Anneliese Aeria talks FGI, Career Change, and Hot Fashion Trends with Ken Downing
Anneliese Aeria: Hi, everyone. My name is Anneliese Aeria, and today, I am joined by Ken
Downing. It is such an honor to have you here with me again. We are both in town for Fashion Group International's student award and runway show. And I guess I'd like to start off with, how do you tie back to FGI? Because you are their keynote speaker for today and-
Ken Downing: Well, first, I'm so happy to be with you. I adore you. And we had such a great
time when we did this-
Anneliese Aeria: Yes, we did.
Ken Downing: ... together the last time. It's interesting. Early in my career, I wanted to be part
of Fashion Group, and a little, lately, unknown fact, because time has passed, Fashion Group was only for women.
Anneliese Aeria: Really?
Ken Downing: Men were not allowed to join Fashion Group, which I always found so
interesting. Because when I came into the industry, it was Calvin Klein and Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass, and certainly Mr. Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, amongst other amazing women who were also fashion designers. But I found the lack of inclusivity a bit peculiar, just in an industry that was so filled with talents of both men and women. But it was originally a women's only group.
Anneliese Aeria: Wow, that's so surprising to me.
Ken Downing: Which, when you think about it today... Doesn't it, doesn't it? And actually,
MaryLou Luther, who was the fashion editor of many newspapers, most recently Los Angeles Times, and very involved in Fashion Group now. And a very dear friend and probably has more fashion knowledge than most people realize. It was her husband's suggestion, even before she became involved with Fashion Group, that you really need to open it up for men. I was very excited when Fashion Group decided that it was no longer going to be just a women's organization.
Anneliese Aeria: Oh my goodness.
Ken Downing: Early inclusion. And that they'd open it up to men as well. Because I think that, what's important about fashion, and certainly what's important about Fashion Group, it opens up a dialogue. Not only in a particular city, as we're here in Dallas with Fashion Group Dallas, but it is Fashion Group International. And I think that's important that in the global world today, more than ever, that there's an international dialogue about fashion, about the industry, the movers, the shakers, the things in the industry that are actually working well. And sometimes we have to be reflective and say, "What, in fashion, isn't working well?"
Ken Downing: And Fashion Group opens up an enormous dialogue for many, many voices, so
we can keep our industry strong, we can keep it relevant, and we can ensure that there's an important industry for the future, for young people like yourself and even people younger than you. I love the fact that Fashion Group, beyond being such a strong organization, and certainly supports the current world of fashion, they're very much a futurist organization. As today, we're going to be giving scholarships to students. And without the students and the creators and the dreamers of today, there will be no future for fashion. And I think that Fashion Group really brings that ability for young people to dream and make sure that the industry moves forward.
Anneliese Aeria: Yes, I agree. And it's so interesting to me that it was predominantly women,
because having done FGI's shows in the past, I've found that, surprisingly, most of the designers appeared to be male.
Ken Downing: A dear friend, Diane von Furstenberg, had said to me, "I can say this to you
because it is not my quote. Women design for women, men design costumes. But I did not say that, Christian Lacroix said that, so I'm happy to share that with you." And I said, "Well, I don't know if all men necessarily, in the world today, create costume." But I do think that when women are designing clothes, that they look at themselves. They look into their own closet, they look at their lifestyle. And even, I think, that men today, who are super successful as fashion designers, spend time with women. They have a very clear lens of how a woman lives. Not only in a particular city, but around the world. Because it is women all around the world that are fashion enthusiasts, and when you stay connected to the customer be it if you're a menswear designer, if you're a womenswear designer. The more that you understand that it's not just you you're putting clothes on, but many women of different shapes, sizes, and colors out there in the world, it really influences how you see what you create. I'm happy to say that, today, it's far less about costume. I think the costume comes through in the crazy styling. And you've certainly had crazy styling when you've been in shows.
Anneliese Aeria: Oh yes, oh yes.
Ken Downing: But I think it's really about when you distill all of the styling that makes things
feel fun and the frolic of the runway. There are clothes that people can actually assimilate into their wardrobe. And I think that's what makes fashion very relevant today. Because anyone can love fashion and so many people do love fashion because of the internet. Instagram, Facebook-
Anneliese Aeria: It's very accessible now.
Ken Downing: It's super accessible. It doesn't matter if it's super expensive or if it's affordable,
but it's really given us all the ability to translate what we love to do with our own personal style, which to me I think is the chicest way to dress anyway.
Anneliese Aeria: Yes. Yes, I agree. And next up, with your recent career changes, I-
Ken Downing: Did I have a career change?
Anneliese Aeria: Well. I'm so excited to have the opportunity to talk with you today over coffee
before we go off to FGI. But, I mean, Dallas Morning News, The New York Times has been interviewing you. And, I mean, I think everybody wants to know what's next. What is-
Ken Downing: I have to tell you. It was a little overwhelming when the media exploded-
Anneliese Aeria: Oh, I'm sure.
Ken Downing: ... around the fact that I was changing careers.
Anneliese Aeria: Of course.
Ken Downing: And part of it, because I'm... It didn't seem like it was that big of news in a way,
but I guess it was big news. And I probably didn't want it to be big news because I spent over 28 years at Neiman Marcus. And you know I love my family at Neiman Marcus and I love my family at Neiman Marcus. I will always be part of Neiman Marcus. I was actually with Stanley's daughter, Jerrie Smith, the other night, and his granddaughter Allison Smith. And I said, with great humility and I would never equate myself to Stanley, I'm not that grand in my opinions of myself, but I hope, like Stanley, I left behind a legacy that will be remembered. And that people will think of me fondly. And even when I'm not there, they'll think, "Ken did good things. Ken had the spirit of Neiman Marcus and the love of the customer." And I think that I always want that to kind of be part of what I brought to Neiman Marcus, is how much I loved customers. And I learned so much. There were many mentors within the organization that taught me amazing things.
Ken Downing: But I think that in the world today, it's all about reinvention. In fact, on my Insta,
I've been doing #reinkention. Because it was time for Ken to reinvent himself. And going to design school in the early '80s, ending up in the visual department at I. Magnin, ultimately, at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills. Kind of breaking all the rules at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, making them want me to move corporately to Dallas. And overseeing the creative direction of the visual merchandising world. Overseeing public relations and special events and kind of reinventing what a party and a fashion show meant. And then reinventing the role of the fashion director when many fashion directors weren't going digital. Fashion directors weren't interfacing with customers. And didn't always spend a lot of time in the marketplace with the designers and the magazine editors and the buyers. And I wanted to really bring a valuable reason that I was a fashion director, not just sitting front row. And sitting front row is fun-
Anneliese Aeria: Yeah, it's all fun, but...
Ken Downing: ... but at the end of the day, you're there to create a service to the people you
work with and to the customers that you cater to. And I feel that I've really done all the things that I really wanted to do in that role. And when the opportunity to be the chief creative officer for Triple Five came along, it was too good to turn down. And I'm relocating to New York.
Anneliese Aeria: Wonderful.
Ken Downing: Fortuitously, I bought an apartment a few years back, so I'm... Closed my office
on Friday, ran errands on Saturday, got on a plane Sunday, and started my job on Monday because no grass grows under my feet. But that's how Virgos roll. Because I know your mother's a Virgo.
Anneliese Aeria: Oh, you know it.
Ken Downing: I know. We're always busy, we're always creating, and we're always making pretty. And what's interesting about my role as the chief creative officer for Triple Five, the big project I'm working on right now, is a, and I hesitate to use this word, it is beyond a mall. It is shopping, it is dining, and it is entertainment. And it is over six million square feet. It has a ski slope, which there will be a fashion show on the ski slope. There will be boys in bikinis and fur trapper caps. And girls in ballgowns.
Anneliese Aeria: I can't wait.
Ken Downing: And right now, I already have calls out to agencies like, "Where are the models
that know how to ski?" There is a swim park, there is an amusement park, there is a movie theater. There is Hermes and Gucci and Vuitton and Barneys and Saks Fifth Avenue and Saint Laurent. It's amazing shopping... As well as Apple and Zara.
