As the fashion director and senior vice president of the Neiman Marcus stores, Ken Downing is a feature of Fashion Weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris. He oversees women’s and men’s trends, manages a team of fashion editors in the company’s New York office, and directs 200 merchants in the Dallas headquarters of Neiman Marcus.
If that’s not enough, he is the public face of Neiman Marcus and is one of the judges on The Fashion Fund with the Editor of Vogue US, Anna Wintour.
With his signature skinny ties and sandy blonde hair, the department store heavy weight has retained his passion for the fashion industry for more than 30 years through his work with Neiman Marcus and the Council Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in supporting emerging talent.
Despite a hectic schedule on his most recent trip to Australia, Fashion Initiative was lucky enough to gain his insights on fashion, the Neiman Marcus customer, as well as his love for 20th Century design.
First, a big welcome to Australia. What are your thoughts on Australian fashion and the local industry?
I am always excited to be in Australia! The warm welcome, the enthusiasm of the people and the natural beauty are intoxicating. I am always charmed with the ability of the fashionable Australian to translate the natural beauty of the country, the relaxed spirit of the lifestyle into a personal style that always looks effortless and chic.
Are there any Australian designers that really stand out for you?
I am a big fan of Camilla Franks, Johanna Johnson, Sass and Bide and, of course, the terrific swimwear by Zimmerman. They are a few of the Australian talents I love.
What Australian brands does Neiman Marcus stock, and which work well for your customer?
Our customers love the great Camilla Franks romantic kaftans; they are very popular with the Neiman Marcus customer. Her pattern and prints are always a favourite. Johanna Johnson’s embellishment and adornment give my gala girls all the glamour necessary for their personal red carpet moments. Looking pretty poolside is easy with Zimmerman, a popular collection with my customers. Sass and Bide always deliver at the fashion moment with their charming and chic pieces.
Where are the opportunities for designers to reach an untapped market?
I enjoy spending my time in dressing rooms coordinating wardrobes, sharing my fashion knowledge, and having my ears open to their wants and needs: women want fashion, fashion, fashion! Customers want exciting and new ideas to add to their curated closets. They have little interest in buying what they already own. And sizes! Don’t forget the voluptuous figure. Many designers forget that fashionable women come in many sizes.
What is the best advice you can give a brand or a designer to get stocked in Neiman Marcus?
The best advice I can give is the advice I always give: know your customer and know my customer! My women love colour. They love clothes that instil confidence and clothes that celebrate a woman’s femininity. Also, it’s important to have pre-collections to create a profitable business model for yourself and the retailer!
Describe the Neiman Marcus customer? Does the Bergdorf Goodman customer differ from the Neiman Marcus customer?
The Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman women share a great curiosity of fashion and style. She wants to look amazing, current, on trend and of the moment, while always being dressed in good taste. Her style is very personal, but she loves the best the world has to offer and knows she will find the most edited and curated collections in our stores and online.
Obviously you see a lot of fashion at all the fashion shows around the world and ranges via appointments, what really inspires you about fashion?
I am inspired by the new ideas and messages designers put out for each new season. I approach each season with eyes wide open and the curiosity of a child. I love to be surprised, mesmerised and transported! It makes each new season worth the journey of exploration.
What mistakes do designers make and how can they improve?
The global market has worked to fashion’s advantage, with designers realising they are dressing a multitude of women with a multitude of needs in many climates. The greatest challenge is often fabric weights – it’s a conversation in many showrooms and design studios. Heavy, dry, crunchy, bonded and unyielding fabrics that work against a woman and her wardrobe are not what a modern, fashionable, woman of the world is looking to wear.
Neiman Marcus and some other US department stores tend to pre-sell ranges, which is not as common in Australian department stores. Neiman Marcus for example, has showcased some pre-sell items via edits showcased by you on the online site. Is pre-selling effective before landing a full collection in store?
Customers enjoy the opportunity to select items immediately, as they are shown on the runway. Many fashion enthusiasts follow the fashion shows as they happen. We love giving customers the opportunity to indulge in it, so they are excited as the fashion seasons unfold.
Are you looking at new lines for Neiman Marcus from Australia?
New and emerging talent is the future of fashion. My radar for new collections is always finely tuned everywhere I travel!
In terms of sell-though, what do designers need to consistently achieve to remain stocked in Neiman Marcus?
We work diligently to create profitable business with the many designers and collections we carry throughout the Neiman Marcus organisation. New brands take time to develop and nurture, so a relationship with Neiman Marcus is a long-term proposal as success for a brand is success for Neiman Marcus.
What next for Neiman Marcus?
I am most excited about our first store to be opening in New York City in Hudson Yards in 2018. Not only will it be the first Neiman Marcus in Manhattan, but Hudson Yards will be the future home of New York Fashion Week with shows taking place in the Culture Shed! It’s an exceptional project!
Finally, you have a love of 20th Century furniture and art. Whose work captures your imagination?
I am a bit obsessed with 20th century architecture, furniture and art. I am also an avid collector of emerging talents. Paul Rudolph and Eero Saarinen are favourite architects of mine and, of course, Saarinen furniture. Paul Evans, Giacometti, Eames, Mies van der Rohe, Poul Kjaerholm, Jacques Adnet, Tony Duquette … my list is endless. If I didn’t work in fashion, I’d be up to my neck in interiors! My addiction for art includes work by Jack Pierson, Jeff Elrod and Scott Reeder. Empty walls make me nervous!
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