From his Downtown desk, DPJ Fashion Editor Corbin Chamberlin and his team look beyond the central city and share their views on people and happenings affecting our Valley’s material world.
DPJ Fashion Editor Corbin Chamberlin chatted with Ken Downing, the Senior Vice President and Fashion Director of Neiman Marcus. Dressed in Gucci and looking divine, Ken discussed trends, sales and other fashionable happenings with us. Read our conversation with Ken below.
What do you look for when you take on a new or young brand?
There can be risk. When I look for a young designer, I look for someone who has a complete understanding and balance of creative and commerce. There is a lot of young talent out there who doesn’t understand the business aspect of what fashion is; they don’t always bring on really talented business people. I like to find young and emerging talent that has a solid understanding of business, someone like a Jason Wu, who was really more interested early on, to design the craft of dressmaking and building a business on his talent, instead of building a business on his name and his potential celebrity. Actually, I found Jason, and brought him to Neiman Marcus, before all of the excitement around him with the first lady. He’s the real deal. He’s very committed and has a real understanding of who his customer is. That is a really important part of it. A lot of people want to design clothes, but they don’t think about who their customer is. When they’re making these clothes and putting prices on them, asking ‘who that woman is’ and will she spend that much money on clothes.
Talk to me about the Cusp project at NM.
We’re actually taking our contemporary world and re-branding it as ‘Cusp’. Not unlike what they did with 5F at Bergdorf Goodman. Instead of it being a really contemporary department, we’re actually redesigning the look of it, so it will almost be a shop within the store. It will have a very certain point of view and a definite look in the interior. It will also have its own packaging and its own shopping bags. We’re also going to be doing separate marketing, which will come under the Cusp label. We have a couple of freestanding stores now.
I understand your sales of fur have rocketed.
You know it’s been interesting. We have been selling fur at Neiman Marcus since July and it’s been hot all over the country, everywhere. It’s all about the new technology, a lot of it’s knitted, laser and lightweight. It’s remarkable, heavy wools and cashmeres don’t sell when it’s warm, but fur, is not affected. I feel a lot of the fur craze has been driven by the fur vest and chubbies, and the colors.
Can we thank Anna for the fur sales?
(laughs) Well, Anna is certainly a huge proponent of fur. We’re seeing a lot of fur because designers are really trying to put luxury back into their collections. This started over a year ago. After the recession, people were trying to navigate the challenging financial climate that this country and world were going through. A lot of the beautiful details and touches became not as important in the collection, because it felt extravagant. Now that we’re seeing a change in the economy – it’s certainly not cleaned up 100% – designers are feeling more comfortable about putting those luxurious touches back into their collection.
As fashion director, how do you inspire consumers to open up their wallets and spend?
A lot of it has to do with our catalogs. It’s interesting, when you open up a magazine, especially those big fashion issues like September, there is so much advertising and you need to really make a compelling campaign that burns through all the other add campaigns. As fashion director, I select all the pieces for the catalog from the front row to determine what’s going to be photographed in the campaign. I can’t tell you too much, but you’re going to be thrilled with our spring catalog. I really believe in giving women confidence and looking great. You realize in this world of fashion, that there are magazine editors, bloggers – everyone has a fashion opinion. I think one way Neiman Marcus really inspires women is that we are very definitive and have a definite point of view. That’s why I call out trends every season. It becomes a roadmap to a woman. I truly, in my soul, believe that women should look beautiful, pretty and glamorous as they want to be. A lot of times retailers will look for the peculiar and bizarre, and even try to talk over the customers head. Women just want to look great. I really try to instill how to look the best you can and be very authentic about it.
Tell me about your personal blog and online presence?
What’s been most eye-opening for me, the role of the fashion director has changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years. People used to go overseas and determine hemlines and heel heights. We still do a little of that, but I’m a brand ambassador and I’m a writer. I write all of my own letters and material in the book. I write all my own blogs. None of that is done with a copy writer, it is all from my own mind. Even when they send out any sort of press, all of the quotes are from me. I don’t let people speak in my voice, because it has to be authentic.
I have my own product line right now. The company’s kind of experimenting and branding me. Metier came to me for spring and asked me to collaborate on a lip and nail color, I actually said no at first. I was a little concerned about putting my name on a product and if it didn’t sell, I was worried, that my ego might take a real hit. But, it sold out. So we came back and we did the Bordeaux collection for fall, which is doing really well. I also just finished my resort collection and did a holiday nail-set for stocking stuffers. I’m also finalizing spring right now. I actually work with the team to develop color, I name all of the products myself. I’m also doing a fragrance. It’s going to be another year. It’s going to be very limited edition, I’m using really rare essences and oils. There is this amazing vault in New Jersey that is full of these rare oils and essences.
It’s safe to say in the recent years NM has aimed more to a younger consumer. Would you agree?
Absolutely. What’s important to Neiman Marcus is that we love our loyal customers that have been with us for years. We would never do anything to make this brand unappealing to them. But, we certainly have to reach out to a new audience, who has not shopped with Neiman Marcus before. It’s why we have a Facebook page. I have been doing my part, I was on Rachel Zoe and Joe Zee’s show, you’re also going to see me on a new version of Project Runway called “Project Runway All Stars.” They have brought back fan-favorites from the past. I’m a bookend, so I’m a guest judge for the first and last episode, selecting the winner. I can’t tell you who the winner is, but people are going to be very excited. They love this person.
What other projects are you working on?
There are some really interesting projects that come through Neiman Marcus. More product categories. Certainly, some interesting ideas with television. I’m often shopped around to do reality T.V. It has to be intelligent and elegant, and needs to appropriate for the brand. I think that reality T.V. is a moment, and it’s a big and long moment that we’re living in right now, but those sort of things live on forever, and I want to make sure that I place a little bit of elegance that carries through my career.
What are your thoughts on Neiman Marcus on social media?
What’s interesting is, I don’t even realize I have the enormous fan base that I have. I still see myself as a kid from Seattle living in some dream. When I’m stopped in airports or New York City and people stop me on the sidewalk, and remember, I am no one, but people know who you are through social media. They see you on these television shows, and they follow what’s going on blogs. It really makes people more connected to you and your brand. It’s so important in our industry, that we connect with our customers face-to-face, It’s actually a conversation Anna Wintour and I had in Paris; it’s important that we are all represented on Facebook and all social media, but it’s also important that I go around to all of the stores and meet those customers in person. There is nothing like a one-on-one with a personality.