Ken Downing on style icons, fashion’s most influential designers and fall’s best trends !

July 6, 2013

In perhaps my favorite interview ever, Ken Downing, Fashion Director for Neiman Marcus, talks about everything from style icons, to the most influential designers today and whether John Galliano will make a comeback… he even has some advice for fashion bloggers !

Ken Downing, Getty Images

From Ken, you always get candid answers and his insider view of what’s really going on in the fashion world…

SF: We hear the term “Style Icon” thrown around so much today. What’s your definition of a style icon ?

Ken: For me, a style icon is someone who has a great sense of herself. And she doesn’t only follow trends, but she creates trends. She has a great sense of the past, but at the same time, she blazes a path for the future. When I think of style icons and this is always kind of shocking for people, but, Cher, to me is a style icon. Cher had such a definitive sense of herself. She was a model, a performer, she was Hollywood in the fashion scene before all this red carpet bonanza took place. Bob Mackie was so smart to pull her out and really celebrate her. Certainly Jacqueline Kennedy everybody talks about, but you know, even to this day, you have to explain to women why white jeans are appropriate 365 days a year. If it was good enough for Jacqueline Kennedy, it’s good enough for the rest of us.

Style icons to me, are people that have a real sense of themselves and they have a lot of confidence. People always ask me “What’s the one thing I have to buy ?” and it’s not about what you buy, or what you spend on it. Confidence is the best fashion accessory any person can truly have within themselves. I love great confidence; I think that’s where great style comes from.

SF: People often refer to you as one of fashion’s most influential trendsetters. Are you a style icon ?

Ken: I don’t think I’m old enough to be a style icon ! I think if people see me as being influential, or as a trendsetter, it’s because I am so definitive about my points of view. And the more that the world turns at a quicker pace, the more voices that are out there talking about fashion, the more I find that I am more definitive about my opinions than I have ever been in the past. I value what writers write in magazines, newspapers, bloggers – but at the end of the day I have hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of women I’m dressing, and if you’re wishy-washy about your ideas, or what you feel is right for a season, then your voice no longer carries the bravado that it needs to carry. When I speak, I want there to be great gravitas; I want women to really know that I am an authentic voice, and when I say it, I truly mean it.

One thing I never do is declare something and then later apologize because I don’t believe it was the right thing. If I say it, I truly in my heart of hearts, believe it.

I’m very flattered that people think I’m a trendsetter or a style icon, or that I help create style icons. I love this business and I want women to be beautiful. I think sometimes we watch TV or see magazine editorial, and you do sometimes ask yourself, ” Do they like women ?” and I really like women. I want them to feel confident, to feel beautiful. I want them to be proud of themselves and stand a little bit taller, have a little glimmer in their eye.

SF: Let’s talk a little about influence. Do you think fashion bloggers have real influence today ?

Ken:I think bloggers are important because they are another voice celebrating the dream and the fantasy of what fashion is. The more people who are talking about fashion, the more people who are exciting people about fashion, it’s a very positive thing. All I ask of anyone who blogs, who writes, who tweets – do your homework. A little history of costume, a little art history, a little knowledge of other cultures, religions, architecture – you have to understand the entire inner dialogue of design.

Fashion is more than sleeves and buttons and zippers. It is a social commentary, not only of the moment we’re living in, but a reference to the past, or often to the future. Clothes just aren’t what we’re looking at in front of us; there’s always a story to fashion.

SF:Who do you think is the most influential designer today ?

Ken: It’s not one designer who’s so influential, it’s a group. Marc Jacobs is one of the most influential designers in New York, and Jack & Laz at Proenza Schouler are nipping at his heels for that influence. A lot of what those two young boys are doing has been picked up and referenced.

I certainly think Miuccia Prada continues to be a enormous force. Even though she loves referencing the past, her appreciation of modern technology when it comes to new fabrications really propels her and her mash-up of ideas that she puts on the runway. And I think that Raf Simons at Dior and also Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent are really revitalizing Paris, as is Alexander Wang at Balenciaga.

Prada Fall 2013

Designer Miuccia Prada sent a pink “gingham” coat down the runway for Fall 2013.

SF: What do you think about that ? Was that strange to you ?

