The image of an evening gown with sneakers was long synonymous with “Runaway Bride,” the 1999 film that reunited Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in a comedy about a woman who can’t commit (a story line that hasn’t exactly aged well upon close rewatch, but that’s another story). It resonated so much that when Chanel showed its entire Spring 2014 couture line of gowns and skirt suits with sneakers, it was immediately dubbed the “runaway bride” collection.
Fast forward seven years, and the way we look at women’s sneakers as they pertain to feminine dressing is a lot more nuanced than said movie poster image of Roberts lacing up her running shoes (for the record, it was a pair of Adidas in the actual film). Designer Azeeza Khan of the womenswear line Azeeza is helping to redefine those ideas of femininity in the sneaker world through an ongoing partnership with Nike that pulls her colorful, elegant and ethereal aesthetic into the primarily masculine realm of athletic and streetwear design.
It’s an unexpected match, pairing the biggest sports brand in the world with an independently owned womenswear designer who specializes in the the most feminine of gowns (yes, bridal dresses included).
But that juxtaposition is precisely the point of Nike’s ongoing connection with Khan and her eight-year-old eponymous brand. In late 2019, Nike and Khan debuted a capsule that showcased Azeeza’s chic empire-waisted and frilled-hem dresses reimagined in performance fabrics and an Air Force 1 with a swoosh completely decked out in Swarovski crystals. Nike and Khan hosted a local workshop at its Chicago flagship to celebrate the collaboration, followed up by an activation and panel discussion during the NBA All-Star weekend in February 2020 (just before the pandemic closed everything).
After a yearlong pause during the pandemic, Khan once again partnered with Nike, this time to celebrate Air Max Day 2021, participating in the brand’s immersive virtual experience on March 26 and designing her own Air Max 95, which incorporates the colors of the Chicago city flag in an ode to her hometown — hues that also reflect the vibrancy of her collection of voluminous mini dresses, fantastical evening gowns and portrait-perfect tops.
“I always start with color, and that inspires me to decide how to use fabric, what needs chiffon, what needs a certain hemline,” Khan told FN. “That really drives me creatively. I think you can notice that seeing the pieces in person. You see the color first.”
After building a successful career in corporate marketing and advertising, the Chicago born-and-raised Khan launched her brand of dresses in 2013 as a personal project. “I started the business just to say I tried it. I have no background in fashion,” she said. But Khan’s vision happened to hit the bullseye on what women were looking for in evening wear: ultra-feminine but not overly complicated or restrictive in actual wear; statement making in color, with silhouettes that are on-trend but also universally flattering and classic; volume in all the right places.
In 2016, Azeeza launched at Barneys New York and quickly became one of the retailer’s top selling evening wear brands. The brand is still carried at the likes of Bergdorf Goodman and Shopbop, but its flagship on Michigan Avenue — a hybrid retail space that also holds its showroom, design studio and offices — remains its heart of Khan’s business, which she owns entirely.
“Having my brand here, I am part of this artistic community here in Chicago,” said Khan, who first connected with Nike through the city’s art and design scene. “It’s a really small scene here in Chicago and everyone knows each other.”
Focus on the local and independent could become even more important for Nike as it rolls out future collaborations. For now Khan’s partnership with the brand highlights an opportunity to further redefine athletic wear in the space of a womenswear, especially as consumers take stock of their wardrobes in a new post-pandemic lifestyle. Collaborations with Virgil Abloh and Off-White, Comme des Garçons as well as Jordan’s partnership with Dior have all upped the capital-F fashion quotient for Nike, but the feminine-focused womenswear space is still a relatively untapped space for the athletic brand.
“It’s a reflection of this intersection: I’m not a total sneakerhead, decked out in streetwear head to toe, but I’m also not that person who is in head-to-toe Prada,” said Khan. I’m in that middle area in between.”