Anneliese Aeria: Amazing.
Ken Downing: Because I love my Saint Laurent and I love my Zara. And I love to wear them at the same time. And the idea of reinventing retail is exciting to me. And people want to say that brick and mortar, or that actually going to a store, is over. And I don't believe that.
Anneliese Aeria: I beg to differ. I just-
Ken Downing: And you should.
Anneliese Aeria: Online shopping, to me, if I know it's a product that I've experienced in the past
through in-person shopping, then I can feel okay with that. But I like to be there, I like to touch it, I like to feel it. I like that customer shopping experience.
Ken Downing: And don't you like the journey of going into a store? The exploration of
shopping? It feels good again. It felt good to me in my heart and it felt good to me in my soul. And I think the reason that people decided they didn't want to come to stores anymore is stores weren't exciting. They weren't creative, they weren't theater. Speaking of Stanley Marcus, Stanley Marcus brought theater to retail.
Anneliese Aeria: Exactly.
Ken Downing: They opened... His father, his aunt, and her husband opened Neiman Marcus
when it was the crossroads of cotton and cattle. There was no reason for Neiman Marcus to be in Dallas, Texas. And they created a reason for people wanting to shop. And Stanley recreated that reason in the '50s and into the '60s. And he did it through theater. He did it through bringing the world to the customer. And so, I am going to bring theater. I'm bringing creativity. I'm bringing artistic flourishes through young artists who are going to not only be doing art exhibits within this amazing neighborhood, community that I love.
Anneliese Aeria: And that's the point I was going to make. Some of my favorite shopping
locations have frequently cycled through artists' exhibits where it's always something new, it's always something fresh, there is always something going on.
Ken Downing: There's a reason to come.
Anneliese Aeria: There is a reason to come back every week.
Ken Downing: It's going to be an ever-changing show of beautiful things. And not in locations that are stagnant. It's important to me that even the exciting pieces of theater are moving around the community we're building as well. Because it's such an enormous project, my vision is that it is a neighborhood, it is a city within a city, but each area is its own neighborhood. And it's going to build a community. And a very diverse community. And a very inclusive community. In fact, the opening, actually, the pre-opening... I hate that term, it's very retail. But before we open, the entire ad campaign is very much about, what is your American dream? It is about inclusivity, it is about building community, and it's about really celebrating one another.
Ken Downing: Because even if you're not an American, you have a vision of what your
American dream is. I want to hear the stories of people from the East Coast, the West Cost, from Maine to Miami, from Seattle to San Francisco and Sarasota, Florida. I want to hear their stories of what their American dream is. And then I'm going to go to Singapore and I'm going to go Paris. I'm going to go to Milan and the UK. And ask that question. Because we all have a story of what our American dream is. And it's not about selling food, it's not about selling fashion, it's not about selling the fun. It's about selling the dream of what America means to people. For that, I believe they're going to come. And they will enjoy the food, they will enjoy the fun, and the fashion is over the top and spectacular, but I don't think that we need to see another ad campaign with a girl in a dress, a guy doing whatever.
Anneliese Aeria: It's time for change. It's time for reinvention.
Ken Downing: We can't do what everybody else is doing. And so, I am being bold, I'm being
fearless. The fact that I'm working with a team of people who are as bold and fearless and as unafraid as I am is exhilarating.
Anneliese Aeria: Oh, I'm sure.
Ken Downing: Every day I show up to work, and I'm like, "Yes, no, maybe." There's never a
maybe when you're a Virgo. It's like, "No, no, yes, yes." But it feels so good. And there's so much buzz already about what's going to be beyond the walls of the American dream. And I'm not going to tell you everything, but I will tell you there is a lot that is going to create jaw-dropping awe.
Anneliese Aeria: Well, I can't wait.
Ken Downing: From the most state-of-the-art Apple Store. It's a little bit of everything. And it's
a place where you're going to want to come and hang. It's not, "Don't touch, don't walk in."
