Steven Khalil is one of Australia’s leading designers, specialising in red carpet and bridal gowns. His creations have been worn by the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Kylie Jenner, Kelly Preston and Jesinta Campbell. He also launched an e-boutique last month, and is launching a new perfume next month. Khalil, 39, chats to Kate Waterhouse about dressing celebrities to royalty, and shares his best advice for brides-to-be.
What was your childhood like? I grew up in Sydney. I was raised by a single mother. I was the youngest of four children … I struggled at school because I was creative and I think back then they didn’t know how to deal with creative students. So I was always in trouble or never really connecting. I could never sit down and keep still. In the end, they had to keep paper and pen away from me because all I would want to do was sketch dresses in class. So growing up was a struggle, but I was a happy child and really positive and I think that’s what got me through.
Did you always want to be a designer? Yes, I decided I would make wedding dresses at the age of six.
What influenced your choice of career? I was watching Princess Diana and Charles’ wedding and I remember being really excited about the wedding and my mum was really baffled by it and she said, “Why are you so excited about this wedding?” I didn’t know why, and then when I saw the gown I said to my mum, “I’m going to make wedding dresses when I grow up”… I got my first sewing machine when I was 11.
What route did you take to pursue your dream? I went through high school and did textiles and design at school, I was very drawn to all the creative subjects. And then the minute I left school I went to college and I studied design, fashion and clothing production and manufacturing, and I got my first real job when I was about 19: I was making flower girl dresses for a company. Then I … got head-hunted to go and work in a bridal boutique in Double Bay, called Mark Holt Bridal, when I was 22 years old, and I was living the dream, really. My gowns were on the covers of all the magazines and I stayed there for about seven years, and then I opened my own store.
You’ve dressed so many celebrities and influential people. What has been your biggest pinch-me moment? When we dressed Kylie Jenner for the Grammys – it was very unexpected, although that dress was with Jennifer Lopez, so I was hoping she would wear the dress, but it didn’t fit her and so that dress was sent to Kylie.
You recently dressed the Crown Princess of Greece. How did that come about? The next day after the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia show we received this e-mail [saying that the Princess Olympia of Greece] wanted to wear [a piece from the runway] for her 21st birthday.
What was it like to dress royalty? Well, it’s a first for me … although it has been an ongoing dream for me to make a royal wedding gown because it stems back to the [Princess] Diana thing of me being so obsessed with her wedding dress. So to make a royal wedding gown would be the ultimate for me.
If you could dress anyone, who would it be? I’ve always wanted to dress Cate Blanchett because she’s Australian and has done so well overseas.
What is the most expensive dress you’ve ever had to create? We did a wedding gown for a client in Dubai and she paid $54,000 for that gown. She had seen something that we had done for somebody else, but she wanted a grander version of it, so a lot of it came down to the detail.
What do you love most about being part of a wedding day?
A bride is like the centerpiece of the wedding, isn’t she? The anticipation of her arrival, everybody waits to see her gown. So it’s really special to be chosen to make the gown, it’s such a special honour to do that. So I just love being part of that process.
How do you deal with “bridezillas”?
Over the years I’ve started to realise that it’s so much bigger than me and the dress … You put out the best you can put out… [but] a lot of it is just being patient and they’re under a lot of pressure from their families, [and] under financial pressure a lot of the time, to have this beautiful wedding. So you’ve got to really stop and think about what’s going on for the person and try to be as patient as possible.
What do you think the secret is for a woman looking great on her wedding day?
A lot of it is confidence. I know it probably sounds cliche, but I think if you feel good in something and you’re carrying that really well, you’ll give a good vibe.
What are the biggest fashion mistakes you see?
I think when you seen an image of somebody that looks amazing and you’re like, “I want that whole outfit,” but you always should make something your own. Don’t try to emulate what someone else is wearing because they might have a different body shape to you and the clothes might not fall the same way on you.
Have you got plans to open stores internationally?
I would like to, yes. So what we’re doing at the moment is just developing the brand more, creating more products so that we can then just open beautiful boutiques in chosen cities.
How are you expanding?
We are adding more to the line, adding in jewellery, robes; we’re going to go into more beautiful lingerie as well … So we’re working on a new collection for that, because the first season of those christening gowns sold out so quickly… and we still have waiting list for them.
Tell me about the perfume.
The perfume is really gorgeous and it’s going to be launched in [early August]. We’re just finalising all the labels and the packaging at the moment. The fragrance consists of rose, patchouli and lily of the valley… I want people to come into the store and be able to buy various products, not just the dress. So it’s kind of following in the footsteps of Elie Saab, Vera Wang, to create a really beautiful brand experience.
If you hadn’t gone down this career path, what would you be doing?
You know, I have no idea because this was the only thing I wanted to do … when I was growing up, so many people were saying to me, “You can’t be a dressmaker, that’s not a real job.” What is a real job? So I thought about becoming a hairdresser or a lawyer.
What do you do for fun when you’re not working?
I love going out with friends to eat, I love Sunday morning breakfasts, I love being by the water. Yeah, I’m quite simple … I love to shop, I love beautiful clothing, I love going to art galleries.
Where do see yourself in five years?
I would love a concept store with sales people, beautiful products everywhere and just a really beautiful shopping experience.
We went to
Bistro Moncur, Woollahra
Pan-fried barramundi fillet, mashed peas, creme fraiche and confit spring onion, sunflower seed and caper beurre noisett
San Pellegrino mineral water
Ralph Lauren shirt and jacket and Nudie Jeans.