Ken: Not at all. I know Alex; he’s a friend and I’m so proud of him. In six years time, he’s built a global empire and it takes a good 10 years for an emerging designer to really grow a strong solid business. And that’s not just my point of view. When you talk to Anna Wintour at Vogue, or any of the magazine editors, they would also tell you it takes a designer at least 10 years to get a stronghold and really understand not only the creative, but the importance of the commerce side of the business. And Alex is such a smart business kid and he surrounds himself with smart people. His family’s involved in the business with him; it’s a very strong family base and it really has made for a strong springboard for him as a young designer. He’s attuned to the street, he’s out in the stores meeting his customer – he lives the life. And I think it’s exciting to see what he’s doing at Balenciaga.

I love Nicolas Ghesquiere; he has always been very influential and I think he’ll come back to us. People were very judgmental about Alex taking that job, but Alex didn’t remove Nicola. Nicola moved on, and so the position was open. Who wouldn’t want it ? And they came to him and asked him and what a spectacular collection he did. He’s very young, but he’s got a really old soul and he’s just a decent, kind person.

SF:What do you think is going to happen with John Galliano ?

Ken: I think what happens to Galliano has everything to do with John Galliano. I think there’s certainly talent there. I think it’s all up to him. There’s no one to blame for his demise other than himself and there’s no one who can help him succeed other than himself.

SF:Do you think it’s possible he’ll make a comeback ?

Ken: I think anything’s possible. I think there’s just places you don’t go and I think he went there. I would hope in his heart of hearts, that the things he said, he doesn’t believe, but at the same time, those things were said. And they were very hurtful to many, many people. I think his return is all up to him.

SF:Who are the new up and coming designers you’re excited about ?

Ken: It’s interesting when you talk about new designers. There are certainly names that are hovering out there, but it’s names you know that I’m really insane for. Joseph Altuzarra, I just adore, adore, adore. I’m really big on this whole pack of kids coming out of London right now. I think London has really done amazing things in our industry and it’s fun to see London no longer be the capitol of punk, even though we’re having a punk moment right now. It’s becoming the “Capital of Print”, with Erdem, Peter Pilotto, certainly Mary Katrantzou and even Christopher Kane.

Peter Pilotto, Fall 2013

Designer Peter Pilotto, London Fashion Week, Fall 2013

I was at Christopher Kane’s very first fashion show and I was so taken with his talent from the very first collection he put forth. I love what’s happening in London right now; it’s an exciting place to be when you’re there. The British Fashion Council, and London Fashion Week has it really figured out and London is a really great place for young, up and coming designers.

There’s a totally different energy to London Fashion Week. When I first started going, the models weren’t the models we know, hair and makeup was less of a concern, and you need all that. You need the trappings of the catwalk to bring clothes to life. Now sometimes, those trappings go overboard and they eclipse the brilliance of a designer. But they’ve really figured it out. The locations are cool, all the models are there, all the best stylists are there, great hair, great makeup, all the press is there. Everyone is paying attention to it. So much so that Tom Ford came back to the runway this season with his over-the-top opulence. I really believe that one of the reasons Tom came back to the runway was because of all the excitement that was happening in London around him.

It’s hard not to find London contagious; it’s such an eclectic city. I love London. I think Christopher Bailey coming back to London – you know he used to show in Milan -and he’s really brought a huge spotlight to London. What Burberry has done with technology, live-streaming fashion shows; they’re just super cool. I have 2 iphones, a Blackberry and an ipad. Everything is falling all over me because I do all my fashion notes with technology; I don’t write anything. All my things are buzzing and beeping and going off. And my friends in the U.S. are texting me, “We’re watching you front row at the Burberry show.” We’re communicating as it’s going on. It’s very exciting.

SF: What are your favorite Fall collections for this year ?

Ken: Hands down, my number one collection for this fall season was Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci. He played to this whole, very rock and roll reference, and did some of the coolest motorcycle jackets on the runway. Every woman has to have a black motorcycle jacket for fall and wear it over anything. What I love about what Riccardo did – he did them over tiered peasant skirts, or over interesting trouser silhouettes. Instead of taking them to the obvious rock and roll place, he added a lot of romance to them. His show was spectacular.

Givenchy, Ricarrdo Tisci, Fall 2013

A look from the Givenchy Fall collection from designer Riccardo Tisci

SF: Here in the desert, we have a completely different reality when it comes to wearing Fall trends seen on the runways, like fur, leather, wool, lots of layers. What’s your style advice for those of us living in warm weather climates where summer lasts forever ?

