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Friday, April 5, 2013 / 6:16 PM

A Conversation with Neiman Marcus Fashion Director Ken Downing: Art, Fashion, and the Dada Ball

A Conversation with Neiman Marcus Fashion Director Ken Downing: Art, Fashion, and the Dada Ball

Image courtesy of Neiman Marcus

After more than 30 years of experience, Ken Downing has gone from a young boy idolizing fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg to one of the most influential voices of the fashion world. As the fashion director for Neiman Marcus, Downing travels the world hunting down the most fashion-forward pieces and dictating the next season’s fashion trends. Tomorrow, Downing will be at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis to emcee “The Art of Fashion” show at the Dada Ball, the museum’s fundraiser. SLM sat down with Downing to discuss his inspirations and the influence of art on fashion.

You’ve said you worshipped Diane Von Furstenberg while growing up. What drew you to her?
I was raised in Seattle, and when you think of Seattle, which is a very chic and a very big art city, a lot of fashion people don’t necessarily come from the Pacific Northwest. My mother was, in my eyes, very chic, very beautiful when I was a kid. But when I met Diane Von Furstenberg, she was one of the most exotic women I had ever encountered in my entire life. That mane of hair, her frosty eye shadow, those long legs, and that overly intoxicating accent—I had never heard anything like that in my life. She absolutely captured my entire senses and pulled me in. I realized when I was a kid that I had to work for the industry in which people who were as captivating as she was existed. I’m still mesmerized by her and the fact that all these years later she’s still so captivating. When she arrived at the CFDA, she asked why it wasn’t an organization that welcomed many designers.  She said it shouldn’t be an exclusive club, but it should welcome all designers. I love her inclusive spirit.

Who’s playing that role now in the fashion industry?
The amazing thing about Diane is that she is truly a citizen of the world, and she has lived her life in so many decades. I think the more people see themselves as being a citizen of the world, it helps them to be more inclusive and able to engage with many people. When I think of young designers like Jack and Laz at Proenza Schouler—who I love and adore—they are internationally in tune because of how their business is. Also, look at Alexander Wang, this young boy who’s only 26 years old whose business has been going for six years; he’s not only a designer in New York, but he comes from a multicultural background, and he has that infectious quality when you talk to him, because he’s so enthusiastic about what he does. I love the new generation of designers, because it’s not only about being an American designer: They realize that their audience is global, and much of that is because of the Internet.

How has technology changed fashion?
It’s changed fashion enormously. Twenty years ago, fashion directors used to go to fashion shows, or you’d wait for a magazine to report, and then a few days later a newspaper would report a hemline going up, a hemline going down. Then there was Elsa Klensch, who was one of the most directional journalists of her time because she was delving in backstage. No one was delving in backstage until Elsa Klensch came along, interviewing designers, interviewing them in their homes, talking to them about how they entertain; she was really at the forefront of introducing us to a world beyond just a fashion designer making clothes. Since then, it’s all at a person’s fingertips. You can watch the same shows that I’m watching while it’s live-streaming. It makes our voice stronger and clearer. The customers and the women who are real fashion enthusiasts want a clear, solid point of view from the person they’re hearing from. I try to be very specific and very exacting. I think sometimes people love everything, and I don’t love everything. You have to edit.

Has the immediacy of everything affected design?
Now fashion companies can get things from the runway into stores quicker than some designers can get them into stores. It’s really opened up the idea of personal style. We have so many people that we follow; there are bloggers that people like to follow; there are celebrities who have always been very directional. Everyone seeks out the person they can relate to the most, and they often find those people on the Internet.

Which celebrities or notable figures do the best job of putting their own stamp on fashion?
I don’t know if it’s about doing a better job than someone else. I think everyone brings their own personal voice and their own beliefs to what they’re looking at. Certainly, Bryanboy has a huge following. I adore him, and I think he is an absolute piece of work and talks in a very joyous way about clothes. What I love about bloggers is that there are so many voices out there that they are brining a lot of notoriety to the world of fashion and style. What’s happened in the last 10 to 15 years is that designers have become so democratic: The food we eat, the way we set a table, the way we decorate our home, the music we listen to—everything that surrounds us has a fashionable point of view to it, and all the bloggers are amplifying that democracy of design and style that we live with every day.

