Fashion Director and Executive VP of Neiman Marcus, Ken Downing, visited Drexel University on Friday to talk to students and tour the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection. After presenting fall trends to a room of over one-hundred and fifty students, Downing, known for his jet set lifestyle, spoke with an intimate group about some of his favorite pieces in the costume collection.
Cara Fry, wife of Drexel President John Fry, hosted the private luncheon inside the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery. Downing posed for photos with guests before leaving to critique senior design students’ projects.
The witty fashion guy gave Drexel design students realistic advice. For example, “the ivory tower is not where you want to live. You want to live on the street with your customers.”
He emphasized the importance of designing fabulous and accessible collections. He vocalized his dislike of complicated clothing. “Complication is the curse of fashion; it’s also the curse of style.” Master tip: if you’re a designer, do not show him a sweater with one sleeve. Not many women want to wear a sweater with one sleeve.
I sat down with Downing to ask a few of our burning questions before his whirlwind day of teaching, connecting and inspiring at Drexel University.
If you were allowed only $1,000 to spend at Neiman Marcus, what item would you spend it on?
I would get another pair of Saint Laurent boots if I was a man. I’m obsessed with what Hedi Slimane is doing at Saint Laurent right now, and I love a Chelsea boot. I have a closet full of them. If I was a woman I would invest in an amazing backpack because they are the handbag of the season. They bring an immediate cool into a woman’s wardrobe.
Being the fashion director of Neiman Marcus, how do you forecast trends? Do you have a specific process?
It’s an interesting process because a lot of it has to do with my gut instinct. A lot of it has to do with where my heart leads me. I see so many shows. I saw 115 shows in New York alone this last fall season. In fact, I think even Anna Wintour was quoted saying I see more shows than anyone else in the entire industry. It is life in the back of a town car. And from there I go on to London. From London to Paris and from Paris to Milan. I see close to 300-400 shows a season. And that’s not including presentations and people doing pre-collections.
So I see all of it. I’m always looking for that next moment - that next glimmer of what a designer is throwing onto the runway to see if people are paying attention. I’m always looking for that new color, that new silhouette. At the moment, I’m paying attention to what is happening at museums and galleries around the world. Art is having a major influence in the world of fashion. As it always has, but it’s having a really big influence right now because the art world is exploding and the worlds of fashion and art are very connected.
How would you describe your personal style?
I get asked that a lot! You know it’s a little schoolboy gone wrong with a lot of rock-and-roll influences and a little bit of surfer. Being from the west coast I am never too done, I have to be a little undone. I’m always looking for perfection, but I don’t want to be perfection because then I think you can disappoint, so I always like to be a little undone.
Do you have a favorite designer?
I have lots of favorite designers! I always say this because as soon I tell you my favorite designers they are going to come out with a collection that is just horrifying next season and I’m going to be held to task. Currently I pay a lot of attention to Jack and Laz at Proenza Schouler. They’ve been in the business now just a little over 10 years. I’ve been a big fan of theirs from the very, very beginning, and they’re really coming into their own. It’s interesting to see how much influence they actually have on the industry, not only in the United States, but across the world.
I’m in love with what the young London designers are doing. They have turned London Fashion Week into a must-see throughout. Certainly, Marco De Vincenzo. His is a new name coming out of Italy who we’re very excited about and just picked up at Neiman Marcus. It’s so nice to see new talent coming out of Milan because you rarely do. And then in Paris, there’s Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent. I love a rock-and-roll moment. Phoebe Philo at Celine, as well. She’s influencing everyone and changing the face of what’s happening in fashion. Riccardo Tisci, who I adore, at Givenchy. He never disappoints and there are always great designs there.
There are hundreds of more designers that I know and love, and they’re going to be mad that I didn’t mention them. It’s actually a good time for fashion right now. There’s a lot of innovation and a lot influential designers. Designers are embracing their own personal sense of style.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Doing things like I’m doing today. Everyone thinks that I’m going to say, “Oh yes, going to fashion shows!” To me going to a fashion show is my job and a lot of people think it’s the most glamorous part of it and running from pillar to post, from sewers to churches, uptown, downtown, across town. You have to go with a new set of eyes every time you go. I love traveling and meeting customers. I love being able to share my knowledge of fashion with customers. It’s great to speak to students, too. I remember when I was a student and I was always very fascinated to hear an insider's opinion on what’s going on.
Today, fashion is so connected with bloggers and the internet. It was a real rarity when people worked in fashion to meet them and now everybody is an editor, everyone has a blog, and everyone is talking about fashion. The fashion conversation is so much bigger than it’s ever been. I think it’s really nice when you can connect one-on-one. I love that the conversation is huge, but I also love that it can become one-on-one with people.