Together, they’re launching The Tower — an e-commerce marketplace made up of four individual stores with one cart, one platform and shared back-end technology from media brands Elle, Bazaar, Town & Country and Esquire. The first store, which will feature designer items selected by Hearst editors, will open in spring 2022 with the remaining three stores launching before the end of next year and Hearst is already searching for merchant editors to run the sites.
Downing has been appointed chief brand officer of Hearst Luxury Collection Commerce, to oversee the vision, creation and marketing strategy of the editor-led digital retail shopping destination. He’ll work closely with the editorial teams of each publication to create virtual, multifloor shopping experiences to bring each magazine’s individual DNA to life. Each brand store will live on its brand URL with a distinct point-of-view and design, but shoppers will be able to navigate between brands.
Most recently, Downing has been working on the American Dream mall in New Jersey as Triple Five’s chief creative officer. In 2019, he stepped down from his role as senior vice president and fashion director at luxury retailer Neiman Marcus after close to three decades. During his time at Neiman Marcus, he became one of the most colorful and visible figures in the fashion industry, establishing close ties to designers and upscale brands and was most often the face of the business.
While this is his first time working at a media company, he told WWD in an interview that “it is a bit different and at the same time it’s really not.”
“I spent so much of my career at Neiman Marcus bringing editorial voice and editorial points of views to really separate us from the other luxury retailers in the market space,” he said. “When I was approached by Hearst to become the architect of the idea they’d had for some time I was captivated. I was wildly curious and terribly excited. I love the idea of bringing the pages of these illustrious titles to life beyond the printed page, making them shoppable, being able to interface and collaborate with editors who I’ve known throughout my career at various positions that they’ve held and now be part of a team that I have so much respect for. And I love the idea of building things, be it building a fashion brand at Neiman Marcus or building a 3.3 million-square-foot experience center — American Dream in New Jersey.”
As for what his luxury retail contacts think of Hearst’s new venture, he said he doesn’t kiss and tell and insisted that it’s been a very hush-hush project, with only a “very, very tiny circle of individuals who are aware of this.”
Of her new hire, Hearst Magazines chief business officer Kristen O’Hara said: “His connections to the fashion industry run deep. He discovered brands, he supported designers, he’s driven trends and he’s really guided by what is in the best interest of the consumer. What I love about Ken is that he’s an innovator who uses tradition, modernity and relevance all at the same time. He’s an experienced practitioner who’s going to help make that a reality by leveraging his deep connection to the luxury community as well as to consumers.”
Hearst Luxury Collection’s senior vice president and publishing director Carol Smith added: “Our print and digital editors will be collaborating with Ken, and his deep knowledge of the industry — along with his strong relationships with the people who run it — will bring together the most exclusive merchandise and niche discovery brands to offer the vital and coherent shopping experience that customers are seeking,”
Hearst began dabbling with e-commerce in 2012 with the launch of ShopBazaar and most media companies have been diving deeper into retail over the past few years as traditional advertising revenues continue to tighten, a trend that was only exacerbated by the pandemic.
Many publishers have mainly been operating in affiliate links as a revenue driver, although some have launched their own branded products or collaborated with other brands.
While Hearst will continue with affiliate links and shoppable content, growth in its e-commerce business over these past few years led execs to decide to branch out with this luxury marketplace and O’Hara believes that Hearst’s editorial authority will help it stand out from the crowd of e-commerce platforms.
“I think commerce has certainly become an important part of our business. It was accelerated for sure by the pandemic but I think we were already on that journey toward a commerce future. We see when compelling content is connected to commerce magic happens,” she added. “We’ve proven that we have the ability to serve the luxury consumer and we’ve done that over a long arc of time. We’ve done it in a way that is most relevant to the needs of the luxury customer and in a way that has always motivated them to shop.”
Hearst rival and Vogue publisher Condé Nast has also in the past dipped its toes in the multibrand luxury e-commerce waters with Style.com, but this was shuttered in 2017 after just nine months.
FOR MORE, SEE: