My Work: Ken Downing

Portrait of Ken Downing of Neiman Marcus

Interview: Haris Stavridis // Portrait: Courtesy of Ken Downing

How did you get started in the fashion industry?

I became interested in fashion at an early age. My mother tells a story of a conversation she was having with a friend about a conundrum of what to wear to a formal event. When she got off the phone, she found that I had laid out on her bed a gown, handbag, shoes and jewellery; and yes, she wore what I had presented. I was styling at a very young age and my obsession with fashion only continued to gain momentum. How people were dressed, how a home was decorated, the details of a party; these are the things that always fascinated me. Once I realised that fashion was going to be my life, I never looked back—which is a good thing, as fashion is always looking forward. I truly believe I was born to be in this industry, I can't imagine doing anything else.

Could you please describe your current role?

As the Senior Vice President/Fashion Director for Neiman Marcus, I search the globe for the latest trends, on and off the runway, uncover new and emerging talent, travel internationally representing the Neiman Marcus brand to a global customer and lead the organisation seasonally in the direction we feel is most fashion authoritative that speaks to our customer around the world.

What is the buying process like at Neiman Marcus? What are the key factors in your decision-making?

There are many factors that are considered when buying collections at Neiman Marcus. The design aesthetic, quality, relevance to the fashion moment, if there are production capabilities that can support the business, and whether there is a pre-collection available! The creativity of a collection must be balanced with a business model that gives us a sense that there is a longevity past the collection that is in front of us.

You are directing 200 merchants in Dallas. How does this work?

We have an amazing team of merchants at Neiman Marcus, all very talented within their areas of expertise. I believe that through communication and collaboration, a team builds confidence and respect for one another. Many eyes are better than two, many ideas are better than one. I am a partner with my teams, we are share the same desire for the success of Neiman Marcus and to exceed our customers' expectations.

What are the qualities you are looking for in candidates?

Great people make a great team. A shared vision and passion for what we do is most important; the other components can be learned.

What are your business priorities for the next six months?

My everyday life is far from the everyday. I have two iPhones, an iPad, a computer in both offices (one in Dallas and one in New York), and a Blackberry buried in the bottom of my bag in the event of everything else failing. To say I am connected is an understatement. Technology allows the world to communicate thoughts, ideas and images, all in a nanosecond. I also rely highly on my gut and my heart. My emotional reaction to fashion, trends, style, people, is instinctively always right on target. I do use my brain, but my gut and heart never get it wrong.

When it comes to fashion and business news, what's on your daily reading list?

I read many trade publications as well as staying keenly aware of the global news; one has to be fully aware of the world around them to know where fashion is (or isn't) going.

What is the biggest setback you have faced in your career and how did you respond to it?

I have had very few setbacks in my career. I believe in my talent, my ability to connect with customers, and my uncanny sense of the moment in fashion; to see clearly the major messages of the season. Humility is also very important to me, posers and fakers are easily identified in an industry that realises the importance of authenticity. I am here for the customer, for the success of the industry and to celebrate talents. I never came to fashion to be famous, I came for my love of beautiful things.

What's your advice for the new designers out there? What should they be doing more of and what should they stop right now?

The greatest advice has always been to know your customer, and know your business. You don't have to run your business, but you have to be aware of the business. It might sound simplistic, but if you have no idea of who you are dressing or want to dress, how can you create?

You see close to 300 to 400 shows a season. What does it take for a designer to grab your attention?

I approach each season with my eyes wide open. I am always excited about the idea of new colours, silhouettes, themes…it's what makes this such an exciting industry. I live for the new! A rehash of old ideas is a waste of a runway—boring just baffles me, why bother? Having said that, I do look for pretty, as it always trumps peculiar. No woman wants to look odd!

What makes a fashion show interesting?

A successful fashion show celebrates the talent of the designer and the craft of making clothes. Often, too many bells and whistles distract from the design. Also, a good soundtrack never hurts my feelings.

What are your three biggest headaches at work right now?

I was once told "I don't get headaches, I give headaches!". It's stuck with me my entire career. I DON'T get headaches, and I DON'T give headaches, nothing is insurmountable. Every potential headache is a potential opportunity.

What's the most solid piece of advice you have for anyone wishing to work in fashion?

Fashion has never been more accessible or attainable as a career. Work hard, work hard, and work harder! Learn everything and anything you can. It's an old adage, but true: "Knowledge is POWER".

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