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Elite Profile: Derek Khan

It’s really rare to meet a person whose life is a Hollywood blockbuster, a person who has seen everything and done everything, a person who has been brought down by life’s hardship and who made it to the top through genius and hard work. Well, Gulf Elite turned the Gulf upside down to find that person: Derek Khan!

From a High School dropout in Trinidad who served jail-time to prime stylist for the US highest society, royalty designer and Networker in the Gulf, this is the story of Derek as he tells it.

Derek Khan is successful and on everyone’s radar, but he is far from being the kid who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Born in Trinidad, Derek experienced hardship and challenges early on. We all claim that high school was a challenge, but imagine having dyslexia and struggling with classes for years, without actually knowing about it. Now throw in a little Trinidadian culture and poverty during the 70s and put yourself in Derek’s shoes, because that’s where he was. He wasn’t known as mister social as he is today, Derek was living the days being different, thinking differently, and being pushed to the sidelines as a result. While his peers were scribbling down letters and numbers in their books, Derek used to draw and come up with creative designs, a talent that will prove later on to be worth millions of dollars!

Trinidad was too small to contain the dreams Derek had for greatness, so it was obvious for him to get out there and go run after the American dream, an American dream he didn’t realize he would shape for the rap and hip hop world in the 90s. But as every great journey starts with a first step, Derek had to start with a shitty job at McDonalds in New York, a job he describes as “the worst job of my life. I was literally just taking garbage out”.

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In Gulf Elite we always encourage our readers not to be afraid of change, to not spend life taking on shit believing it will get better sometime later. Life is full of opportunities and you are limitless, so don’t waste your time doing something you don’t like. Derek Khan is the pinnacle of this advice, because one day through working at McDonalds, he decided to quit and find something better. What’s better than taking out trash? Clerk at a Neiman Marcus boutique!

Yes, this is how life rewards risk takers! Derek, at the time, went for an interview, and given his “different taste for clothes and fashion” he decided to go creative with his jeans and shirts. “I had a weird outfit, they thought it was an Italian design so I blew them away and they hired me”! Moral of the story: be different, stand out!

The grind at Neiman Marcus set Derek into a rush of accomplishments and accelerated his ascension in the fashion and couture world. From NM, Derek moved on to work in Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Givenchy stores where luxury and high-end clients were as common as Big Macs in McDonald’s. The way Derek moved from one brand to another helped him develop a refined sense for clothes and the fashion culture, studying what clients loved and how the trends evolved. He didn’t only want to be good at his job; he wanted to be the best! Being just good isn’t enough if you’re looking to make it to the top. You can pull it off by being average in school, you can get along being good at work, but that will only make you wealthy enough to make ends meet and live a boring life. If you want to play with the giants and hang out with the big boys, being perfect is the norm! Working in high-end couture helped Derek rub shoulders with the Kennedys and the Mellons who used to send out orders for Jacqueline Kennedy and JFK, putting him on a fast track to build a multibillion dollar network!

Derek recalls one of the clients he used to show around, and it is no less than Donald Trump! “Donald Trump used to come over, well that was before he became an asshole!” Talking about Bunny Mellon, Derek went on: “When she gets the invoice, she would send a check of half a million dollars with Mellon name on it made out to Hubert Givenchy and signed by Paul Mellon drawn from the Mellon Bank. This was the beauty of Upper Madison Avenue; all the elite society was in one place. It was a Networking heaven!

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Derek was not a fashion freak spending the whole day thinking about the next winter collection. He worked hard, yes, but he played even harder! Steaming off at Studio 54 and Paradise Garage where he used to hang out with Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Bianca. Derek wouldn’t pull all-nighters in clubs just for the fun of it; he saw these events as an opportunity to network and expand his pool of connections. CEOs, celebrities and VIPs do not live only in hotel suites and luxurious offices. They hang around in restaurants, clubs, galleries and cinemas as we do, so next time, think about where you´ll be spending the next night, because your next big client might just be there!

Indeed it was in Sound Factory club where Derek met Madonna’s future dancers. He helped them audition for her and styled them in amazing clothes, and next thing you know Derek is managing Madonna’s group clothing and styling, a time he looks back at as one of the best moments of his life. Talking about Madonna, Derek could only say “She was extraordinary!”

From then on Derek was the darling of everyone. “I used to charge 25.000 $ a day to style someone. I was becoming arrogant. That was the start of my downfall. Gianni Versace would send me amazing outfits when I was with Madonna. So did every other designer at that time from Chanel to Thierry Mugler. I had access to all shops, and they would fly dresses to me for my artists. Beverly Paige from Island Records saw what I was doing and wanted me to help Salt ‘n Pepa take it to the next level. They were looking for the next big thing in the Hip Hop World, and I had it!”