Ken: Transitional weight fabrics are my mantra, 365 days a year. What transitions a wardrobe better than anything is color. Color that references the season is the smartest way to go.  I think everyone needs a great lightweight, leather jacket. I think the biker moto jacket is perfect over a pant, a skirt, a frilly dress and I like it going out at night over a gown or cocktail clothing. Look for lightweight leather that works for your climate. You don’t have to wear layers to get the look. I’m a huge fan of the jacket over the shoulder; it gives you coverage, but it should be a lightweight jacket that you just toss over your shoulders effortlessly like a cardigan, and you get the look of the season, without all the weight and without having your arms in a sleeve.

SF: What about accessories ?

Ken: Two points of view as we go into fall. Dyed-to-match-gems. If you wear purple, you’re going to wear big, faceted purple gems around your neck and ears. When you wear red, you wear red gemstones. When you wear green, green gemstones – that’s why I call them “dyed-to-match” gemstones.

And with all the rock and roll referencing, multi-metallic chain in different gauges. You’ll see interesting hoops that have draped chains…narrow chains, thin chains, wide chains, but in rose gold, silver, blackened, and pewter finishes that are all brought together in big interesting pieces. It’s on shoes, it’s on handbags, it’s on jewelry. Jewelry is high around the neck and the earring that frames the face continues to be important.

Chain jewelry, Versace, Fall 2013

Chain jewelry from the Versace Fall runway

Handbags are getting smaller. Everybody who has a handbag has shrunk it down. Cross-body is still everywhere because duality is so important. They all have a strap, so they can be worn as a clutch for evening or over the shoulder for day.

SF: When it comes to your own influence on fashion, how is it that you’re able to define trends ?

Ken: I do my homework. I follow the arts, I certainly know about fashion from the past and I’m very attuned to what’s going on in the world. I like to believe I am; at least I try to have my antenna up. Even as we were going into the fall season, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced the Met Ball and the costume exhibit for the season was going to be punk, I was paying attention. I knew fashion would be paying attention. When the 1993 exhibit at the new museum on the lower East side went up and Phillip Lim was showing a little hint of grunge on last spring’s runway and we got to Paris and Dries Van Noten was showing ideas of grunge – I was paying attention. And then when the V&A ( Victoria & Albert ) Museum in London announced the David Bowie exhibit, delving into his Ziggy Stardust glam rock years, it became very apparent in my mind, we would see rock and roll references going forth into fall season. Punk. Grunge, glam rock. I was seeing ideas like big chains and message jewelry, Bay City Rollers plaids and tartans.

People were like, “How did you know this was going to happen ?”  I had all these reporters asking, “What are you anticipating?” – and I don’t know if I knew it was going to happen, but it just made perfect sense when people are talking about punk, and they’re talking about grunge and glam rock. It’s just collective mass.

And then this whole movement that I call “Post-war Dior” where we’re seeing the whole late 40’s, and 50’s and why ? Because we’re fascinated with Raf Simons; we’re fascinated with the ideas he put forth the last two seasons at Jil Sander. We’re all paying attention to how he’s revitalized the House of Dior.

And why not ? When we’re seeing all this rock and roll sort of music message that has a little bit of an edge to it, we need something romantic and we need something feminine and that very kind of vintage glamour speaks to the romance and the feminine spirit. It was no surprise to me that we were seeing big full skirts and peplums and clothes that were from another era.

You have to have your antenna up. Take music. When you start listening to musicians and they tug a little riff in a song from the late 70’s or something from the 80’s, and then you start to hear it in modern music. And even really young people like punk and new wave and all that techno pop. It’s cool again. It’s what we grew up with, but they’re all listening to it and they’re sampling it. It all plays a role in where fashion is and where it’s going.


My thanks to Ken Downing and the team at Neiman Marcus in Scottsdale for allowing me the very distinct pleasure of sitting down to talk (and laugh) with Ken. Pretty sure it’s the best 45 minutes I’ve ever spent in a dressing room !



{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Hannah July 6, 2013 at 3:56 pm

This is wonderful! In depth and conversational. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him be so personal. Great job my friend:)

Karen McKnight July 6, 2013 at 10:47 pm

Thanks Hannah ! This is my second time interviewing Ken and he is so fascinating to talk with. He’s very candid and just a really nice guy. He’s funny and generous and you just never want the conversation to end !

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