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Ken Downing Talks Fashion and Women Over 40

Ken Downing and Brenda Coffee, CEO, 1010ParkPlace

This week 100 women came to Neiman Marcus La Cantera, in San Antonio, to be inspired by Ken Downing, Fashion Director and Senior Vice President for Neiman Marcus, and to see Neiman’s 2015 Spring and Resort fashions. Anyone who follows fashion is familiar with Ken Downing. He’s not only the face of Neiman Marcus, but the definitive tastemaker, stylist and fashion arbiter for anyone interested in clothes and great style. If he’s not on an airplane, meeting with designers, or sitting alongside Anna Wintour at Fashion Week in New York, London, Paris and Milan, Ken is collecting 20th Century contemporary furnishings and art.


If you’ve never been to a Neiman Marcus fashion show, you don’t know what you’re missing! Before the show started, I sat down with Ken Downing, a fun, funny and engaging man, to talk about fashion and women over 40.

KEN: I love that your 1010ParkPlace audience is not 12-year-olds. It’s important that we engage younger generations, but I wish they were more interested in fashion and having a great looking home. Gracious living is about everything in your life: How you prepare a meal; how you present yourself and put yourself together.

BRENDA: Is fast fashion having an effect on couture?

KEN: I think what’s interesting about couture, and we saw Karl Lagerfeld embrace this year’s ago at the house of Chanel, the importance of fashion really being relevant and being based to the street—not being street fashion—but the idea that clothes have to feel in the here and now. We like the dream of the runway and the fantasy that haute couture can be, but clothes have to feel like they’ve stepped off the runway and become the reality of a woman’s closet.

We’re seeing sneakers appearing on the runway, and we’re seeing customers who’re buying couture and haute couture that’s not just a Rose Bowl Parade, one-time wear. I like that there’s now becoming a balance of that fantasy and more of a reality.

BRENDA: Along those lines, I’ve developed a passion for Brunello Cucinelli.

KEN: Why shouldn’t you? He’s changing what’s happening in the industry right now. He’s such a charming, lovely man. He’s tapped into something many designers have forgotten women want: Casual clothes, but they still want to look dressed up. They want to look chic, but they want to be comfortable. Brunello understands there’s something between jog pants and a luncheon dress, and he’s been able to create clothes that feel good on the body. His creamy cashmeres and soft satins look good on a woman when she walks out of the house. You don’t have to be dressed to the nines, but you don’t look like you’re on your way to the gym. I think it’s brilliant. He’s actually reinvented the world of knit, and now we’re seeing everybody in the industry putting knit dressing into their collections, season after season, really following his lead.

BRENDA: Our 1010ParkPlace 40 plus audience is the wealthiest demographic in history, yet a lot of women feel like designers aren’t paying attention to them. They’re hungry for advice. What do you tell women about how to dress?

KEN: It’s interesting because so much of what I do is being in the stores and talking to women about how to dress. I will say that “age appropriate” dressing makes me crazy.

BRENDA: It makes us crazy as well.

KEN: I think the age issue is not an issue, because at the end of the day, we’re all 25. It doesn’t matter if you’re 17, 77 or 107, we’re all the same. The spirit inside of us wants to be 25. That doesn’t mean we want to look 25, but we want the essence and the effervescence of being 25.

Forty looks different on one woman than it does on another, so to say, “You shouldn’t show your legs,” or “Your arms aren’t right in that dress…” Not every woman is created equal. My advice is always, if you feel great, and you experience fantastic confidence when you put it on, you probably look great. Don’t go shopping with your girlfriends, because they’re going to tell you the opposite of what you want to hear.

I say to young designers you have to go into the stores and meet the women who are buying your clothes; who are engaged in fashion and want to look great. That’s why I’m in stores, because not all women are created equal. I’m in showrooms all the time and hear, “Where are the sleeves? Where are the sleeves?” Sleeves are not an old-fashioned idea. Sleeves are chic. We’re actually seeing more and more sleeves now, because designers are sick of me pounding it into them. I also say, “Where are the pockets?” A woman loves a dress with pockets.

I think it’s important your readership understands that even though we follow the runway religiously—because it’s where the ideas come from, and the dream of the runway is what really propels fashion forward—we are out in the marketplace, looking for clothes for all women. I am the eyes and ears, on the ground, that are guiding my buying team, and I don’t only have eyes for clothes for a 17-year-old girl. I have eyes for clothes for women of every age and every lifestyle. Because I travel around the world—from Shanghai to Sydney to San Antonio—I know what women are looking for. Trends are something that move us forward, that keep us looking relevant to the moment.

BRENDA: The 40 plus demographic sometimes feels abandoned.

KEN: There are gorgeous clothes out in the world, and I think women sometimes feel they’ve been abandoned when they really haven’t. They’re focused on the magazines; on what Hollywood is wearing. Sometimes I think the noise of fashion scares people. I really try to make sure, through all of that noise, there’s solid advice and solid education. I’m very forthright when I do a show. I may do something super exotic and over the top, because I like a little shock value. You need to have people’s eyes readjust to the moment: Now the lines are getting longer, things are more languid, there’s the whole 70’s moment happening, and then you can bring them back with ideas they will relate to and understand.

