of that. He’s Off-White Milan, not Off-White Chicago, which I'm thankful for it because I would be done in terms of a Chicago fashion brand. Someone who I think does an excellent job of keeping it real with Chicago is Chance The Rapper. We did his fiancé's engagement dress. They are the epitome of how to retain talent in Chicago because he's the top person here in terms of music and influence. A lot of people are leaving, but someone like Chance staying here is very respectable and hopefully, that changes the trend a little. I do think that everybody respects Chicago as their home like Don C. He’s a good friend of ours and does all of his Nike drops here in Chicago. Even Off-White for Nike, the launch market is in Chicago. I think that you can leave Chicago, but Chicago never leaves you. Even Kanye named his daughter Chicago. I don't think it should be undermined and I believe that the respect is there.
Over the years you have developed a strong relationship with Nike. Tell us about your connection to the brand and the significance of that culture to you.
Even before my relationship with Nike, I had Nikes on with my dresses. The relationship started based off of how I wear them. I'm not an influencer. I do get approached by different brands that want me to do stuff. Most of the time I decline because my page is my brand page and it's kind of weird to like be like, “Hey, buy this candle.” The thing about Nike is that it's a relationship that doesn't compete with what we do- in addition to having such an active group here in Chicago with MJ and the Jordans. From a personal aesthetic standpoint, I'm on my feet 24/7 so being comfortable is essential. I was always wearing these over the top dresses with my sneakers. What I love about them is that they call me a part of their creative family. Being a creative with them has been nice, and I work directly with their fashion team. To see the Tisci, Off-White, and Comme Des Garçons sneakers come to life is incredibly cool. It's been enriching to understand some of the brand stuff that they're doing with other fashion houses. I recently supported the ambush collection for them and the release with that; Yoon is someone that I met years ago in Paris, and it's nice to see all the worlds come together.
What can we expect from you come 2019?
As a brand, we have recently honed in on our aesthetic, our DNA, and all of that. It's allowed us to flush out more product lines like our accessories and so forth. In 2019 you’ll see new product launches that I've been working on for two, three years; there's something huge coming. We have this stereotype of being an evening brand, but I disagree. There are tops, separates, and our accessories are versatile. Someone like me, I'm continually wearing the dresses as day dresses, so it's not just an evening or special occasion brand. The product launch in 2019 will have more day wearability, and I think that we're going to get good traction from that. Also, I used to travel so much for the brand; we did all the global fashion weeks and whatnot, but that calmed down once I had my baby. I'm trying to get back up and out again. 2019 will be the year to get back to our global routes.
To see more by Azeeza click here.
Photography by: Ethan Pombo