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A Conversation with Ken Downing

I sat down with fashion icon Ken Downing to discuss his storied career, inspiration, the future of fashion, and his time time in Dallas.

Renee Parsons & Ken Downing

I recently sat down with fashion icon Ken Downing to discuss his storied career, inspiration, the future of fashion, and his time time in Dallas.

You have had an enviable career in fashion and retail. What first drew you to the industry? What’s kept you in it all these years?

I’ve always been attracted to beauty, often unconventional beauty as opposed to obvious beauty, even as a young boy. The spectacular interior of a home, the extreme architecture of a building, a indescribable garden or landscape, and certainly how people were dressed and presented themselves. 

I know I had lots of toys as a child, although I really don’t remember them specifically, I was always more enamored with fashion and style.  I loved attending weddings and events with my parents, the pageantry, the flowers, decor, people dressed up!I spent hours pouring over my mother’s fashion magazines mesmerized by the fashion editorial, the styling of the models, the hair, the makeup!

And of course, my mother’s sewing room! It was a magical menagerie for me. 

She was brilliant at the sewing machine and could manipulate patterns pieces from different styles mixing one pattern piece to another to create original looks. We would go fabric shopping together, I adored textiles and trims. 

I guess ultimately, I was always into it, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in fashion. 

It may sound cliche, it’s just in my blood. 

Happily, I was encouraged at a young age to follow my passion, which obviously I did, and never I looked back.

What inspires you in fashion? Which designers do you have in regular rotation in your daily life?

I’m often asked what inspires me, the list is endless, I have a very heightened sense of curiosity so I’m always looking for the new and the next. 

My greatest fear is being bored, so I’m always eyes wide open looking for inspiration in everyday life and beyond. Art, architecture, museums, galleries, nature, a beautiful plate of delicious food, design of all kinds, and certainly the runways and fashion imagery that was being created when the runways went on hiatus in the height of the pandemic. 

I live near Central Park in New York, which is a constant source of inspiration, not only the lush landscapes, but also the creatures that inhabit the park and the many people from every walk of life that call the park their inner-city backyard. I also LOVE books! and fill my homes with them, I can get lost in the pages of a beautiful tome, they always inspire me. 

It’s been interesting to watch fashion emerge from this unexpected moment we’ve all shared globally. Current obsessions include Pier Paola’s Spring Haute Couture collection for Valentino. He’s color sense is as brilliant as Mr. Saint Laurent’s. Demna’s devastatingly chic Spring Haute Couture collection that left me speechless. I also love a young, newer designer on the scene from Paris; Ludovic de Saint Sernin, his sleek and sexy approach with a hint of androgyny is very appealing.

Can you talk about the proliferation of sportswear and the athleisure movement at the retail and design level that you’ve seen recently?

The proliferation of athleisure has been long in coming, athletic inspirations have been incorporated into high fashion for decades, it’s honestly not a new idea. What has changed is how we live, our day-to-day lifestyle and the acceptance of athleisure dressing in every and all aspects of society. 

It’s certainly been fueled by contemporary culture; music, sports, and Hollywood celebrities, the barrage of messaging and images that fill our stratosphere through social media with Instagram, Facebook, Tik Tok and more. Designers aren’t driving the narrative; they’re responding to the desire and wants of the public. Comfort, ease, performance, and style are the mantra of the modern world. 

Give the people what they want, and what they don’t realize what they want yet!

I’m often asked when this trend is going away. It’s not going anywhere, it has transcended trend, like denim. Does anyone ever ask when jeans are going away.

Your name is an institution in fashion circles globally, but in many ways you’re a son of Dallas – both because of the incredible tenure at Neiman Marcus.  How have you seen the city change over the years?  How would you describe and capture the city?  

I’m often mistaken for a Texan or Dallasite, when in reality I’m a native of Seattle. I arrived in Dallas via New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, in that order. I arrived in Dallas from Los Angeles after my tenure with Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, Dallas was never on my radar as a place to live, frankly, Neiman Marcus was never on my radar as a place I’d have a career. It was complete happenstance that the Neiman Marcus on Union Square, and visiting executives were quietly watching me transform the the fashion image of the grand retailer I. Magnin.

When I was contacted by David Cordoza, who ran the Neiman Marcus fashion office, I was very dismissive. I eventually agreed to make a trip to LA to tour the Beverly Hills store. I was completely charmed by the V.P. General Manager, John Martens, but initially turned the job down if you can believe it! Obviously, I eventually said yes, and was brought to Dallas. 

I won’t lie, I was in a bit of shock when I realized what I had done and had become accustomed to my LA lifestyle. I realized I had no choice but to immerse myself into every aspect of the city and learn how to be a Texan. Luckily, one of my first major projects was to oversee the return of a Fortnight style event celebrating the 90th anniversary of Neiman Marcus. 

Myself and a crew traveled planes, trains and automobiles, North, South, East and West to uncover the treasures of this enormous state, I’ve seen more Texas than most Texan’s. One thing that immediately struck me about Dallas, and Texas overall is the generous, gracious spirit of the people. 

I also immediately embraced the bigger than life lifestyle and personality not only of the city, but the people. Dallas is in it, to win it. 

They dress to impress, entertain in grand scale, they enjoy family, friends, and life their lives to the fullest. Passionate about art, philanthropy, innovative businesses, the can-do spirit of this city in unrivaled. Over the past 25 years I lived in Dallas, I’ve watched its art institutions grow and flourish, business opportunities explode, bringing people into Dallas not only from around the country, but around the world. 

Dallas is a major metropolitan and wildly cosmopolitan melting pot of inclusivity and diversity. 

No matter from where you come, once you arrive in Texas, you’re a Texan!