|Cover Story: Datuk Farah Khan|
|Written by Jacqueline Toyad and Elaine Lau|
|Monday, 07 September 2009 00:00|
As founder and president of the group, Farah is the driving force of the company, a longtime fashion disciple who is putting her passion to profitable use.
“Fashion is the only business I obviously knew; I grew up in it, so it was only natural that I went into it,” she says.
The Melium Group celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. It has been a steadfast climb for the group, with a history paved with milestones that have been in sync with the enrichment of Malaysia’s retail landscape and the rise in Asian purchasing power. Of course, Melium cannot take sole credit for the luxury boom in the country, but it has some claim to the evolution of the luxury landscape, bringing in brands that the world’s fashion scene never thought Malaysia was ready for.
“It’s a very proud moment... I think we’ve come a very long way,” muses Farah. “We started with one store, today we have 28. We feel very pleased and of course, what I’m happy with is the young echelon of people that we have managed to have within the company. They are the future of the company and they will lead the company, hopefully, always with the same premises, personality and character of the [Melium] brand.
“Because in Melium, we believe we have a very strong brand culture. And the culture is not so much about showing off big names but people who understand quality and people who want that as a part of our lifestyle. We’re more of a company about style; we’re not so much a company about fashion. Fashion just goes away. Style remains.”
It’s almost hard to imagine this style powerhouse’s humble start was with the single distribution rights to Aigner, especially since today big names in the business are knocking on Farah’s door hoping to get a piece of the action on our shores — a relatively young market with so much untapped potential.
“We had many challenges, we made many mistakes... we paid for our mistakes. There were brands that didn’t work. But we learnt along the way. We learnt and we are continuing the process of learning,” reveals Farah.
When asked how she decides on brands to represent, she says, “I will go with brands that have integrity and substance. And the product has to be first class.”
She adds, “The Melium brands are not about me. It’s not about what Farah likes but the opportunities I see in that sector.”
Farah first appeared in Options in 2006, sharing with us her story of growing up in Singapore where her mother had a couture store: “I was always surrounded by brand names and fashion. Mummy was always wearing Pucci.” Some might say that she was destined for the fashion world.
Her start in business was a boutique called The Link, her first store, on Singapore’s famed Orchard Road, which she opened in 1978. Farah gave up her stake in the store when she got married and moved to Malaysia. It was here, in 1987, that she opened Le Salon, a shopping haven for those tired of having to travel just for their dose of then renowned designers Versace, Thierry Mugler and Alberta Ferretti. Designed after The Link, the store offered a wide variety of designer wear which was scarce back then.
When Le Salon proved to be a success, Farah struck up a partnership with longtime friend Moti Melwani of Singapore’s Melwani Group, who offered to acquire a share in the boutique. It was 1989 and Farah was ready for bigger, better things, and proceeded to rebrand Le Salon into the Melium Group, in which both she and Melwani held stakes. The group’s first endeavour was launching Aigner and Hugo Boss, expanding slowly over the next few years to include Ermenegildo Zegna (1992), Stuart Weitzman (1995) and Furla (1996). In the midst of building her fashion empire, she also brought in Australia’s international café chain, Dome Café.
Today, the controlling stake of her company belongs to the public-listed Insas Bhd, but it is undoubtedly still Farah who runs the show. The reason she sold off the controlling stake of her company was simply for growth.
“We grew from one store to 28 stores and 15 cafés and with that kind of growth, you need the financial injection of a public-listed company. Fashion was really very much in the infancy stage then and we needed to invest in R&D,” she reveals.
One of Melium’s biggest breakthroughs was the opening of the country’s first premium outlet — MO Outlet — at the company’s headquarters. Launched in 2005 and just 10 minutes from KLCC, it offers exclusive reductions on over 50 designer labels. The other is The Melium Galleria, launched in 2007 — a one-stop centre for high fashion, relaxed dining (courtesy of Aseana CafeBar), trunk shows and exhibitions. It features a promenade filled with mono-brand and mixed brand boutiques such as Hit Gallery, which offers a dynamic range of stunning Italian ready-to-wear labels.
