20 Questions with Neiman Marcus Fashion Director Ken Downing

August 14, 2018

SEEN got the scoop on all things fall fashion and the upcoming 2018 Fash Bash with Ken Downing, Neiman Marcus senior vice president and fashion director.

By Rachel Schostak

1. Tell us about your professional career: As the senior vice president/fashion director for Neiman Marcus, I determine the taste, the trends, the attitudes and ideas we as a retailer will embrace each season. Being the global fashion ambassador of the brand, I communicate the most compelling and exciting message to our customers, as well as the media that we see from the fashion capitols of the world, and beyond, that we at Neiman Marcus feel will be most compelling to create the narrative that excited our customers to put into their closets and decorate their homes. I play the role of the ultimate editor, ensuring our fashion-obsessed customers see the most superlative of the moment in style from around the globe.

Ken DowningVia Ken Downing's Instagram

2. How did you get started in the fashion business? I am often asked how I began my career in fashion. I’ve always felt I never looked to be part of fashion, fashion found me. Both of my parents had great style and loved getting dressed up for any and every occasion. My mother modeled briefly before marrying my father. One could say the fashion seed was already planted. My mother tells a story of when I was 6 years old. She was lamenting with a girlfriend on the telephone (yes! A rotary) that she couldn’t decide what to wear to a formal (i.e. black tie). Overhearing their conversation, I went into my mother’s closet and laid out a gown, opera-length gloves, shoes, evening bag, hosiery and jewelry on top of her bed. She wore exactly what I had selected. She never got dressed again without asking my opinion. I was far more interested in clothes and how people dressed than with my toys. It’s where it began, the rest is history.

3. What has been your most valuable lesson learned while working with Anna Wintour at Vogue? How has this benefited or enhanced your career overall? Working with Anna Wintour is a remarkable experience, and I enjoy every moment I’m with her. Anna is pragmatic, decisive and one of the hardest working, and most caring people in the industry. When we first met, she asked me to be part of a project she was passionate about. I was very honored to be included. I arrived early! Anna has no patience for people who are late, and frankly nor do I. I over delivered on my commitments to her project, exceeding her expectations, as I feel everyone should in life. “Good enough” isn’t in my vocabulary, and certainly not in hers. I am always most impressed with people who are driven, opinionated and conquer any project with a fearless spirit. That’s Anna Wintour! These are the attributes of others I enjoy works my with side by side.

Ken DowningVia Ken Downing's Instagram

4. What do you love most about working with Neiman Marcus? There are many things I love about working for Neiman Marcus: the great history of the brand that was founded in 1907 at the corner of cotton and cattle when Dallas was barely a city, the rich culture that exists within the organization, but ultimately, it is our customers. They are like no other! I’m fortunate to be face to face with many of our customers on a daily basis. Their thoughts, ideas, opinions and love of beautiful things inspire me and keep me constantly motivated to exceed their expectations. And at the end of the day, it should be about the customer. I’m just so thrilled I know so many, and they are a great inspiration to me.

Ken DowningVia Ken Downing's Instagram

5. What are the must-have items for fall fashion this 2018 season? It’s a really great fashion season! All ’80s! All Day! All Night! And what a brilliant decade to pull inspiration! The launch of MTV, the social media of the time. Disco, punk to power dressing, new wave, urban cowboy, uptown opulence and downtown girls like Madonna and Debbie Harry of Blondie! My top trends for fall:

Anytime Sequins! No longer for night, start your morning at Starbucks — I’m sequins and shine on through the rest of the day!

Animal prints! Leopard, cheetah, zebra, tiger and more. Animal prints are no longer an accent. Animal prints are a head-to-toe proposition. Can you wear a leopard dress, coat, shoe and handbag? Absolutely! You have my full permission.

The power pantsuit! Oh yes I said it, the pantsuit! It’s back with a vengeance and totally relevant to every women’s wardrobe. Not to negate my love of peacock hues, cowboy boots, combat boots and enormous, over-the-top crystal jewelry. Catch the ’80s fever that defines the season, and relive the decade of decadence and opulence!

Anytime Sequins

Ken Downing

SHOP: Tom Ford Natalia large soft rainbow sequin shoulder bag, Alice + Olivia Ramos sequin pencil skirt, Jimmy Choo Henrietta glitter star boot, all from Neiman Marcus.

Animal Prints

Ken Downing

SHOP:  Veronica Beard Miller double-breasted cheetah print jacketRebecca Taylor snake print tie-neck shift dressAlexander Wang leopard spencer boots with studs, all from Neiman Marcus.

