Ken Downing, Senior VP & Fashion Director, Neiman Marcus Interview
BY HAL RUBENSTEIN
Everyone I know in fashion has a touchstone, that forthright soul who isn’t blinded by Swarovski crystals, whom you desperately seek when exiting a giddily gushed-over show whose clothes you swear are going to wind up on E! reality stars, because when you finally catch his or her eyes derisively in mid-roll, you know you haven’t lost your mind or your taste. Ken Downing is my touchstone. Neiman Marcus’ Senior Vice President, Fashion Director and steadfast North Star is a distinct rarity, as effusive and uplifting a fashion enthusiast as he is an unapologetic pragmatist. As he relentlessly travels to collections around the globe, then stores around the country, Downing is driven by the belief that clothes are meant to make women look amazing, meant to be purchased, and meant to be available the moment anyone sees and wants them. Try to dissuade him from any of these goals and he will roll his eyes at you, too.
With each city boasting more fashion shows than ever, how come finding the next big thing doesn’t rank as high as your other goals?
Who doesn’t want to discover talent, but what’s wrong with simply making a customer happy? People who love clothes want to buy the dream, something to take them from the chaos of the world, and the more chaotic the world gets, the less they’re willing to wait.
So the thrill of seeing it on the runway or the red carpet is gone?
No, but their real joy is seeing it on their backs, and because my customers are now watching what I’m witnessing in real time, they get frustrated when told they need to wait six months, irritated when they see an “influencer” gets it for free, agitated when it turns up on a celebrity, and ultimately over it by the time it finally shows up in the store, because they’ve now witnessed so much new product since that first rush of desire.
So buy now, wear now is your mission?
No, it’s the reality! Tom Ford did a live feed and women shopped immediately. When Christopher Bailey followed, Burberry’s site was flooded. Rebecca Minkoff actually reshowed Spring in spring, when the clothes were available and her customers shopped and shopped. Even Ralph Lauren knows this isn’t the future. It’s the present. Satisfy the customer when she is ignited and excited. I don’t work in fashion so I can be photographed on a blog; I’m here because I love women. I’m proud enough to boast that I probably spend more time with my customers than almost any retailer, and their wants are unanimous.
What’s the most foolproof advice you offer them?
‘In & Out’ columns are crap. Wear what you love. And color is the beacon that pulls everyone to the rail and puts a spring in your step. With color, your body type disappears and you feel stronger, more confident, noticed and special, maybe even beautiful. And isn’t that our goal, making a woman smile at her reflection? It sure is mine.
Hal Rubenstein, Contributing Editor
Hal Rubenstein’s latest of five books is The Looks of Love: 50 Moments in Fashion that Inspire Romance (HarperCollins). The Global Style Director for Gabriel Jewelers also sells his eponymous clothing line on HSN, is a columnist for Forbes.com, supervising editor for ThePlunge.com, contributes to Elle and 429, and serves as a food consultant for numerous restaurants and hotels in New York and Miami.
Photo | BFA