NEW YORK — “We are a very broken industry right now.”
That was Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, speaking bluntly at the Fashion Group International “Tastemakers” luncheon at Le Cirque here on Thursday.
Interviewed by Anne Fulenwider, editor in chief of Marie Claire, Downing expounded on everything from customer frustrations stemming from the fashion calendar to the over-saturation of products and design house instability.
Downing kept the conversation light at times, when discussing his life story as a design student, former model and growing up in Seattle where he could drive and apply eyeliner at the same time. He also spoke of his strong admiration for his mother, and that a big part of the job satisfaction comes from interacting with customers.
But he mostly discussed what’s irking Neiman’s targeted designer shopper.
“About two years ago, I began to hear from my customers who are super engaged — a woman who wants to look amazing and is engaged in what we as an industry we do — and there is enormous confusion out there about what is fall, what is spring. They come in with their iPhones and ask, ‘Where is this? Where is this? Why didn’t [Neiman’s] buy this?’ Well, it was never produced. I spend more time apologizing for designers who put 70 percent of their collection on the runway that they do not make. When you create a one-off dress for a celebrity, my customer wants to know when can they get it.
“It’s not about making clothes faster, taking time out of the production schedule. We are talking about the presentations and fashion shows moving into the season as the clothes are dropping into the stores.”
“We are all on the phone. We are all engaged in technology. Technology has become a liability to us in this industry. Not an asset,” Downing stated. “Force-feeding a customer information six months before they can get product into their hands is eroding what we are all here trying to do. My sales people say they hear it everyday, that customers are frustrated to the point of actually being angry because we as an industry cannot get them these gorgeous things that are sitting on their iPhones in front of them.
“I actually think technology is most brilliant, too, when they see all these things on Instagram, and they love it, they want it, and when they find out it happens to show up six months later [in the stores] they are bored to tears. It’s like showing someone a Christmas gift six months beforehand and then there it is under the tree” on Dec. 25. “The blogger and social media people have gotten so ahead of when clothes are in store, they are creating this appetite. The customer is just upset.”
On the state of the fashion show, Downing said, “It’s become a mega-marketing tool and we are showing too much too soon. We have to be much more careful and cautious about what we are showing the customer. It’s a tough time in fashion. It’s hard to get people to shop. The customer is just not interested in wandering into the store like they used to. There has to be some sense of engagement, an experience. They are lost. They don’t know what season it is, and they do not care about fall. They do not care about spring. They do not care about what season it is. All they want is something amazing. No one comes in and asks, ‘Where are the fall collections?’ They want to know what is new.”
Downing is also concerned about products being over-distributed with too much product available. “I had a conversation with Diane von Furstenberg and we all agreed we can probably do far more with far less. There are endless samples that seem to fill showrooms. We need to be every sensitive to where product is appearing again so it doesn’t feel so commonplace. I think all of us have to look at the distribution levels of where goods are available.”
Asked about the departure of creative director Peter Copping from Oscar de la Renta, Downing said, “There’s so much turnover everywhere. Peter is a friend and he is a wildly talented guy. I have to say I am not surprised. Sometimes change is good. There is a lot of change right now. I would like to see a little bit of stability in the design houses.”
Getting more upbeat, Downing said men’s wear has hit a “peak moment…As challenged as a lot of the women’s businesses are right now, I think men have kind of risen as the new peacocks of the street. Men’s is having a moment — the sneaker world, the idea of athleticism has been incorporated into ready-to-wear.”
Regarding what’s selling on the women’s side, it’s all about “skirts with movement with volume and length; glam rock; gold, gold and more gold; opulence and over embellishment; embroidered, decorated, craziness — I do think that’s something that is going to bring shoppers back again.”
What’s also selling is “the superluxurious, creamy cashmere-y loveliness, unadorned clothes that feel almost like you are wrapped in a cashmere blanket….It’s a tale of two cities.”
On Millennials, Downing suggested that retailers work too hard to chase them. “Millennials want to participate in fashion and be part of our party but they don’t want to buy clothes. It’s interesting.”
On the job, 50 to 75 percent of his time is with shoppers. “As much as my career is about my eyes and certainly my gut instinct, I am all ears with my customers, because they will tell you what they love, what they don’t love. I feel it makes me so informed because I truly listen.”