Power Pantsuit

Ken Downing

SHOP: Altuzarra single-breasted floral-embroidered prince of wales check blazerOscar de la Renta double-breasted stretch-wool jacketAkris punto one-button perforated lamb leather blazer, all from Neiman Marcus. 

Now onto style…

6. Who inspires you in the fashion industry? I find inspiration from so many, inside and outside of fashion. Certainly Anna Wintour, Diane von Furstenberg, both strong, driven women. My mother continues to inspire me as she always has. I’m obsessed with the work that Raf Simons is doing at Calvin Klein. Interior designer Kelly Wearstler — she’s such a trail blazer. Cate Blanchett is such a beauty, and I can’t get enough of her impeccable style, and of course Rihanna, so bold, so fearless, and truly, so sweet!

Ken DowningVia Ken Downing's Instagram

Ken Downing with Diane Von Furstenberg.

7. Three words to describe your personal style: REBEL ROCKER REAL!

8. You’re never fully dressed without? CONFIDENCE!

Ken DowningVia Ken Downing's Instagram

9. You can never leave home without? A biker jacket! And that’s for guys and gals!

Ken Downing

SHOP: Elie Tahari Jacalyn textured leather jacket, Tom Ford worked leather zip-front jacket, both from Neiman Marcus. 

10. Do you have a must-follow on Instagram? You can share a few… My favorite Insta currently is Diet Prada (@diet_prada). I can’t get enough of their brilliant, at times snarky, take on the often pretentious world of fashion. Diet Prada keeps it real, and keeps everyone honest! Vogue (@vogue.comes) inspires me everyday! Great content and the ultimate insider’s view of what’s hot and who’s trending in the world of style. Gucci (@gucci) has a great site. I love how they bring an artistic, quirky, eccentric curation to their post. Gracious Opulence (@graciousopulence) has brilliant, grand interiors and gardens. There is never anything wrong celebrating beauty. Kelly Wearstler (@kellywearstler) inspires me to be bold in all my design decisions.

Ken DowningVia Diet Prada's Instagram

11. What in the everyday world inspires you most as it relates to determining color, silhouettes, etc. for every new fashion season? I’m inspired by many things in the everyday world. I’m always looking for beauty, unconventional and otherwise. Being the curious soul I am, nature has always been an important reference point for me. Flora, fauna, rock formations. Lakes, rivers, streams and oceans, a morning sky, a starry night — Mother Nature is truly the greatest of all designers. Architecture has also long been a favorite source of inspiration. My current love, the historic property that I’m renovating in Boston Edison, is a constant source of surprise and delight. I love great old buildings. They tell such a wonderful story of where mankind has been, and where he’s going. And of course art. Great classical painters to the newest emerging names on the contemporary scene. Art fills my life, and my walls with the never ending possibilities of new ideas!

Ken DowningVia Ken Downing's Instagram

12. You’ve described yourself as the “barometer” for what is and isn’t suitable for the next season in fashion. How much of that do you rely on instinct for your decision-making versus forecasting and other research? I love that you’ve asked me this question. I trust my gut and instincts 99.9 percent of the time. If you’re in touch with the world around you, if you have complete confidence that you’re sensitive to society, and confidence in your personal instincts, why not go on gut instinct? Too much analyzing sucks the humanity out of art. I believe what I feel, and act on it. Fashion, beauty, music, design, art, it’s is a very emotional attraction that draws us in. No level of logic can match the emotional understanding of human feelings.

Your Local Love List…

13. What inspired your decision to renovate a historic 1916 mansion here in Detroit? Will the studios within the mansion serve as a creative space for local or international artists? What is yourvision for the renovated space? I fell in love with Detroit over 20 years ago when I first visited the city when opening our Neiman Marcus outside the city in Troy. There was a haunting, poetic beauty to the abandoned buildings and forgotten neighborhoods ravaged by the social uprising of 1967. I had often fantasized about purchasing a faded property and breathing new life into it, and becoming part of the city. Ironically, I was on a tour of the contemporary galleries of the DIA when I was in town at a luncheon Anna Wintour was hosting for Bruce Weber. The conversation turned to the many emerging talents that were making Detroit their home. Not to mention the many chefs who were attracted to the city with its verdant agriculture and pioneering farm-to-table ideas. I knew the time was right. I wanted to be part of the renaissance of this great American city. I set out to a find a Grand Dame of the past, and begin the journey. Many a manse passed my view, but I found an amazing property that spoke to me in many ways. Lady Arden is a labor of love restoring her. I feel like Jackie Kennedy renovating the White House, just without private funding and government assistance! Lol! The plan is the third floor will be artists in residence, where talents can live and create on the property. We will be converting the carriage garages into painting and sculpture studios, and commission artists to do site-specific work. It’s a massive undertaking bringing back these important properties, but the city, and these grand architectural treasures deserve it.

