Fashion Group International’s “The Tastemakers”: A Conversation with Ken Downing & Anne Fulenwider

One of Fashion Group International’s ongoing signature events is their Tastemakers Series: a one on one conversation between two highly regarded individuals, at the top of their fields, representing the worlds of beauty, fashion, retail. Technically, one of the two normally ‘interviews’ the other; the only exception was a few years ago, when the featured guests were Andre Leon Talley and Ralph Rucci and they each seemed to be interviewing the other in equal parts. Their latest installment, held yesterday at Le Cirque, put the spotlight on Ken Downing, Senior Vice President, Fashion Director, Neiman Marcus, and Anne Fulenwider, Editor-in-Chief, Marie Claire, who steered the conversation and asked the questions. It was sponsored by Lafayette 148 and Neiman Marcus.

Photo: Alan Lungen

After a wonderful lunch of ‘Le Cirque’ salad and Mediterranean branzino, FGI President Margaret Hayes stood up and made her welcoming remarks. She said that Le Cirque is FGI’s “favorite” restaurant (it is equal parts “whimsical and elegant” and a perfect respite from the harsh realities of our everyday world). Always a stickler for keeping to a schedule, Margaret said that dessert (crème brulee) and coffee would be served after the main event, and quickly introduced the two guests. In summing up Anne’s impressive publishing resume she explained that before taking the helm at Marie Claire in 2012, she was Editor-in-Chief of Brides, and prior to that she was Executive Editor at Marie Claire. When she was a former editor at Vanity Fair, Fulenwider launched their now very famous Fanfare section, and this was after a Senior Editor position at The Paris Review, as well as a research assistant job under George Plimpton at the time he was writing Truman Capote.

Anne Fulenwider and Margaret Hayes
Photo: Alan Lungen

Margaret described Ken as an “expert in all things stylish; a “salesman extraordinaire” who knows the luxury market “better than anyone”. The Seattle born Downing attributed his love affair with fashion to his stylish mother. He explained that she was fond of saying, “pretty, not peculiar” and “women want to look pretty; if they say they don’t, they’re lying”. It was from his early work at an auction company that he developed a love for vintage clothing and thus began his lifelong love affair with fashion.

Ann wasted no time in asking what Ken thought about the news that Peter Copping had exited Oscar de la Renta. Ken replied that he considered Peter to be a “wildly talented guy” but was “not surprised” (“there was passion missing, but change is good”, he offered). He also brought up the name Alber Elbaz as an interesting replacement owing to his fabulous way with opulence (the operative word in his opinion) and femininity, and his ability to make them modern and relevant. Even though Peter had been given the “go ahead” by Oscar de la Renta himself (and he apparently had Oscar’s blessings), just days before his passing, for the record, I myself never thought it was a match made in heaven, and quite frankly, called it from the beginning  Read my article..

Meanwhile, according to WWD’s Rosemary Feitelberg, (“Industry’s Latest Talk: Who’s Next for Oscar?” July 22), Alber is in fact one of the names being mentioned as a possible replacement for Copping. Others are Rodarte’s Mulleavy sisters, Doo-Ri Chung, Jonathan Simkhai, Joseph Altuzarra, Francisco Costa, and Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia, the young duo behind Monse. Unsurprisingly, the latter three designers have all worked in Oscar’s studio (Costa was there in the 80’s and Kim and Garcia were there until they left to start their own label which launched in September, 2015. They are now consulting with Carolina Herrera and imbuing their youthful spirit into the line).

And naturally, what would any chit chat these days be like without talking politics (specifically, the upcoming Presidential election)? Ken said that at the recent round of shows in Europe that included the spring 2017 menswear collections (where he thought both Gucci and Thom Browne were “standouts” and hailed camouflage as the menswear equivalent to leopard), and fall 2016 haute couture, all everyone wanted to talk about was Donald Trump, “except at Balenciaga which was so good” as he put it. FYI, FGI Creative Director Marylou Luther told me she just came back from Nebraska (where she is originally from), and was proud to say that she had worked her magic and managed to “convert” several Trump supporters into Hillary supporters.

