He’s hip, influential and certainly conspicuous on the fashion scene. Yet in high school, Ken Downing wasn’t very popular. “I was the kid at Highline High who wanted to work in fashion. It was not considered a favorable career choice. People were negative, but the more negative they were, the more it made me want to work in fashion. If I knew about the High School of Fashion Industries when I was a kid, I would have run away from home.”
Downing, the senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, made the confession at the High School of Fashion Industries’ annual fund-raiser last Wednesday, where he received the school’s Fashion Visionary award. For Downing, who ultimately left his home town of Seattle to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology, it was a moment to be reflective on his youth and his career, citing Diane Von Furstenberg as his main fashion inspiration, and Karen Katz, president and chief executive officer of the Neiman Marcus Group, who he considers his current mentor.
“This is not necessarily comfortable for me,” Downing said, upon receiving the award from Steven Kolb of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. “It’s humbling. Humility is important in an industry of big egos.”
His words of advice to the students — “You have to have a sense of business. Always understand the balance you need between creativity and commerce.” Downing also said graciously take on the assignments you are given, even if you feel reluctant. “Remove the word ‘no’ from your vocabulary. The person who works hard is the person who succeeds.”
The event, which included a student fashion show, was hosted by journalist Teri Agins, and raised $100,000 for scholarships and other forms of student assistance. After graduating HSFI, located on 24th Street in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, students typically attend such schools as the Fashion Institute of Technology, LIM College, The New School’s Parsons School of Design or the Savannah College of Art and Design to develop careers in fashion and retailing. Years ago, it was different, as HSFI’s principal Daryl Blank explained. “We used to be considered a vocational school. The students would go right from high school into the garment center. These days you have to go to college.” HSFI offers courses in fashion design, visual merchandising, fashion marketing, and graphics and illustration. “It’s the only school of its kind in the country,” Blank said.