Downtime with Ken Downing

TAT Fashion Editor, Christine Assirvaden had the privilege of chatting with Neiman Marcus’ Ken Downing on his first visit to Melbourne last week. They chatted over coffee, mulled over their love of fashion and simply enjoyed each other’s company.  Here’s what the Senior Vice President and Fashion Director had to say on Aussie fashion, Vogue, his life and New York, which dominated most of their conversation.


Ken Downing on life before Neiman Marcus


I don’t think I had a life before Neiman Marcus. Actually I did… I’m from Seattle and I was very interested in fashion from a very early age – 6 years old my mother tells me. I grew up with a very fashionable mother and a very fashionable grandmother. As interested as I was in fashion, I think my parents never realised that I would actually have a valid career in fashion because fashion does not hit Seattle in a big way. So I was always very interested in how people looked, how they would dress, how their homes were decorated, and out of high school, I went to design school and I’m actually formally trained as a fashion designer. I can drape, I can draft, I can sew, I actually know how to embroider, and I can make anything from a pair of jeans, to a wedding gown. Not that I sit behind a sewing machine anymore, but I have the skills and I’ve always been very involved in the industry. I have styled in front of the camera, behind the camera, I’ve modelled, I’ve designed clothes, and it’s just always been a part of my life. Not that I was born into it, but I was just born to be in fashion.


Ken Downing on his career before Neiman Marcus


Before Neiman Marcus, I worked at I. Magnin, which is the Neiman Marcus of the West Coast. I. Magnin is an amazing store, which was founded in the ’20s, it was very art-deco, the stores were very glamorous and that’s where Neiman Marcus was following me. I was actually in the display department, I used to dress mannequins, my talent was that I could actually look at a photograph from a fashion show and recreate the mannequin to look almost exactly like the model when they walk the runway. I was actually able to recreate the hair all the way down, mood and attitude of the model into a mannequin and so fashion designers loved working with I. Magnin. I don’t know how I learnt to do hair, I just did. I picked up a water bottle and comb and just started teasing, combing, so I was known for all of that. And from being in the display department, Neiman Marcus picked me up and I went into the visual department for them, around the Beverly Hills store, then I went into public relations corporately where I met more designers doing fashion shows and events and eventually became the Senior Vice President/Fashion Director of the company.


Ken Downing on working with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CDFA) Vogue Fashion Fund


We have over 100 candidates every year who apply for consideration for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. We cull down the portfolios from 100 to 50, and there are 10 judges throughout the industry – be it in retail, fashion design, the media with Vogue, industry leaders that run companies – who take five or six candidates and scour through their portfolio. We look at creativity, their business model, how big their business is, how big their business could be, and then we come together and have an enormous meeting where we discuss our findings of our candidates.
There’s an entire process where there are design challenges. They come to Vogue Magazine and they have models that wear their shoes, jewellery, ready to wear, and they tell us their story. They have to create items, which culminates with the fashion show in Los Angeles that Vogue actually styles and produces in the Chateau Marmont. It’s not only just their creativity, it’s their personality – how they can talk about their brand, how they present their brand and their vision for the brand in the future – because not only do they receive a cash reward, they also receive a mentorship for an entire year.
Many times through the process of meeting new talents and even just examining through the many portfolios, it makes me aware of young talents that I might not even know and that I eventually can bring onto become a part of Neiman Marcus. I love it and I love the mentorship because I like to be able to help propel the dreams of young talent. I also like to keep them rooted in reality. Young talent, they’re big dreamers, and we need dreams in fashion but we also need the reality that fashion is ultimately a business and they have to have an understanding of that.


Ken Downing on Australian fashion


What I love about Australia is that Australians love Neiman Marcus and I like to be liked! People here are so warm and so welcoming, this is actually my first trip to Melbourne, I’ve been to Sydney, and I’m the type of individual that when I land in a city, I really take on the city as a local. I’m not as interested in the touristy things; I like to immerse myself in the everyday. All the people I meet when I’m in Australia I just love and adore. The weather is superlative. There’s a real appreciation for natural beauty that surrounds this amazing country, and I love how people are able to translate their casual lifestyle and their love of nature into the way they dress. There are certainly uber chic people everywhere as there are in the world, but I love that very relaxed, chic style that people have here. It really shows how much they embrace natural beauty and they really enjoy the natural beauty that Australia’s known for. I feel very akin to all that when I’m here. Every time I come, I’m like “Hmm, I wonder if I could live there?” I was up early wondering the streets around the hotel taking photographs and instagramming but I just love that very natural beauty that’s not only given by God to the country but I see that natural beauty in the people that live here, and I really enjoy that.
Ken Downing on their biggest Neiman Marcus store opening in New York


We have a store in Westchester about 45 minutes outside of the city, and then two stores in New Jersey across the river which are about 30 minutes away and we’re opening in 2016, a store in Long Island, New York and then in 2018, our first store in Manhattan. We have our Bergdorf Goodman store which is our glamorous sister store which is part of the Neiman Marcus group of stores. And in 2018, the first branded Neiman Marcus retail in Hudson Yards, which is going to be pretty exciting. Hudson Yards is where all the trains come together between 29th and 32nd right over the river, and not only is it going to be an enormous project of buildings, and high-rises, retail, and residential, it’s also where all New York Fashion Week shows are going to be taking place. It’s a vital up and coming neighbourhood in New York.


Ken Downing on working with editors


I love it. I’m very fortunate as I feel I have the eye of an editor, the mind of a retailer and I spend so much time in the front row of fashion shows. I really use my gut and my heart when I’m looking at clothes much more than I use my head because I think if something captivates me and it emotionally tugs at me, it’s the right thing, and I think many editors work that way. When I see something that just makes me shiver, it’s going to make my customers shiver too. I’m very emotional when I see clothes, I find often that what I’m selecting for my advertising looks and the pieces that I think are most special, and collections, the editors are in sync with me as well. So, if I didn’t do this, I’d probably be an editor somewhere.


Ken Downing on visiting our country more


Well, I’ve been making an annual journey. It’s not that it’s any surprise but this is a very far-away land. I do love it here a lot, so I’m hoping to [visit more]. I wish that I had magical powers where I could twitch my nose or blink my eyes and get here quickly but I travel everywhere, I’m going to be doing Dubai, I’ve been to Shanghai and Beijing and I’m always on the road but I would love to. That’s my plan; I’d like to be here more.

By Christine Assirvaden