Anneliese Aeria: It's not a museum.
Ken Downing: It's not a museum.
Anneliese Aeria: You go in and you live the experience.
Ken Downing: The amazing thing, architecturally, the skylights, there is just amazing natural
light that floods into the spaces. Beautiful finishes.
Anneliese Aeria: I love a good skylight.
Ken Downing: Well, because it makes you feel good. It's euphoric.
Anneliese Aeria: It's the natural lighting. I mean, I thrive off of natural light.
Ken Downing: I do. And I think everyone does. That was part of Stanley Marcus' vision when he
started building stores outside of the store in downtown Dallas. Escalator wells with a big, wide open atrium because the sense of light and space creates euphoria within an individual and it makes you want to stay in the space. It's interesting that I join a company who didn't even realize that was kind of Stanley's point of view. But I'm bringing a little bit of Stanley with me because it's just too much part of my life.
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Anneliese Aeria: Of course. And I wouldn't have it any other way.
Ken Downing: You have to be in my show when we're on the ski slopes.
Anneliese Aeria: I will learn to ski for that.
Ken Downing: Do you not know how to ski? You're going to have to because-
Anneliese Aeria: I'm taking lessons now.
Ken Downing: I have to tell you, it's real snow. People are like, "Oh, is it a carpet? Is it faux
snow?" No faux snow.
Anneliese Aeria: Oh no, no.
Ken Downing: It is real snow.
Anneliese Aeria: We go all out here.
Ken Downing: And it is real snow. It snows from the ceiling. And it's going to be amazing.
Anneliese Aeria: I can't wait.
Ken Downing: But the idea that you can actually engage and entertain and create experiences
that, maybe you would see at a Chanel fashion show in Paris, but not necessarily see on the Eastern seaboard. I want to not only exceed the expectations of the visitors that come to American Dream, I kind of want to blow their mind. I wake up every morning like, "What mind-blowing idea can I bring to my team today?" And it's keeping me going, keeping me going.
Anneliese Aeria: I think that's incredible and I have no doubt in my mind that you will blow
Ken Downing: Let's hope so. A lot of people are counting on it. I think it's going to actually be
Anneliese Aeria: No. If anyone can do it, it's Ken Downing.
Ken Downing: Thank you.
Anneliese Aeria: And, well, I guess lastly to wrap up, everybody wants to know, what are your
style predictions to tie back to our last conversation? What has changed? What do you see?
Ken Downing: I will tell you where we're headed. And it's interesting you ask because I was
very excited about this kind of '90s moment that I truly thought was going to be
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prolific all over the runway. And I did not see as much of this '90s referencing as I had anticipated. Enough that I know that I'm on track with what I'm believing, but generally, I wait for Paris to validate what I feel so strongly about. And the season when we were at the fall shows for spring, Paris continued to be, and was continually, obsessed with the idea of the '80s. Now, as you know, I've been talking about the '80s for about two years now. '80s music, '80s shoulder pads, return of tailoring, as you and your blazer. And it was everywhere in Paris. Depeche Mode, Annie Lennox on all the soundtracks. But I'm in this Nirvana moment. And as you know, I'm from Seattle. I saw Kurt Cobain when Kurt Cobain was no one. And Pioneer Square where grunge was born. And we are heading into a bit of this kind of grunge, glam grunge moment.
Anneliese Aeria: Nice.
Ken Downing: A slip dress, little T-shirt layered underneath it. The idea of punk kind of
morphed into new wave. New wave really became grunge. And so, this idea of kind of menswear, checks and plaids. The idea of kind of oversized blazers that are kind of topping slip dresses. And combat boots.
Anneliese Aeria: I got my boots.
Ken Downing: And sometimes super crazy, exaggerated combat boots under a frilly little dress.