Customers were a major theme throughout this conversation and they are always on Ken’s mind. He noted that his customers want “beautiful clothes they respond to emotionally” and “don’t care who is designing them.” Similarly, they don’t really care about seasons. As he put it, “they don’t come into the store and ask, “Where’s fall?” What they care about is buying something “amazing.” In his opinion, “seasonless fashion is the answer”.

He went on to say that “the customer is very fatigued by the time the clothes hit the stores.” “Fashion shows have become a mega marketing tool and bloggers and social media have “got to pull back“.He went on to say, “We are a very broken industry now. It’s like the Industrial Revolution all over again. The customer is very fatigued by the time the clothes hit the stores. Technology is the most brilliant tool. The good news is that social media has created an appetite. The bad news is that we are showing too much too soon (the “bloggers and social media have to pull back”).

He also said that he spends “more time apologizing for designers” that make something “one off” for a celebrity. It “enrages the customer” when they can’t have something they have seen in a photograph (“they want what they want when they want it”).

Photo: Alan Lungen

When Anne asked Ken about emerging new talent to watch for, he singled out the team at Monse (for their “amazing shirting”), and the husband and wife team behind Brock.

AF (Anne Fulenwider): “Are men the new women?”

KD (Ken Downing): “We are in a very peacock moment. Men (of all ages) are the new peacocks of the street”.

“A demographic doesn’t excite me. It’s the psychographic.”

“It’s all about the casual cool approach to everything. The elevation of the sneaker. Guys are not eating so they can get their sneakers.”

AF: “What percent of your time do you spend with customers?”

KD: “50 – 75%. I am all ears around a customer. They keep me informed and I really listen to them. The customer is in control. Not you or me. The customer. They can tell us what they want and when they want it.”

“Technology is a large part of what we’re doing. We were the first luxury retailer to go online. The customer uses online shopping to research. Look books and iPad are an important part of what we’re doing.”

“I go to many events to bring the customers into the store. It’s all about creating experiences now.”
“In 2018, Neiman Marcus will open in Hudson Yards. It is the store of the future.”

AW: “Can you tell us more about it?”

KD: “No because then the surprise will be gone.”

AW: “Do you have any negative traits?”

KD: “I have no patience”.

AW: “Do you have any hidden talents?”

KD: “Gardening. I also love cleaning house. Give me a bottle of Clorox and a vacuum cleaner and I’m in heaven.”

AW: “Do you have a bucket list?”

KD: “I want to go to India and Morocco”.

AW: “What would you tell women they must buy for fall?”

KD: “A skirt with movement or volume; something opulent and over embellished (we’re having a David Bowie moment); gold gold and more gold (how about gold boots?); something in a seasonless floral.”

AW: “Who do you admire?”

KD: “My mother, who pushed me in this business.”

AW: “What is selling well at Neiman Marcus now?”

KD: “Over the top maximalism (as exemplified by Alessandro Michele’s Gucci), and high quality, tactile luxury (as exemplified by Ashley and Mary Kate Olsen’s The Row), and nothing in between.

Guests were invited to ask questions and one woman inquired whether Ken (who has obvious great taste and a discerning eye) had ever considered designing his own line. While it doesn’t seem to be in the cards at the moment, he said, “I never say never.”

This is also what he said when asked if he would consider having his own television show. While Ken is arguably a celebrity in his own right, that is not what it’s about for him. At some point, he even asked, “If everybody is a celebrity, who is the customer?” What it IS about however, as he succinctly put it, “I love clothes and I love to see people looking amazing. I like to make people feel good about themselves. Fashion used to be a velvet rope society and now it’s for everyone. We sell confidence, not clothes. We are really selling confidence.”

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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