How do you see the role of fashion in society? Is it self-expression? Art?
I think fashion can overall become something that is a very emotional way of expressing your own personality. If you love fashion, you use it as an art form on yourself. It says a lot about you. I think we use it as our own personal billboard of how we see ourselves. I firmly believe no one should go shopping with his or her friends, or buy what their friend is buying. You should buy what makes you feel confident, because at the end of the day, it’s the expression of your personality. It should not be the expression of your friend’s personality.

What role does Neiman Marcus play in the fashion world?
We are like magazine editors. We edit from all the fashion shows and collections that we see. There are so many clothes in the world. There are so many handbags in the world. There are so many shoes in the world. You can Google an orange shoe, and a million things come up. We, with our editing eyes, really go into the market and find the best of the best that gives a woman immediate credit for the moment. We also find things that are not just for one season, but also have longevity. This season, I’m talking a lot about orange for spring. I love orange because a bright orange handbag goes with everything, and it effortlessly moves into fall because it goes with the purples, the bordeauxs; the pinks that come together in the color story look terrific with an orange bag. I don’t like to leave something in a woman’s closet that works for only one season. I try to think about that. You want to buy something that you know is not only going to be for that one moment, but also something that you’re going to love for years to come.

People have said that when Ken Downing speaks, the fashion industry listens. Do you like that role of being a trendsetter, or does it give you angst?
I actually have no angst in my job at all. It is a role that I like, not that I’m controlling or looking to tell the industry what to do. Besides being in the front row when the fashion show is happening, I’ve spent so much of my career with customers. I do up to 15 personal appearances a season. I’ve really become the voice of reason for the women of America and the women around the world. I’ve spent so much time with women in dressing rooms and at events hearing what they want and what they don’t want, and I’m always bringing that message back not only to our buying team, but I’m also bringing that message back to designers. It’s so easy to lose touch with whom you’re dressing. I believe it’s important for us who are out amongst those who love fashion to bring their word back to the people who are creating it.

Are there any fashion trends from the past that you’d like to see come back?
There’s not much that I haven’t seen happen and come back again. People always ask me what trend I don’t want to see come back, but the crazy thing is that you hate to mention them. What happens is that someone with amazing taste walks into a room wearing that very thing, and they look amazing. The nice thing is that fashion cycles so quickly. At the moment, we’re seeing a resurgence of grunge. All the rock-and-roll references that we’ve been seeing are actually coming out of museums. The Met announced that punk was going to be the theme of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit in May, and grunge was huge on the fall runways. There are also musical references everywhere. Every collection, as we go into fall, has a rock-and-roll reference, and many times a bit of a tomboy attitude. When you look at music, there’s always that idea of gender-bending that defines any rock-and-roll moment. It’s not like girls want to look like boys or boys want to look like girls, but rock and roll has always pushed the envelope of gender-bending, so we see that tomboy sensibility entering into the collections this season.

How do you see contemporary art influencing fashion?
Contemporary art can often have a little bit of an arresting quality to it. It kind of stops you in your tracks and makes you think, and modern fashion can often stop you in your tracks and make you think. There are certainly a lot of parallels in every level of the art world and fashion. At the moment, the art world is as amplified as the world of fashion. We’re reading about it in magazines; we’re reading about art auctions just like we’re seeing fashion shows on the Internet—it’s all taking place in this whole Internet society that we live in. If you’re not interested in art, then you’re not aware of it either. It goes back to museums having enormous influences in the fall collections.

What can we expect from the Dada Ball fashion show?
It’s a nod to fall. There’s a grunge amalgam finale in the show. I brought British collections into play with the English theme of the event. The show starts very chic and evolves into a clash between the Sex Pistols and Nirvana. Everything in the show will also be at the Ken’s pop-up shop at Neiman Marcus in Plaza Frontenac. The shoes, handbags, jewelry, and all the ready-to-wear will be available for the week following the show.

Click here for more details about the Dada Ball & Bash, April 6 at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.


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