I mean, certainly, Kurt's wife, Courtney Love, has a lot of influence on what people are looking at. Even the idea of kind of babydoll dresses, and shapes like that, feel really good to my eye. And then, also with the '90s, the idea of a little bit more of a streamline, pared down chic. And things that aren't so noisy when you walk into a room. Not the sound of clothes, but the visual noise that clothes have been making for the last few seasons. Spangly, jangly, bright and shiny. It's about the woman. It's about the girl. And we're going to see her first before we realize that her clothes are coming in with a whole lot to say. And I think that in the times we live right now, it feels good. I want to see things that are a little pulled back, a little less.
Anneliese Aeria: A little bit more minimalistic to-
Ken Downing: A little more minimal.
Anneliese Aeria: ... highlight the woman and the person behind the clothes.
Ken Downing: And a little less obvious. I want her. I want you to tell me the story. I don't want
your clothes to tell me the story. And there will be a moment when I want clothes to tell the story again. Because when you work in fashion, we get bored incredibly quickly. But I want the woman, I want the man, I want the guy, I want the girl. I want it to be their story that they're telling, not that their clothes are speaking for them before they walk into a room. This very, kind of, almost a bit of a sobriety. And I think we need this kind of cleansing moment of... And
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there's tons of tailoring. Pantsuit, which I've been talking about for a while. The skirt suits are back.
Anneliese Aeria: Love a good suit.
Ken Downing: But you probably never wore a pantsuit ever before.
Anneliese Aeria: I have.
Ken Downing: It's the first moment... No, but now, because-
Anneliese Aeria: Well, now, I'm even more inclined to it.
Ken Downing: Of course. Because it's new to you. Some women say to me, "I have a pantsuit."
I'm like, "Sweetheart, it's the wrong pantsuit."
Anneliese Aeria: It's the wrong kind.
Ken Downing: Some women have the wrong pantsuit. You probably have the wrong, you need
a new one. But when we see Kaia Gerber and Kendall Jenner and Blake Lively showing up on the red carpets and at openings and premiers in pantsuits, it's inspiring.
Anneliese Aeria: It is.
Ken Downing: And I think it looks so fresh. It looks so right. And I'm just crazy about tailoring.
I'm so happy to see that it's back. That's where I am right now with what I'm loving and what's going to be happening next.
Anneliese Aeria: Well, that's so good to hear because I know your style predictions last time we
talked were spot-on. And I feel like, after Paris Fashion Week, there has been so much color and so much vibrancy. It's nice to know that we're having kind of a little, just a little breath, and-
Ken Downing: When we get into fall, you're going to be wearing camel.
Anneliese Aeria: ... a little freshness. Good.
Ken Downing: You're going to be wearing a lot of camel. And actually a lot of olive as well.
Even the idea of kind of militaristic ideas. A lot of capes and, actually, coats that have capes attached to them. But there is color. Kind of marine blues, postal blues, even the idea of kind of peacocks and teals that we've been seeing for a while are out there. And interestingly, the shock of pink. Pink just does not want to take a rest.
Anneliese Aeria: I love pink.
Ken Downing: Shocking pink. Even the most subdued fashion designers had the shock of pink
in their show when you least expected it. It could have been just all quiet color, shock of pink, right there just to kind of wake you up. So that idea of, kind of, shocking pink is going to be everywhere. But it's a great season. I love fall clothes because we can layer a little bit.
Anneliese Aeria: Yes. That is nice. I know your comment about the pink, I was working with
Monique Lhuillier yesterday, and out of the entire fall collection, there was one hot pink gown.
Ken Downing: Of course.
Anneliese Aeria: And it had this gorgeous high-low skirt where when you just get a few strides going, it just flows behind you, and it's breathtaking.
Ken Downing: Isn't Monique amazing?
Anneliese Aeria: It's incredible.
Ken Downing: Such a lovely, lovely woman.
Anneliese Aeria: I love the vibrant pink.
Ken Downing: You look great in it.
Anneliese Aeria: Well, thank you.
Ken Downing: I'm looking forward to seeing you in the show this afternoon.
Anneliese Aeria: Good. And I can't wait. I guess that wraps up my chat with Ken for today. And
we've got to go to FGI.
Ken Downing: Love you, my dear.