Ken Downing Muses on Florida Fashion
by lauren finney
Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, is a formidable player in luxury retail. His presence front row at fashion shows (about 113 in New York alone last season) is highly prized. Not surprising. This veteran of chic, with more than 30 years in the business, has the power to catapult a designer from obscurity to national renown.
What’s more, how he edits the trends, curates the collections, and guides his team of buyers across the 42 Neiman Marcus stores can single-handledly shape the style of a city.
Praised for his eye, his wit, and his passion for drilling to the heart of what his discriminating customers want and need, Downing has become somewhat of a celebrity in the retail world. His personal appearances—like the one this past April at Neiman Marcus Fort Lauderdale—draw hundreds of Downing devotees, all clamoring for his razor-sharp style advice or a hand-picked recommendation hot from the runway. “We still, after months, have customers coming in either to inquire about a piece he showed or say how much they enjoyed his show,” says Jonie Sabo, the public relations manager of Neiman Marcus Fort Lauderdale. “It’s every woman’s dream to be styled by Ken Downing.”
“I love traveling to all the stores and meeting the customers face-to-face,” says Downing, a Seattle native based in New York and Dallas, with a penchant for the Sun Belt. “We are laser-focused on all of our customers who live in warm climates where the weather never turns. Eighty percent of our business is done from Los Angeles to Florida, so the first thing I do when I go into a showroom is touch [a garment] to see truly how that fabric feels as weight. I’m thinking constantly about women who live in the sun, Is this something they can be comfortable in?
“What I love about women in Florida,” Downing continues, “is that they do not fear pattern because it’s part of their wardrobe all the time. They have such a great sense about their fashionability. They really embrace a moment, and they embrace it with enormous enthusiasm.”
This attention to his warm-weather customers extends into the Fall 2013 season, where the influence is very definitely rock ’n’ roll and the importance of music.
“A biker jacket becomes a pivotal piece in a woman’s wardrobe,” says Downing. “A glove-weight leather works for any climate. It’s not heavy; it’s super-soft and supple. A biker jacket can top a cocktail dress or a gown, and it gives you immediate cool when you walk into an event. There’s not a designer that didn’t touch on this trend—Karl Lagerfeld had amazing biker jackets in the collection at Chanel.”
Jackets, a mini bag, and the single-sole pump are necessities for fall, according to Downing. The single-sole pump? “Think Debbie Harry from Blondie,” he says. “It’s a platform that’s actually diminished and not as exaggerated. A little smaller than the actual shoe, and it doesn’t feel as aggressive. I love the idea of a shoe that has a ladylike edge that brings a bit of polish to all the music relevance.” When it comes to bags this season, he notes, the coolest is the mini bag: “For every handbag we see in a collection, there is a mini version. I love how charming they are, and I like the girlie quality of them. If you take on a tomboy or rock attitude in your wardrobe, you want that little mini girlie bag,” Downing says.
“Of course at Neiman Marcus we love color as it’s something our customers embrace and something they crave, so I was really focused on the runway collections with all the violets and purples. Purple has such history with rock ’n’ roll.”
However, none of these trends makes any impact on Downing unless his customers respond accordingly. “It’s really the smartest thing for me to spend time with women who love clothes so I can hear what they’re interested in, what they’re not interested in, and how those clothes translate on different body types. It really informs me.”
With genuine excitement, he adds, “It’s a sexy season—a sensational season.” Neiman Marcus, Bal Harbour Shops, 9700 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 305-865-6161
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.