Ken Downing Speaks out on the Influence of Celebrities and Technology on Fashion


BY CONSTANCE C.R. WHITE

A familiar and influential presence to insiders at shows in London, Milan, Paris and New York, Kenneth Downing has been senior vice president and fashion director for Neiman Marcus Stores since 2006 and started with NM in 1990. He’s earned the ability to speak frankly and knowingly about high fashion customers and designers. Downing has been increasingly vocal about what must happen, in his view, if luxury fashion is to thrive.

Following the spring shows, Downing spoke with The Impression’s Constance White.

Among his terse observations:

“The customer is not amused by one-offs on a celebrity.”

“We have let technology get the best of us in fashion. We need to get the best of technology.”

“Brands feel the need to dress celebrities in the dress as soon as it comes off the sewing machine. It’s the real kiss of death.”

Ken Downing

Why have you decided to speak out now?
We can’t keep going on like this. Something has to change.

What in your view needs to change the most? What’s broken?
Sitting at the shows, I began to wonder about the validity of the runway.

I sat at Ralph Lauren and looked at clothes that were going to be on my selling floor and online the next morning. This is what the customer wants.

It’s a customer-facing marketing moment.

It’s not about all the crazy excitement coming around the shows and then the clothes are available six months from now.

(With Ralph) it was parallel to what we had seen in the showroom.

We did a similar thing with Tom Ford. We bought it similarly to how he had shown it on the runway. He had it available immediately following the show.

It was a very successful season for Tom Ford because the customer was excited in the moment and responded in the moment.

How does this work at the store level?
It used to be that the selling associate could contact the customer three weeks, six weeks – not six months – later.

There are these celebrities and bloggers who are wearing the clothes and it’s all online. This wasn’t the situation two years ago. It was a few women. Now it’s grown at warp speed.

We have let technology get the best of us in fashion. We need to get the best of technology.

We collectively as an industry have to decide what the new rules are and make a game change. We have to realize how powerful the customer has become.

The customers’ shopping habits are what fuels the industry. The affluent, high-end customer is fueling the growth. If everybody’s a celebrity, who’s the customer?”

What about the impact of celebrities today?
Brands feel the need to dress celebrities in the dress as soon as it comes off the sewing machine. It’s the real kiss of death.

When a customer sees a celebrity in a dress, she wants it. But it’s too far in advance. Brands create a one-off and if you are a woman of means you want it. The customer is not amused by one-offs on a celebrity.

They’re tired of it.

And there’s no surprise with the proliferation of social media.

Have you communicated this to designers?
We talk about it in every showroom, with every designer. I’m in front of them saying this.

What’s their reaction? What do they say?
They listen and they want to change. But they are afraid it won’t work.

But there’s proof in the pudding when you look at Burberry, at Tom Ford, Rebecca Minkoff, which is contemporary.

There’s a feeling among Europeans that selling clothes in real time is killing the dream.

But customers’ attention cannot be held for six months!

By the time clothes arrive in stores, there’s an entirely new trend, palette, visual references that customers are seeing.

The customer has caught up with the same calendar we buyers and journalists were on. We were over it, by the time it comes into stores and now the customer is over it.

How are you dealing with this?
Pre-collection is 70-80 % of retailers’ buy. Twenty to 30 % goes into runway; because pre-collection is not so exposed, the clothes don’t look as stale as what was on the runway.

I believe there has to be a 100 % change.