Anticipating the next moves in the Business world is crucial to your success. Making millions of dollars out of an existing business is good. But you know what’s better? Making billions creating your own industry or changing an old one. Derek Khan had the genius to surf the wave of the popular hip hop and rap world, combining the popularity of the music, the big bucks and bling bling of the high end couture. “I got Dolce and Gabbana and Yves St Laurent to put their items on Salt ‘n Pepa, turning gangster singers into sexy beasts and fashion goddesses. I had Chanel provide all the clothing and styling for the Grammys performance, and even hired Jamie Foxx to introduce Madonna’s concert producer and give the whole performance a dramatic touch! Everyone was talking about how I was changing the direction of the Hip Hop clothing including the New York Times. . I worked with the best sellers in the world, including Monica and Brandy who managed to make it to the top ranking for 13 weeks in US Billboard top 100, Mary J. Blige on Share My World and Lauryn Hill for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill to name a few. I was introduced through Sony Records to Lauryn Hill, who I styled and worked with on her hit album. I was asked to do Michael Jackson clothing line. I got along with them very well. I mean how can’t you get along with people like 2Pac and Snoop Dog? I was Balling hard, carrying millions of dollars of jewels while shopping, spending money without paying much attention. I was living the life! I used to come across Angelina Jolie chatting with Julia Roberts in L’Ermitage Beverley Hills, and used to only stay in fabulous suites. I worked with Queen Latifah, Carlos Santana. All the big shots today were at some point with me on the table or in the elevator.”

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Derek Khan is the 1st and only stylist with five artists honored at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art, Costume Institute’s Greatest Rock n’ Roll Exhibition (2000) in conjunction with Rock and Roll Museum in Cleveland.

At some point in life you’ll have to go through tough times. In the words of Rocky Balboa, “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you’re hit, it’s about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

This was the philosophy of Derek when he hit the bottom. With all the luxurious lifestyle and excessive spending, he had to go broke at some point, and he did thanks to Napster and other internet companies that screwed the music industry. At the same time, Derek was helping Tyra Banks create the hit TV show America’s Next Top Model where he starred as stylist and guest judge. Although flat broke, Derek kept on blowing money, borrowing here and there until one day he couldn’t keep it going anymore. Long story short, Derek spent a while in prison, and as he puts it, “it was a life changing experience.”

“Getting back down to Earth, seeing evil and trying not to get killed in prison, opened my eyes to what I have been missing on. Money blinded me, and prison shook me hard and got me back on the right track. The funny part is that, while I was in prison, America’s Next Top Model was airing and I was one of the judges. You can imagine how weird it felt when the other convicts would look up to the TV and see me! It wasn’t a good thing to have too much attention, so I tried my best to find my way around and not having my throat slit by a jealous redneck!”

Fast-forward two years, Derek was released and deported to Trinidad with only 20 $ in his pocket. The crazy life he had, as you might imagine, was far from being satisfied with the calm and slow pace of Trinidad. After working with the government setting a couple of touristic promotional clips, Derek had his breakthrough when a former writer for Elle Magazine New York contacted him to write his life story. With enough help from Cheryl Lala, a childhood friend from Trinidad, he took a trip to Arabia to meet the writer who at that time was on an assignment in Dubai, and there with his Midas touch Derek started turning his introductions into one of the most extensive and high-end networks in the Middle East. Soon after arriving, Derek Khan is already live on Talk Shows in Dubai where he is greeted with open arms. “People here are so preoccupied with building their future that they don’t care about your past.”

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Derek Khan didn’t have much in his bank account, but he had a priceless asset: networks. Capitalizing on the value of his connections, and leveraging his refined taste for culture and fashion, Derek started a consultancy company and a high-end shopping service, numbering clients from the Royal families in the Gulf to celebrities and millionaires around.

Assisting in the introduction of Bill Gates to the Sultan of Oman, preparing for Melinda Gates visit to the UAE, hosting dinners with Goldie Hawn or Salma Hayek… this is just a sneak peak at the glamorous and hectic life Derek is having in Dubai.

But Derek is not only involved in Fashion and Luxury retail. As any great investor and Businessman, he understood very well the importance of diversifying his portfolio. Derek now consults for multinationals including Tiffany and Dolce & Gabbana, trades in oil and gas, invests in luxury real estate, is reconsidering his very own jewelry collection and most of all helps promote philanthropic work across the region. Recently Derek has also been exploring major opportunities in foreign countries, notably Baku Azerbaijan.

Derek Khan might come across as a fantasy character with an unbelievable story, but when you meet him and hang out with him, you realize how humble and inspirational he is. His life has been full of great lessons, and he will always save an hour to spend with you advising and mentoring you when needed.

“I wish people understand this: I am Black and White, I have done good and bad. Life taught me that arrogance rimes with disaster. Negative events ended up having a great positive impact on me. I realized that your most valuable assets are the friends you make and the relationships you build. Money comes and goes, but true friendships survive regardless of the circumstances.”