The eye, as Diana Vreeland used to say, has to travel, but the eye also needs to rest on an idea and contemplate it so your eyes can start to say, “yes.” I see so much, so my eyes say yes to new ideas, but good ideas. There’s a lot on the runway that never makes its way to Neiman Marcus because no woman wants to look like that. Every woman always wants to look her best. She wants to be beautiful, or look her prettiest, and if she tells you she doesn’t, she’s probably not telling the truth. I’ve never met a woman who says, “Is there anything to make my hips look bigger, or my backside look larger?”


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20 thoughts on “Ken Downing Talks Fashion and Women Over 40”

  1. how fun that you got to sit down with ken! i love that he said “we are all 25” and “don’t go shopping with your girlfriends, because they’re going to tell you the opposite of what you want to hear”. I think he is so right about that!!! great blog post!!!

    • Hi Cathy,
      Ken is a total delight and a walking encyclopedia about fashion. I love the clothes Neiman’s curates, so to see them through his eyes was a real treat.
      Thanks for reading,

  2. Ken is brilliant. Flat out brilliant. I agree with so much of what he said. Magazines and Hollywood are not where women should be looking. Trends are important and a touch of it helps keep us looking current. And yay, bring on the sleeves!! Terrific Brena!!

    • Jennifer,
      He’s amazing! It’s nice to know he’s giving the designers input about things like sleeves and pockets. Even if something is sleeveless, there are all kinds of scarves and wraps that tie in and look very chic.

  3. Great article, Brenda. Looks like a gorgeous show. While I really liked some of the things Ken had to say, i.e. “Don’t go shopping with your girlfriends” (Anyone ever come home with something their best friend would wear?) and “…contemplate [fashion] so your eyes can start to say ‘yes!'”(I swore I’d never wear Converse or boyfriend jeans!), I’m not quite in sync with “less is a bore” (Remember Zoran? Joan Vass?)…my style was all over the place until I hit 40, and finally knew quite confidently who I was and what I wanted. And it was LESS! Some of the chicest women I know are into minimalist style. To each her own!

    • Hi Val,

      I’m a minimalist, so know one is more surprised than I was when I bought the polka dot/stripe dress I’m wearing in the photo. I’m not a print girl, but this has been a fun change of pace. Ken gave lots of great ideas for how to pair different styles of clothes and jewelry. In the end, I agree when he says if you feel great and have confidence when you put on an outfit, you probably look great. On the “less is a bore,” my friend, Sandy Linter, iconic makeup artist and Ambassador at Every Age for Lancome, says when we reach a certain age, “less is less,” especially when it comes to makeup. I have to agree with her.

      • I follow Sandy on every social media avenue and I trust her advice when it comes to makeup. I wear foundation now, which was something I could never abide, blush everyday, along with mascara and a bright lipcolor, or sometimes nude if I’m doing a smoky liner. My features have faded, so I get the sentiment…Sandy is genius!

        And you look GREAT in that dress, Brenda!

  4. What a great interview, Brenda, and I love that you discussed “age appropriate” dressing and how it’s not something to consider. I work from home so getting dressed up doesn’t happen often. But when I have events to go to, such as I do in the coming weeks, I worry about what to wear! I found this article helpful and a bit freeing to express myself even at 56. I try to do that.

    I must admit, though, that Neiman’s is out of my price range.

    I’d love to go to a fashion show there!

    • Hi Cathy,
      Not everything at Neiman’s is $$$$. Also, they have great sales! If you find a line of clothes you like, make friends with the salesperson, and they’ll let you know when they go on sale. My favorite jeans–Cookie Johnson–are at Neiman’s. I’ve been wearing the same CJ jeans for nearly 10 years. What a deal.

      • Thanks, Brenda. The only pair of jeans I wear now is from Chico’s because they “hold” me in, too But I’d like to branch out. I find it difficult to find a pair that fit me well.

        Thanks for the advice. I appreciate it!

        • Cookie Johnson is Magic Johnson’s wife. Her jeans take real women’s figures into consideration. Not Your Daughter’s Jeans, NYDJ is another one that will hold you in. I don’t like Chico’s fit. I’m in-between all of their sizes. What’s up with their size 1, 2, 3 system? Dumb!

          • They now carry half sizes! Plus, taking a size 2 makes me feel better about my size! It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a size in a single digit!

    • Samantha,
      Lauren Ezersky, our next Style Inspiration interview, gives the same advice: Go shopping alone!
      Thanks for stopping by! I appreciate it.

  5. I’ve always been aware of fashion and style but never a slave to it. Being vertically challenged it’s hard to find clothes that aren’t in need of alterations, but I do try to stay current. Once you find your personal style it’s great fun to accessorize and push the envelope sometimes. My age has never dictated my style, especially now that I’m in my 60’s. I loved this interview, Brenda!

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