Ken Downing

WWD: Sum up the state of American fashion today.

Ken Downing: American fashion continues to be important. What Americans bring to our industry — it’s that Yankee ingenuity of clothes that have a realism to them that customers respond to and want to wear.

As an industry, we are very much in a moment of transformation. Where [New York fashion] was once very coveted — people wanting to come to see the amazing collections — somewhere along the way, that has faded. It’s fallen from favor.

I believe that a lot of the falling from favor isn’t from a lack of creativity, a lack of quality, [but] from the arduous fashion calendar that seems to bend and slip and jerk all over the city. It’s important to determine collectively as Americans what we can do to reignite the excitement around American designers, so that the European and foreign buyers who used to look forward to coming to America want to return.

WWD: You think there’s been a falloff in attendance?

K.D.: I know it. I’m hearing it from buyers from the U.K., from Europe and from other parts of the world. It’s expensive to travel, it’s expensive to have teams here. They have either stopped coming and are seeing the collections in Paris, or they’re questioning why they’re coming because the schedule feels overwhelming and the shows don’t feel strong enough for them to spend eight, ten days in America. That shouldn’t be a conversation. People should feel a need to be here.

WWD:  What kind of shows work?

K.D.: People want an Instagram moment. They want to walk away from a show and feel satiated that they saw amazing clothes, amazing styling, things that intrigued and inspired them. There are so many shows on the calendar, unless you can [stand out] through the enormity of it all, you’re doing it for no cause….

I believe there are too many shows. And the few shows that happened during resort market, it was a non-event. There were two or three shows and it did nothing.

WWD: You first said that the apparent falloff of interest is about overscheduling more than a dearth than creativity. Are you putting it all on the CFDA and the schedule?

K.D.: No. Blaming the CFDA is an easy out. I think that we as an industry — retailers, the design world, CFDA, press — we all [must] have a voice in helping to move New York Fashion Week forward. I do believe that the CFDA can be a little insular in its thinking because it’s all fashion designers. And sometimes, when you have a collective group of like-minded people, it’s difficult to step out of your realm of reality to understand what’s really going on.

WWD: Many designers who spoke for this piece agree with the Boston Consulting conclusion that, regarding shows, every brand has to do what’s right for itself. Only a few designers voiced concern for the audience point of view.

K.D.: When I have conversations with designers or creatives and heads of brands, I don’t often think it occurs to them [to consider] the user who is attending the show and what the purpose of the show is….When it comes to the conversation of fixing the calendar, many people want to bury their heads in the sand and think there’s not a problem. There’s obviously a problem, because we’ve been talking about it now for years. It’s not unlike diversity on the runway. It took messages globally and nationally that upset people [before] they decided to address it. It’s a conversation that we’ve been begging for, for a decade-plus — we now see it. Begging for some changes with this fashion calendar — let’s do it, because there’s nothing to lose.

WWD: I’m not sure about your analogy. Diversity on the runway is a moral/cultural issue, you can’t reasonably argue against it. With shows, we think there are too many and designers don’t. The CFDA says look, we can’t tell people not to show.

K.D.: My comment about the diversity on the runway is just to show the parallel, that it was a long conversation we’ve had forever and we finally have accomplished [something]. As for shows, no, we can’t tell people who can show and who cannot, and that’s what makes America great. But the CFDA and others can guide, suggest and mentor emerging talent on what is the right thing for them to do. Too many young talents get wound up in the idea of doing a show for the sake of a show. It is actually more detrimental to them growing in the industry and presenting themselves to retailers and the media and everyone else because they start too soon and they’re not ready for primetime.

WWD: I’ve thought for years that there should be a trade show. It doesn’t have to be tacky — a Frieze-like trade show — where you could go and see many, many people in an afternoon as opposed to, at best, picking one an hour.  

K.D.: You and I are on the same page. I have talked about this until I don’t have oxygen left in my lungs. Friday and Saturday could be a gallery walk in a six-, eight-block radius in Chelsea. Up-and-coming, emerging, not-ready-for-primetime can find their location and we can walk door to door, block to block, like a trade show, but a cool trade show, in Chelsea.

WWD: Your “gallery walk” has a nicer ring.

K.D.: We could meet the designers face-to-face, hear about their inspirations, see the clothes up close. It would be one of the strongest things we as a city could do. We can celebrate the young, emerging talent all at one time, get them done early, on Saturday and Sunday, and Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday can be for the big shows. That doesn’t mean it has to be a megabrand. Brands that are doing things. Brock, the young couple out of Southern California, they’ve built an important business and people are paying attention to them. But they started slow. They also had the help of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund behind them. There is a way to manipulate the calendar to not only benefit us, the user, but benefit the talent — something that makes sense for them and that will help them grow their business, instead of having some odd show, off-calendar in the middle of nowhere that they hope someone of us will show up to.

WWD:  It there are three 3 p.m. shows, even the most stalwart showgoer has to choose.

K.D.: I’ve said this for years, there’s only one of me. So it’s frustrating when there are three shows at one time on the calendar. It’s even more aggravating when one show is downtown in the bowels of Manhattan and the next show is in Midtown on 67th. And you’re trying to figure out how you’ll get there and then turn around and get back to Chelsea again for yet another show.

WWD: Do you see an issue with the level of creativity and quality of clothes coming out of New York?

K.D.: I think that we see great creativity from some and I think we see fear from others. Because we are in such a state of flux — online selling, the lack of growth in brick-and-mortar, over-distribution of clothes, designers confused and concerned about where [and how] to sell, how to keep their businesses alive — there’s fear. [But] pulling back creatively in challenging times is the wrong direction to go. When things are challenging, you need to move forward aggressively with new ideas.

WWD: What does American fashion do well?

K.D.: American fashion brings super cool ideas to clothes the customer is comfortable wearing in their everyday life. Often in Europe, you get clothes that have a great aesthetic but they’re very esoteric and not necessarily clothes for how [the customer] lives everyday. I’m talking about a fashion-enthusiastic customer, about a woman and a man who are excited to be the peacock; they want to get noticed. America translates the moment well in clothes that customers can put into their closet and wear with great confidence.

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