Interior Design

A material guy in a material world

He’s the go-to supplier of the most exotic and experimental surfaces for walls, floors, ceilings and furniture. Helen Chislett meets Fameed Khalique, a man driven by the constant need to push technologies – and to exceed his clients’ expectations

December 28 2012
Helen Chislett

Fameed Khalique is used to challenges. Take, for instance, the client who wanted the exact same bamboo that was used for the handles of her Gucci handbag to make frames for the screens in her spa. Or the one who wanted a real porcelain powder-room, complete with hand-carved flowers and leaves seemingly blossoming from the walls. Then there was the interior designer who demanded hand-embroidered rabbit pelts, another who requested 24ct-gold mosaic tiles, and one who commissioned an entire floor of semi-precious stones, as well as columns of amethyst. Most recently, Khalique came to the rescue of a design firm that had been searching for more than a year to find slabs of rock crystal large enough to line the walls of a company lobby, as specifically requested by the CEO. Not only did Khalique source pieces big enough, but he also solved the technical problem of how to line the ceiling without causing it to crash down, by developing acrylic panels of faux crystal. No wonder then, that he describes his job as “helping designers and architects look good to their clients”.

It is four years since Khalique launched his eponymous company, but from the outset he has counted the A-list of interior designers as his patrons – among them Candy & Candy, Finchatton, Terence Disdale, David Collins, Katharine Pooley, Martin Kemp and Bill Bennette. He built up this enviable contacts list during the five years he spent as the sales and marketing director of Alma Leather, the company owned by his eldest brother, Saeed. That was his initiation into the world of interiors, and from the first he believed in being innovative with the materials. “My passion for experimenting really began at Alma,” says Khalique. “We were the first to introduce laser-cut leathers, for example.” When Saeed Khalique initially took over the company in 1989, it produced nothing but skins. Today it is recognised as one of the foremost leather companies within the interior-design sphere, manufacturing wall coverings, floors, soft furnishings and furniture.

It is telling, perhaps, that Khalique’s first love was fashion. He discovered this at sixth-form college in Leicester, when he was asked to produce the annual student fashion show. Until then, his exposure to that mercurial world had been nil. “I come from a very traditional Pakistani family, where my mother wore a shalwar kameez and no make-up,” he says. “My three brothers and I were born in the UK and my father always believed in integration, but we still came home from school each day to an evening of strict homework and reading the Koran. We lived in a tiny rural village of thatched cottages and we were the only non-white family, so there was always a feeling of living dual lives.”

Faced with organising the show, he applied what he considers to be his greatest talent: common sense. “I thought of all the things we might need – such as make-up, shoes and jewellery – and then I went into Leicester and asked various shops to help. Surprisingly, they all said yes.” Invigorated by his success, he hatched the germ of an idea: to stage the biggest fashion event the world had ever seen. After A-levels, he applied for a degree at the North East London Polytechnic, which was based around the idea of independent study. “The first thing you had to do was write your own course, which then had to be validated independently to make sure it was of degree standard,” says Khalique. “I wrote that I wanted to organise the world’s biggest fashion show and the comment to my tutors came back, ‘Don’t you think he is being a bit adventurous?’ But I insisted it was on the success of that aim that I wanted to be examined.”

However absurd it might have seemed, a chain of events clicked into place that led Khalique straight to target. The year was 1985, when Live Aid took the world by storm. Khalique decided to organise another student fashion show and give the proceeds to the charity. When he rang to ask where to send the money, he was put through to Bob Geldof himself, and ended up confiding his ambition of a super-size charity event. During that conversation, the idea for Fashion Aid was born; held in 1985 at the Royal Albert Hall, it involved 18 of the world’s top designers, as well as a host of celebrities (an unlikely mix including Freddie Mercury, Boy George and Margaret Thatcher), and an audience of 5,000. For Khalique, his involvement in the show was a dream come true – so much so that afterwards he decided to cut his studies short: for him, it was mission accomplished.

