Fashion Direction: Up with Ken Downing

“I don’t want you to look dead.
I want you propped up.”

Ken Downing directs, as four models contort and drape themselves around him on a rug. Just minutes before, Downing, the senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, declared that he and the models should lie down in the middle of the downtown Dallas department store to re-enact an old Versace campaign for Lifestyle’s photo shoot. When one of the most influential voices in fashion says to pile on the floor for a photo, no one bats an eyelash. A ladder quickly emerges for the photographer to capture the scene from above, and within minutes, an explosion of colorful designer fabrics and textures are in a heap of gorgeousness on the floor. Like everything Downing does, it’s spontaneous, deliciously detailed, but most of all, it’s about telling a story that keeps fashion alive and exciting.

There are so many things going on in the world that fashion is one of the last remaining dreams, Downing says. I think what makes fashion fascinating is the storytelling. When we lose the storytelling, we lose the sense of a dream? and then it is just clothes. And when it is just clothes, then I don’t know if anybody cares anymore.?

Even if you’ve never heard of Downing, he’s probably hand-picked something you’ve worn. In October, he’ll celebrate 25 years with Neiman Marcus and a decade as the luxury department store’s fashion director. When he visits the Fort Lauderdale store to put on an exhilarating, over-the-top show, hundreds of Downing devotees gather for his coveted fashion advice.

Ken is one of the most genuine, down-to-earth people I have ever met, says Jonie Sabo, public relations manager for Neiman Marcus Fort Lauderdale. The last time he was at our store, my VP saw him about an hour prior to his fashion presentation steaming all of the looks for the models. Of course, my boss said to me, “Get over there, Ken shouldn’t be doing that!?” When I approached him, he said, “Jonie, please go relax, I love doing this.”

But Downing will be the first to tell you he is not a relaxed person. A quick flip through his Instagram reveals a fast-paced playbook of him front and center at runway shows around the world and attending fashion luncheons and charities with the likes of Anna Wintour and Diane von Furstenberg. “I wake up every day in a different country, a different city,” Downing says. “I don’t sleep; I really don’t eat. I live on lattes and Chipotle burritos.”

Keeping his eyes focused on the global picture of fashion enables him to ultimately know what customers want and don’t want. When a fashion show starts and it’s time to scout the latest and greatest for Neiman Marcus, Downing always has his game face on. “I use my heart and my gut to make the decisions. If it excites me in that moment, I know it will excite the customer six months from then.”

For Downing, curating a new season also means visiting museums and galleries, “to pick up on the cultural vibe and where fashion might be heading.” He also admits to being a midcentury junkie and is always trolling vintage furniture shops for gems. When he’s in South Florida, he likes staying in bustling Delray Beach. “I am always happy if I can find time to fit in a gallery or enjoy an exhibit at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale,” he says.

While fashion is his passion, Downing believes art will ultimately be his legacy. He recently purchased a historical 1916 mansion in Detroit (he also owns a midcentury home and a lake house in Texas), with dreams to create a live/work environment where up-and-coming artists can create without boundaries. I had to ask: “When you can have a house anywhere in the world, why Detroit?”

“I have been beyond interested, intrigued and, frankly, insanely excited about the renaissance of this great city,” he says. “New businesses coupled with the artist community that is flocking to Detroit have made it one of the hottest under-discovered gems on the American landscape. Detroit is the new SoHo of the 60s and 70s. I’m excited to be at the forefront of this new frontier.”

downing’s direction

Downing’s love of art and fashion started at a young age. While other children were playing with their favorite toys, the Seattle native was more interested in “how people were dressed or the way their homes were decorated.” Going to weddings and the pageantry of big events interested him, and he credits his beloved mother for supporting him at a time when it wasn’t necessarily acceptable for men to be in the fashion industry. “My mother never discouraged me or tried to suppress my love of beautiful things,” he says. “She always encouraged me to follow my dreams.”

Now, Downing offers his mother advice on their shared passions: fashion, decorating and gardening. But it’s her fashion advice that always resonates when dressing his customers: “Pretty! Not peculiar, no woman wants to look odd. And, as always, mother is always right.”

Downing’s top fashion picks for the fall are a throwback to the 1970s. “Folkloric references define the attitude of what I love,” he says. “Midi and maxi hemlines, hand-loomed fabrics, embroidery, lace, patchwork, fringe, ruffles, flounces and handkerchief hemlines create the folkloric fantasy with a romantic spirit, often with touches of Victoriana. This captivated me throughout the entire runway season. Folkloric looks fabulous don’t miss the moment!”

But how do we wear them in steamy South Florida? “It’s so easy to do!” Downing says. “A maxi skirt in printed chiffon with a great little cotton sweater for when it gets chilly at night. Folkloric is also easily achieved with a bunch of jewelry. Season-less, transitional fabrics and color tell the story of a folkloric fall while allowing you to enjoy warm weather!”

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