Chicago-born designer Azeeza Khan turned heads almost instantly when she launched her label Azza in 2011, scoring coverage in The Wall Street Journal and Vogue.
Despite capturing attention other designers labor a lifetime to attract, Khan, only 28 years old, deferred the resulting requests for appointments from fashion industry buyers.
Madness? It may seem so on the surface. But there's a method to Khan's management of her fledgling fashion business.
Glimmering on glass counters in her new shop Atelier Azza, her stone-encrusted belts employ artisanal Indian embroidery techniques. Yet the effect is of contemporary — even hip — opulence when they're tied behind even the simplest little black dress and coordinated with one of her detachable embellished collars.
"I like to be differentiated," Khan, now 30, says, referring to subtle touches such as the signature flounce hem on the vibrant silk print dresses in her ready-to-wear line ($295-$395). "If you wanted a plain dress, you could walk into Zara. I need to make it special to make people feel special."
She has no formal fashion training, yet her custom gowns (starting at $595) are intricate enough to have inked orders from three brides — a segment she wasn't even courting — within a week of opening her atelier's doors on Level 3 of the Shops at North Bridge.
"One of the basic traits that has propelled Azza is I'm a good fashion forecaster. Even before I launched, if things I wanted weren't on racks, I'd find myself calling some obscure boutique in Italy to get it," she said. "I've been able to predict and design accordingly."
Design sense isn't all there is to it.
"It's a business more than anything else. It's not glamorous, I'll tell you that. Being your own boss, it's kind of cliche to say, but the accountability is yours."
That is one reason she demurred when specialty stores came calling last October.
"At that point I was only in business one year. I felt I needed to refine a bit more before I stood in front of these players. We changed the glue about four times before we approved this embroidery."
"As a new brand, every time opportunity comes, it's not always the right opportunity," Khan said. "It's not about the fame. It really isn't."
Now, as Fall Fashion Week once again approaches, Khan feels ready. She plans to open a showroom in New York City in September, forgoing a full-scale runway show, a decision many designers have made in recent years.
Two years ago, Khan was working for big oil — BP — in marketing and advertising. She handled crisis management surrounding the Gulf oil spill in 2006 and professional sports partnerships (not her passion).
"I kept my corporate job the entire first year of my fashion business," said Khan, who has a degree in marketing and political science from DePaul University. "Fashion is a very saturated, competitive industry. I didn't want to take the risk of letting go of a career that I spent 10 years building, that was successful in its own right."
On the design side, she credits a great deal of her growth to working with custom clients. "It's not about creating a piece that looks beautiful on a hanger. It's about creating a piece that looks beautiful on a woman's body," she said.
She designs and creates prototypes and samples in her Chicago showroom. The mass production is done in India in a workshop she rents and oversees.
"I was going to India about every three to four months, but now with modern technology, working in international business is so easy. My parents are Indian. I speak the language, and that has really helped the business for me to be able to communicate with the team there."
The line uses Indian techniques, but not Indian motifs.
Azza ready-to-wear dresses, which come with a tassel belt, are one-size-fits-all to reduce complexity. Her handbags ($549) are a reversible envelope shape, metallic leather on one side and silk on the other, embroidered with silk thread.
Like her own first name, her brand name is a palindrome ("I like symmetry") and she hopes that will help establish it visually. For now, she hesitates to even call herself an "emerging" designer.
"If you look at emerging designers, Charlotte Olympia is my favorite shoe designer. I discovered her about a year ago. But if you look at her on Voguepedia, she's been doing this since 2006. Isabel Marant started around 1983 — I was born in '82 — and she has just exploded in the last two years," Khan said.
"That's something I have learned: Do not compare yourself, just stand on your own merits. Do what feels right and move forward with that."