Ken Downing Gives His Take on the State of the Fashion Industry

by Kristen Heinzinger

Yesterday at Le Cirque, Marie Claire EIC Anne Fulenwider polled Neiman Marcus fashion director Ken Downing on the state of the fashion industry. And boy, did he deliver. While he wasn’t remiss to discuss his Seattle roots and his beginnings in fashion, he was up front about his thoughts on the broken fashion calendar, the shows, retail, and what everyone should be doing about it all. Below, a few highlights from the Fashion Group International’s “Tastemakers” talk…

His first gig, and his modeling days…
“I actually started working for an auction company and I learned about painting and antique furniture, which brought me to vintage clothing. I was a big lover of vintage clothing in high school. I was also a big punk rocker. I was picked up on the streets in Seattle, and I just started modeling. I was modeling in Seattle, Vancouver, LA, a little bit of work in Tokyo, some stuff in New York. I was a runway kid. I had long hair, I was super alternative, and I could walk.”

His mother as a major fashion influence…
“My mother was a huge inspiration to me. Jackie Kennedy was her role model until Mary Tyler Moore came along, and then all of a sudden Cher’s variety hour. You never knew who was going to leave the house. She loved when Cher showed up on the show in an afro. She went out immediately the next morning and bought an afro and wore it all throughout the neighborhood and to PTA meetings because it just irritated everybody. My mother loved to use fashion as her expression. My mother was very busy building the fashion director for Neiman Marcus, and not even realizing it. I’m one of four boys. My brothers were always dressed alike and I was always in some outrageous outfit that my mother would put me in.”

The state of the fashion industry…
“We are a very broken industry right now and things are moving rapidly. It’s like the Industrial Revolution all over again…There’s all this confusion out there about what is fall, what is spring. [Customers] come in with their iPhones and they’re asking, ‘Where is this?’ realizing it’s not available for six months. Or, ‘Why didn’t you buy this?’ Well, it was never produced. The designer put it down the runway and they didn’t have the opportunity to commercialize it…’Why do they do that?!’ I spend more time apologizing for designers who think it’s hysterical to put 70 percent of a collection down the runway that they do not make. And if anyone for a minute thinks that the customer isn’t paying attention to all of that, they are.”

The impact of social media…
“The good news is, social media can actually create an excitement and appetite, and inspire the customer to want all these amazing things that we buy…A fashion show is powerful, but it’s become a mega marketing tool and we are showing too much soon. We have to pull back and be much more cautious about what we’re showing a customer. A lot of the fatigue the customer is feeling…they’re lost. They don’t know what season it is.”

Customers don’t care about the seasons…
“They do not care about fall, they do not care about spring, they don’t care what the season is, all they want is something amazing. No one comes in like, ‘Where are the fall collections?’ The woman who says that is living in a tomb. They want to know what is new. Season-less fashion is very important…It was 74 degrees at Christmas in New York City, and nobody wanted a coat. It snowed in March, and it was all daisies and eyelet and flowers and stripes. The customer thinks that’s ridiculous.”

Photography: Alan Lungen

Photography: Alan Lungen

His solution for the fashion calendar…
“It’s not about making clothes faster, making them out of production time schedules…we’re talking about showing the presentations and the fashion shows moving into the season as clothes are dropping into store. Because the customer is following all of the excitement of the presentations, the fashion shows, in real time like we are. And when they see it on social media, and blogs, and even in printed publications, they believe it’s available for them now, to buy. So it’s doing the buys early and moving the shows and presentations forward, closer to the time the clothes are actually being shipped to the stores.”

The revival of menswear…
“We are in a very peacock moment for men. As challenged as a lot of the women’s businesses are right now…[men] have kind of risen as the new peacocks of the street. It was the first business to go away during the recession because they were holding back, but now that things have turned around, the sneaker world, and the idea of athleticism incorporated into ready to wear…has really kind of lifted the idea of guys being dressed. Remember the girls who ate ramen for a month so they could get their Prada and their Chanel handbag? Well, that’s the guys now. They’re kind of not eating so they can get their sneakers, which I think is kind of great. You know what I mean.”

Fast fashion versus the runway…
“[At the shows] in Paris, everything on the runway was olive and camouflage. Camouflage is the leopard print of menswear. Alitalia lost my bag, so I lived five days out of Zara…everything in Zara was olive and camouflage. And I thought, Isn’t it interesting how everyone wants to say that [everyone’s] copied everyone…but [Zara was] in the middle of their sale time with promotional product, and everything that was in their store did not look dissimilar to what was walking the runways? So we can say that fast fashion is taking from the runways, but it also takes a lot of great knowledge to know how to run a successful fast fashion business. When you start to look like the fast fashion on the runway when it’s already in the market, that’s a problem, too. We have to keep the customer hungry.”

The evolution of the customer…
“In the world we live in today, if everybody’s a celebrity, who’s the customer? It’s become a world where everyone in fashion is a celebrity getting free clothes and handed things to wear. I don’t want to sound like the old man on the hill, but [before], those women bought the clothes because they loved the clothes, they loved those designers. They were photographed because they had inherent chic, not because they put a paper plate on their head and wore firemen boots walking down the sidewalk.”

What’s selling at Neiman Marcus…
“It is a tale of two cities. It is either over-embellished, over the top, embroidered, decorated craziness or super luxurious, creamy, cashmere-y loveliness, unadorned. It kind of speaks to this Gucci moment that’s inspiring a lot of people and it speaks to this kind of ’90s understated sensibility that Mary Kate and Ashley at The Row have been such big advocates of.”

What will sell this fall…
“Skirts with movement that have a little volume and length. And I am obsessed with this David Bowie moment that’s happening in fashion right now. And gold is everything…I’m loving all of this glam rock and this opulence and over-embellishment. That’s going to bring customers back to shopping again. I mean, the shoes right now are encrusted, embellished. If men are the new women, start putting stuff on the men’s shoes!”

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Carol de Leon July 22, 2016 - 5:05 PM

I’m in agreement with most of Kens perspective. I understand the business is challenged, but the buyers also have to be bold and buy the unique items … That’s we designers cut a lot of peices out of collections because the buyers are afraid to buy daring peices or colors, they want to play safe and don’t want to get fired if their buy doesn’t sell through. There’s a lot of fast fashion and contemporary designers that are good, really good, so I expect more from the luxury brands… I need to be really wowed before I put down 1200 euro for a pair of shoes on Via Montenapoleone because sometimes I like what I find at RiverIsland better. The collections need to encompass the unpredictable weather we are having in the world. For my SS 17 collection I have included interim and prefall styles and colors, I hope buyers take advantage of that and perhaps do a buy that has two deliveries so we can be weather appropriate. Then there’s the super fashion stuff in my line and I can sell a hot platform sandal in January if a fashionista knows how to work it with interesting hosiery. Thanks for the great article, let’s keep the conversation going about the changes in our business!

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