Azeeza Khan is a big fish in a small pond. As a high-end ready-to-wear designer based in Chicago, Khan wages fierce competition against her contemporary counterparts in the traditional fashion capitals. Her eponymous line, Azeeza — heavily comprised of luxurious silks and hand-woven embellishments — is familiar (in that you've likely seen some of the industry's biggest influencers tout them on Instagram), yet bold. Khan has never taken an outside investment, driving strong profits from her Chicago flagship on the prestigious Michigan Avenue.
Even Azeeza's origin story is compelling. In July 2011, Khan, a Chicago native, decided she was unmotivated by her passionless 9-to-5 job working in corporate marketing at BP. That same September, without any formal design or business training, Khan staged a soft launch for her label — then called "Atelier Azza" — at New York Fashion Week; she made her first foray into the wholesale market with spring 2015 at Paris Fashion Week. Today, Azeeza not only has an exclusive retail partnership with Barneys, but she's also gearing up to place her product at upscale Canadian department store Holt Renfrew — and will show her forthcoming spring 2017 collection in both New York and Paris.
If there's been any red tape stopping Khan from growing her self-funded and insider-adored contemporary label 800-odd miles away from the U.S.'s fashion capital, she's certainly barreled directly past it, full speed ahead to what's next. I hopped on the phone with Khan (also a brand-new mother!) about her explosive design career, her success with influencer marketing and what's next for the fashion scene in Chicago.
After graduating from DePaul University, you worked in corporate marketing at BP. What made you decide to give up your desk job?
I did advertising and marketing for them. It was a creative role and I was working with the best ad agencies in the world, so it taught me the formal process of creative development. I was successful at a young age in my corporate career. It wasn't about monetary success — I was making great money at the time — but it wasn't fulfilling.
I also yearned for entrepreneurship. Working at BP, even [on the creative side], you can have an amazing idea, but there's so much red tape to make it actually happen.
Did you have a "click moment," per se?
I had a conversation with my husband about changing my career. His question was: "If you could do anything in the world, what would it be?" And I said what I'm doing now. And he was like, "Well, you should go for it!" I said, "No, are you kidding me? I don't have any formal training. I don't know anything, really." And I launched shortly after that.
But you stayed at BP for a whole year after your line launched. Why?
[By not quitting my day job], I was able to invest my BP paycheck into my business and I was able to reinvest any profits I got that first year into my business, as well. To this day, 100% is self-invested.
When I launched, I told myself I'd have one year to see if it was successful, and within three months I had already capped out of my salary at BP for the year.
How did you grow such an impressive following in those early days?
Chicago was definitely an integral part of the equation. Chicago isn't a small city, but it does have a small fashion industry and community. I also received a lot of local press initially. They were really supportive, and I think that really helped drive the word-of-mouth shopping.
And it was Chicago, so I was able to have more private appointments.
How has "influencer marketing" shaped your business?
Early on, my first blogger support came from Chiara Ferragni. Back then, the bloggersphere was much more limited, but she was really at the top of her game. We connected through social media; she really loved the clothes and felt that they were her style and she'd make use out of them. She wore them over a dozen times that first year — and I think that helped establish some awareness in the industry. I got thousands of emails the first day she posted [herself wearing Azeeza].
I got a lot of retail inquiries from stores in, say, Germany I hadn't heard of. I had to control the brand during this time. I didn't jump on those retailers, but it all worked out for the best because I was able to have a strong launch with Barneys.
How did your exclusive partnership with Barneys come about?
Originally, I reached out to Tomoko Ogura [formerly Barneys's senior fashion director] before resort 2015. It was during that season that I felt that the collection was where it needed to be, and I was confident with where the brand had developed from a creative standpoint. She reviewed the collection, gave me her feedback and we just took it from there.
Holt Renfrew organically reached out to me last season and said we would be a fit for them, so they're my next partnership.
You've worked with a number of high-profile clients. What is that process like?
It's very, very organic. It's not anything we pitch; we don't have a PR firm we use. I've met many of those clients through mutual friends or just being out and about. Sometimes, [a celebrity's] stylist will reach out to me saying, "We love the piece. We'd love to wear it for this video," or what not.
Who's the Azeeza girl?
Confidence is definitely a key attribute when I design, whether it's making sure it's super flattering on a plethora of body types or just making sure the attention to fit is [there]. Strength comes as a derivative of that. I use really bold colors; [the designs aren't] minimal or monotone, but some of the silhouettes are very minimal. I'm marrying the two. From there, I think it's the girl looking for something unique that's not on everyone. That's why I don't want to be everything to everyone. I want to be a specialty brand with my own lane and niche, so we're for that girl who doesn't want to be in the "It" bag or the "It" dress. She wants to stand out and be differentiated.
Describe the fashion scene in Chicago. Has it changed since you launched?
We may not be on the map for it, but it's a top market for a lot of companies and brands and I think that [speaks for itself]. The fashion-educated are definitely here — they follow what goes on in the industry — but we may not have the same access to events.
Browse a sneak peek at Azeeza's spring 2017 collection, exclusive to Fashionista, in the gallery below.