A front-row fixture at fashion shows around the world (not to mention behind-stage and even on-stage), Neiman Marcus Fashion Director and SVP Ken Downing tells us how he translates what he sees on the runways to his increasingly savvy customers.
Not that we need to establish your fashion cred AT ALL, but how many shows would you say you’ve attended?
I’ve been in the fashion industry 30+ years now, and Fashion Director for Neiman Marcus for 11. I see over 115 shows in New York alone per season. Then 20 shows in London, 25 in Milan and 30 in Paris… per season. And as the fashion director, I’m not just seeing what we buy and love as part of our Neiman Marcus stable, but I’m looking for new and the next up-and-coming designers too. I spend a lot of time in fashion showrooms too.
How does social media impact what you bring into the store?
There’s been a lot of discussion on the ability of the customer to follow fashion in real time and the fatigue it’s costing. In a positive way, social media causes enormous excitement and the fashion conversation has never been bigger. They want to have it now. I recently did a big fashion show in Atlanta with 40 models, then a luncheon for customers featuring the best items of the shows. I have to remind people that it’s spring, because after the fall shows they are so focused on fall. I need to get them excited for the current season. We need to step back and rewind and show them the here and now.
How else do you create that excitement in real time?
I’m Periscoping the fashion shows now, and also accessorizing the models back stage. I love this as I can have 300+ people following in a nanosecond. It really helps create a fashion moment.
What did you see on the runways that will translate to what people will actually wear?
People always ask me, ‘What are real women wearing?’ but women’s real lives ARE what they’re seeing on the runway. As for what was hot at the Spring 2016 shows that’s in store now, it’s the dramatic earring. It takes 10 years off every woman’s appearance! But leaving the Fall 2016 shows, I’m obsessed with chokers. It’s a Victorian, Goth moment. I look for trends that the customer hasn’t had in her wardrobe in a while. And this she can do with a piece of ribbon—adding a bit of sparkle and shine.
How does the Neiman Marcus customer translate runway to reality?
We do the literal because the runway IS such an important indicator of where fashion is going. I have the ability to sense where fashion is moving and we always put a list together every season at Neiman Marcus. We also take our cues from street style, Hollywood, the Red Carpet, and the runway shows. So when you see runway fashion and accessories, we buy those specific accessories. But we also work with the industry to make sure they have chokers in their assortments.
So you tell the designers what they need to have?
I do trend reports with my team, and when I go into showrooms I find that these reports have been forwarded and printed in full color and are showing up in designer mood boards. The designers and those who create… they know if we feel we’re the authority on something, they should have it!
How do you translate tricky runway items to reality (say, the single earring, or mismatched earrings)?
I always want to educate the customer on something I saw and how I see it happening, both in the Neiman Marcus blog and in The Book. I also do trend presentations for customers where I’ll show 25 to 30 looks. Then I’ll spend the next 30 minutes dressing these women head to toe. And I’ll tell them to do a stud paired with a hanging earring. Balenciaga had three earrings on one ear. That’s not for everyone but it gives the customer the ability to dream.
But is there something that is for everyone?
Now there are so many new ideas so it’s really how you style it. I love the asymmetrical earring trend, but it’s all about attitude. If you feel self-conscious about it, it will look like you ran out of the house in the wrong earring. And every celeb is wearing one earring. It’s not a conversation that’s obscure. We’re reinforcing what’s out there!
How do you do that with your stores?
I send out weekly trend fashion blasts to all of our sellers, talk about jewelry trends, handbag, shoe, ready to wear.… we believe education is so important so they can convey that to the consumer. Our customer service is what separates us from other retailers. Our selling associates are personal stylists. And they’ve won over a customer for life if she can learn to restyle something for the next season. Fashion should be continually curated and collected in your closet.
What’s inspiring you most now?
What’s going on at Gucci now is inspiring everyone—this whole overt, over-the-top spikes, crystal, pearls, applique, all worn together at one time. So currently, it’s Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, who brought the ideas of ‘more is more’ into the forefront. We love the dainty ring but we love the big over-the-top ring too. We’ve been showing that from the beginning. I’m looking at every tiny detail. What kept my attention.
How do you convey that to the customer?
I don’t translate the Gucci literally. It’s more about the spirit of mixing and matching. I give the customer the confidence and the permission to wear something in a different way. With permission comes confidence.
I say, Take your evening bag out for day. It will have a good time. Giving the customer permission is the greatest gift we have in fashion. And the great thing about the multiple ring trend is I can say to a customer: ‘I know you have a drawerful of rings!’
I love when something is a bit undone, off kilter, that’s very Gucci. Can it be the Neiman Marcus customer? Yes. I’m talking about it constantly. It’s being eccentric to evoke confidence in your own wardrobe. That’s the individual spirit we’re seeing right now. It looks really good to the eye. My Aunt Eunice was a Gucci girl back then. She had her own point of view.
What other accessories are hot?
There were a lot of pins on the runway that have an early punk new wave, early romantic feel. And patches too! For Fall, it’s not just an applied pin, but many ready-to-wear items have the “pin” pieces actually on them, which takes the guesswork out of it. Think late 70s and early 80s—the denim jacket covered in groovy pins. That’s a super important trend. We’ll see people taking a brooch or classic jewelry and mixing with cheap and cheerful. It can be a playful trend, mixing high and low.
Where do you scout for influential street style?
Aside from the cities I’m regularly in for Fashion Weeks, my eye just naturally goes to the most adorable people on the street! I just look at young kids in the mall, and there is this unabashed confidence in how young people are dressing these days. I just bought a house that I’m renovating in Detroit. And that city is burgeoning with adorable young artists, musicians, chefs…. They all have this great sense of style. Detroit is a city of preservation/renovation, it’s very artisanal, very uncalculated hip. Shinola is from there. I just love it.
What about this whole idea of genderless dressing?
I recently did a fitting in Atlanta and this guy was wearing his girlfriend’s glasses. He said he also shares her clothes. It’s generational—they don’t see it as a gender issue. This whole pin trend and charm trend… very new wave… charms hanging off jackets, backpacks and handbags.