SCHOOL TIES: Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, admits that, while growing up in Seward Park, Seattle seemed like the last place from which to launch his career. “I felt like I was in the furthest most corner of nowhere,” he says. Now, celebrating 25 years as the face of one of the country’s top luxury department stores, Downing credits enrolling in the apparel design program at Seattle Central Community College for his sartorial start. “It was such an eye-opener to the industry, but also really helped me grow as a person,” Downing says. “All of a sudden, I was no longer this oddity who was interested in this dream world of style.… My parents feared that fashion was such a velvet rope society that I might not find an entrée into that industry here. And yet I did.”
AU NATUREL: Downing says the Pacific Northwest environment is one of his greatest influences. “People ask me all of the time who my favorite designer is, and it’s Mother Nature.… The color palette is always right on. The scale is always appropriate. Nobody sits around and says, ‘Mother Nature kind of messed up on that mountain.’”
LOCALLY BREWED: “Starbucks is church,” Downing says of the iconic Seattle export. “My first day at Seattle Central, they sat us down in front of industrial sewing machines, and I had no sewing skills. I turned to the girl sitting next to me and said, ‘'Please thread my sewing machine for me and I’ll buy you a latte at break.’…It’s just always been a part of my life.” His order? Always a grande latte.
KEN’S LENS: Downing’s Instagram followers—there’s more than 26,000 of them—are treated to front-row views of designer runway collections each season. But when it comes to his personal style, Downing says it’s Seattle’s music scene that has had the greatest effect on his wardrobe. “There’s always a hint of rock ’n’ roll in my style,” he says. “I was into grunge before anybody knew what it was. I would hang out at The Showbox on First Avenue…saw The Ramones, Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop…the first garment I ever sewed was a denim chef’s apron and I studded the pockets. When you put your hands in them, the back of the studs would cut your fingers and they’d bleed…but I thought that was cool.