Last year, Melium made plenty of waves in style circuit. First, it launched a darling concept boutique called M at The Gardens Mall — a mixed store of 20 avant-garde designer brands featuring only ready-to-wear collections for both men and women. Then it opened Aseana Accessories in Suria KLCC — a boutique dedicated to a unique collection of designer cuffs, necklaces, rings and clutches by brands like Alexis Bittar, Badgley Mischka Jewelry, Edidi, Erickson Beamon, Philippe Audibert, Jacques Fath and more. This was followed by the unveiling of the first Yves Saint Laurent boutique in Asia at Pavilion KL despite the economic downturn.
There is something to be said of Farah’s unwavering tenacity. Like any other entrepreneur building a business, Farah has her share of struggles, but like a true silver surfer, she has an innate ability to catch waves of opportunity as they roll by. Put it down to her incredible networking skills — after spending her early years hard at work convincing serious designer brands to invest their time and money in KL, brands soon began approaching Melium Group, or rather, Farah Khan.
Take Mauboussin, the first jeweller to join Melium Group’s stable of brands. Apparently, a few of her clients who frequent Paris’ Place Vendome automatically named Farah as the person who should bring Mauboussin to Malaysia when they were queried by management. And as it happened, the people at Mauboussin finally met Farah when she made a stop at the boutique to shop for a watch. “When I said I was Farah Khan, the people at Mauboussin said that I was just the woman they wanted to see,” she recalls.
Another fine example is when she found herself sitting between Salvatore Ferragamo and Diego Della Valle of Tod’s while in Italy where she received the Alta Gamma Award in 2006. They got to talking and before the end of the night, Melium had been approached to open a Tod’s store in Malaysia.
Says Farah, “There are so many good players in the industry. The market has really matured quite a bit but it’s still not matured enough. I’ve given confidence to people outside the country to come and invest. My long-term goal is to make Malaysia a shopping region. I have an open mind [when it comes to competitors]. You need choice and variety. I’m passionate about the industry and about Malaysia. I’m absolutely open to competitors. It cannot be done by a few companies.”
What drives Farah is her passion for the lifestyle associated with the brands she handles.
“I like the lifestyle of travelling — it is a privilege that comes with the job. I attend a lot of functions,” she says, adding that the combination of travelling and meeting new people has contributed immensely to her attitude towards life and business.
“From the Germans, I learnt precision and organisation; from the French, I learnt flair and brand building; and from the Italians, style and creativity. You keep growing. As much as I’m soft on the outside, I’m a strong business person. I look like a darling but I can be tough. Our principles are tough. We have to have high standards,” she says.
Farah credits both her parents for their influence on her business drive. Her father too was a business person, a diamond merchant. “I grew up with a lot of people in my house. My parents and my ex-husbands are business people. I learnt accounts, I understand P&L statements and PR and marketing. I took a lot of courses. I learnt everything hands-on.”
Besides studying numbers and promoting brands, Farah says a key element to her success is timing. Another is psychology.
“I watch people, I read all the big authors on psychology. [It helps me] see another side of a person. I believe that you should always be yourself. It’s not the façade that you put on. If you are yourself, you can be more natural, more creative, and think out of the box. The only time I’m a little different is at religious functions. Otherwise, I’m always the same whether in New York, Milan or Paris.”
Looking back on her 20 years with Melium, Farah says, ““It’s been a long journey of learning, really... and I continue to learn. I have really enjoyed the process. I know that I’ve grown up a lot, especially these last 10 years. I feel that the luxury business has given me the privileges of understanding this lifestyle and I enjoy the lifestyle today. I feel very much a part of it. And I understand it in a very deep and profound sense.
“You know what — the funny thing is that I’m still serving the same clients from when I started. My clients have just evolved. I’m also serving their children now, their children, their daughters, their sons-in-law, and it’s a completely new market for us. But it’s really interesting because we’ve had this market with us for 20 years and it’s just wonderful. Most of them have become friends of the company and especially of me.”
Well...as long as Farah remains at the helm, there is no question about Melium’s endurance.
This article appeared in Options, the lifestyle pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 771, Sep 7-Sep 13, 2009.