A chequered career followed, with stints in logistics, publishing, marketing, sales and business development. By the time his brother offered him the position at Alma, he was in his late 30s and had dropped the idea of working in the fashion world. However, it was not until he and Saeed amicably agreed to part company that he realised his CV was perhaps a little too varied. While considering what to do, he visited Dubai and saw that there was an opportunity in the Middle East for selling the sort of leather varieties and finishes for which Alma was famed. He founded a successful company, Kens & Khalique, with a friend. “There was never a business plan – it just grew organically,” he says. A year later, he launched Fameed Khalique, a separate business that is solely his, which operates everywhere in the world other than the Kens & Khalique territory of the Middle East.

It was then that everything began to fall into place. “I had always wanted to achieve something in life, but I had never felt in any of my roles, no matter how successful I was, that this was the job,” he says. But this business was different, and it soon began to grow. As well as his own collections of plain and embossed leathers (from £204 per square metre), embroideries (price on request) and semi-precious stones (price on request), Khalique also offers leather mosaic tiles (from £250 per square metre), a huge range of stones and marbles (from £560 per metre), carpets woven with silk and metal ribbon (from £750 per square metre), spectacular rugs (from £870 per square metre) and wooden floors inlaid with marble and steel (from £1,100 per square metre). In addition, he provides access to an elite group of designers from across the world, whose work he champions. The New York-based textile designer Be Inthavong, for example, employs a rare technique of weaving leather and silk together (fabrics cost £432 per metre). The textiles are created at his family’s mill in Laos, using traditional methods such as crushing insect wings to create dyes. Meanwhile, the Danish designer Pernille Holm experiments with substances such as sand, stone and green glass within her tactile fabrics (from £430 per metre). The Belgian designer Luc Druez, who is behind the brand LcD Textile Edition, is equally inventive, mixing copper wires with technical fibres such as synthetic horsehair, for example, to create a collection of artisanal weaves (from £175 per metre), while the Danish designer Annemette Beck combines unexpected materials – including the recycled rubber inner-tubes of bicycles, paper yarn, Lurex and plant fibres – with wools, linens and leathers to create fabrics, wall-hangings, blinds, room dividers and rugs (all start from £300 per metre).

Khalique says it is this innovative approach that sets his company aside from other materials specialists. “I don’t believe there is anyone who offers the vast range that we do, or who pushes technologies forward as much,” he says. “I am an extended library to the designers who come here – we don’t charge them for looking around, ‘raiding the larder’ as I call it. They walk in sometimes with no idea at all of what they are looking for and walk out with 20 brilliant ideas. And if I don’t have what they want, I can guarantee I’ll find it for them.” He also prides himself on the craftsmanship he has tapped into across the globe, a network that includes skilled artisans who have worked for brands such as Chanel, Dior and Hermès. Initially, he felt insecure that designers might not share his eye or trust his judgment, but those fears have proved unfounded. “I pick things because I love them,” he says. “If I go to see a new client, I’m usually given 10 minutes to impress them – you can bet I’m still there an hour later.”

Khalique views himself as a creative director, pointing out that he not only sources the unusual and original, but also helps at times to create it. Recently, for example, he sandwiched Luc Druez’s copper fabrics between glass, in order to extend their uses; similarly, he re-visited the traditional skill of verre églomisé – the technique of reverse gilding and painting on glass – encouraging master craftsman Peter Gorman to push the technique forward with the added use of vellums and resins.  

Next year, clients will have greater access to his collections and resources, as he aims to move from his tiny Clerkenwell studio to a smart showroom in the West End, with an outlet in the US to follow. It is a journey that no one, not least Khalique, would have predicted. “I do totally believe that there is something external that drives you on,” he says. “Finally, I am in the right job, doing what I should be doing – but I am amazed myself at how it has happened.”

What makes him most proud is seeing the excitement his “Fameed finds” generate in designers. “The nicest thing that an interior designer ever said to me was that people were always ringing her up saying they had the next best thing to sliced bread, but they never did – then she came here and said, ‘But you really do!’ If I can get a designer to go ‘Wow’ when I am showing them samples, then I know I have done my job; because if they go ‘Wow’, so will their client. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.”