NEW YORK — Ending months of speculation, Neiman Marcus Stores on Monday named Ken Downing senior vice president and fashion director.
Downing, 43, currently vice president of public relations, was considered a front-runner for the job, which had been held by Joan Kaner for more than 16 years until she retired in October, but as the search dragged on, retail observers began to wonder whether he would be chosen.
“We actually held a limited search because we really wanted to take a little time and explore all different avenues,” said Ann Stordahl, executive vice president of women’s apparel at the Dallas retailer. “We came back to feeling it was great to hire internally. Our unique culture and his understanding of our culture was an advantage.”
“Ken’s deep understanding of our customer, knowledge of our buying organization and relationships within the fashion community make him an excellent choice for this key position,” said Karen Katz, president and chief executive officer of Neiman Marcus Stores. “His energy and commitment to our business are inspiring to us all.”
Downing will manage the New York City fashion office of Neiman Marcus, supervising three fashion editors. Unlike his predecessor, however, he will be based in Dallas rather than New York. He will report to Stordahl.
When Kaner was fashion director, she wanted to be in the thick of the fashion industry here and believed her proximity to Seventh Avenue helped cement her relationships with key designers.
“There’s advantages and disadvantages to either,” said Stordahl. “New York is only three hours away from Dallas. I’m sure Ken will be racking up lots of airline miles. He can be in New York whenever he needs to be. The advantage to being in Dallas is that you have a more active part in networking with merchants and our stores, and the advertising and marketing departments.”
Downing, whose path has taken him through the p.r. and visual merchandising offices, may represent a new breed of fashion director. In addition to spotting trends and covering designer shows, the responsibilities of a fashion director at some stores include choosing products for catalogues, advertising and windows, and involvement in p.r.
Downing joined Neiman’s in 1990 in the visual department of the Beverly Hills store. He became visual manager of that store in 1992 and was promoted to director of visual planning for all stores. Downing in 1997 moved into his current position, vice president of p.r. He graduated from Seattle Central College and received a degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology in apparel design. Downing, who is on vacation, could not be reached for comment on Monday.
Kaner, whose background was more that of a traditional merchant, started her career as a buyer and worked as a divisional merchandise manager. She told WWD at the time of her retirement, “I served as not only a style definer each season, picking out what we should stand for, but I sought out other opportunities and new designers that were emerging. I had a merchandising background, so I understood the needs of buyers. I knew what they were up against. I knew they had to make their bottom lines and goals.”
Stordahl agreed that the role requires financial acumen. “Ken wouldn’t have been promoted to a senior officer if he didn’t have pretty good knowledge of our business and the financial workings of our business,” she said. “Even though he was in public relations, he was pretty actively involved with the merchants and with fashion presentations on a local basis. There’s not a school for fashion directors. They come from a lot of different avenues.”
Downing has traveled to Europe for the collections with the Neiman’s team and attends the New York shows.
“He was very involved with the designers that came here or are in our major markets,” Stordahl said. “He’s pretty familiar with most of our major people. There’s not going to be anybody that’s going to completely fill Joan’s shoes because she had such a wealth of experience that she amassed over the years.”
During her 38-year career, Kaner became something of a legend, championing Isaac Mizrahi in his earlier years and discovering talents such as Zac Posen and Ralph Rucci.
Identifying emerging designers is still important for Neiman’s, and Downing will play a big roll in bringing them to the fore. “It still is a big priority for our company to support young talent and identify and nurture young talent,” Stordahl said. “We’re interested in seeing young designers all the way from the contemporary area to the couture area.”
Stordahl said his personal style was not insignificant. “He’s a collector of contemporary art,” she said. “He has incredible taste. His tastes are pretty varied, but he did study fashion and knows the history of fashion and appreciates the quality of all of our couture designers.”