Ken DowningVia Hayden Stinebaugh's Instagram

14. With a special appreciation for the city, what about Detroit inspires you the most? There are many things that inspire me about Detroit. Certainly its amazing architecture, the rich history that defined and continues to define the city, but most importantly the people. The enormous sense of pride Detroiters have for their city, the great “can do” spirit that truly anything is possible. And the warm and welcoming generosity that I feel from locals that are excited to make you part of a community to live and believe in.

15. Have you developed one or two favorite art galleries here in Detroit? Detroit galleries I’m loving: Museum of Contemporary Art DetroitPlayground DetroitNext SpaceSimone DeSousa Gallery.

Ken DowningVia MOCAD's Instagram

16. For you, what makes these special? I’m a huge fan, and collector of emerging talent, so I’m particularly partial to Museum of Contemporary Art and Playground Detroit representing new names! Next Space goes beyond art with fashion and furniture! Simone DeSousa represents James Collins. I like his aesthetic, and he rescued a kitten that he posts on Insta…I can’t help but love that!

17. What are a few of your must-stop spots in Detroit? My must-stop spots in Detroit, there’s probably more than a few…but here goes! The DIA! I love the permanent collections, and to see what exciting exhibits Salvador has brought to the city. MOCAD — I don’t miss going by every time I’m in the city. To eat: Takoi! Delish! Selden Standard, always outstanding! Grey Ghost, always good! Roses Fine Food, no Sunday morning is complete without Roses. Drinks at the Candy Bar in the Siren Hotel. Sugar House in Corktown with the sweet voice of Nicole New singing jazz — I met her at a dinner party and fell in love! Two James Spirits, lively, fun crowd. For my coffee fix, I’m originally from Seattle. Coffee is a good group. The Red Hook DetroitAstro Coffee in Corktown.

Ken DowningVia Candy Bar's Instagram

18. Favorite quote or words to live by? “More is More! Less is a Bore!” I believe minimalism is for amateurs!


19. What are you most excited for regarding Fash Bash 2018? Fash Bash may be the most epic it’s ever been this year. I love producing this show that benefits the DIA and that has become the most talked about event in the city of Detroit! The Fash Bash audience is truly the most enthusiastic, engaged audience I’ve ever encountered and loves a show! I also feel a great deal of responsibility to deliver my best to my newest adopted city. I’m not giving away my secrets about this show, but just know this year, more models, more over-the-top looks, and as always, expect the unexpected. My soundtrack for the show is amazing, and crazy excited that DJ Ali Berger from my favorite restaurant in Detroit, Takoi, will be spinning at the show. It is all about the ’80s after all!

Ken DowningCourtesy Neiman Marcus
Ken DowningCourtesy Neiman Marcus
Ken DowningCourtesy Neiman Marcus

20. You are always full of styling surprises — what can we look forward to? If you can share any hints… First of all, thank you for that compliment! I must say having a model shaved into Mohawk last year back stage for my Punk Show was truly an ultimate in over-the-top, and I wasn’t sure if I could top that. But rest assured, there will be plenty of over-the-top moments. My mood board is filled with images of Boy George, Blondie, Madonna, Iman and more! I’ll leave it at that.

Ken Downing

The Founders Junior Council and Neiman Marcus present Fash Bash 2018, held at the Detroit Institute of Arts on August 16t. Detroit’s premier fashion charity event, sponsored by SEEN Magazine, features a cocktail reception, the Neiman Marcus Art of Fashion Runway Show and the Lincoln Motor Company Afterglow party. More details and ticket purchase can be found at dia.org/fashbash2018.

Ken Downing is the senior vice president and fashion director for Neiman Marcus, where he interprets, articulates, and sets the fashion direction for the Neiman Marcus brand and serves as their international fashion ambassador and spokesperson. He provides oversight to the company’s merchant and creative divisions, and is responsible for dictating the seasonal trends for Neiman Marcus stores and online businesses.

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