Ken Downing is hard to miss. Standing a slim 6'4", his hair in a straight blond bob, and always dressed to the nines, he gets noticed at the poshest parties."He dominates a room,
says John McGill, president of Dallas' McGill Associates. "You look at him and you know he's in the fashion industry."
His job title sets him apart in the PR world as well - he's VP of corporate PR and fashion presentation for Neiman Marcus stores. His passion for fashion set him on an unusual path to PR.
"I was probably born to it,
Downing says. "I think I was putting my mother's wardrobe together when I was seven years old, and designing clothes when I was nine.
While his three younger brothers played baseball, Downing frequented Seattle fabric stores and pored over his modeling mother's fashion magazines.
Downing worked briefly in New York, but was dismayed at how quickly the fashion industry used and discarded designers, like so many Burberry bikinis.
Home for the holidays, he took what he thought would be a short-term job styling windows for Seattle's matronly I. Magnin department store. "I.
Magnin is where the old guard shops,
Downing explains. "I turned it upside down and shook all the cobwebs out."
Downing, with his then unpredictable hairstyles, became a darling of local morning- and noon-show TV hosts. "My mom told me the first time she saw me on TV she cried because she thought I was going to sit there and stare frozen into the camera,
Downing laughs. "Fortunately, that's not my personality. They couldn't shut me up."
I. Magnin enlisted Downing to spice up its San Francisco store, and the competition took notice. Neiman Marcus recruited him to work his magic on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Downing created big, bold images in the store's 17-foot window to grab the attention of motorists whizzing past.
Downing built his reputation as a party thrower in LA, where Neiman Marcus hosts the world's top fashion designers. He insisted on white fireworks only for one Biltmore bash, for example, and a chic but overflowing crowd ended up in the pool at a Mondrian Hotel fete.
PR at Neiman's is all about lavish merchandise and the events that showcase them, so Downing's flair ultimately landed him at corporate headquarters in Dallas' signature downtown store.
Of the 15 people he now supervises, three are fashion show/event producers who "only do their laundry in Dallas because they live on American Airlines,
Downing says. He gets involved in the minute details of many shows himself.
Dallas is still buzzing about a recent event hosting Diane von Furstenburg, for which the designer's Manhattan loft was recreated on the third floor of the downtown store.
Mike Thompson, owner of Sticks & Stones Garden Market, often helps Downing carry out his lavish visions. "He spares no time, no expense, and no energy to create detail,
Thompson says. He's seen Downing personally align tablecloth seams for just the right effect. Upon dashing off during preparations for one event, Downing told Thompson to "touch every piece of fruit on the table."
Most of Neiman's shows benefit charity, so corporate philanthropy keeps Downing busy. Otherwise, PR work at the luxury chain tends to be decentralized and viewed as everyone's job. Sales associates keep clientele books and often call customers to remind them of anniversaries and birthdays. Apart from Downing's responsibilities, other people under different chains of command handle communications for Neiman's website, for its famous Christmas catalogue, and for Bergdorf Goodman in New York, which the company also owns. Each of Neiman's 33 locations employs a PR person and an assistant, who report to their store managers.
Neiman's is on a store-opening spree in Florida. A Tampa location debuted in September, and stores in Coral Gables and Orlando will open this fall.
To promote them, Downing recently filmed a Today show segment in which he and E! Entertainment's Leon Hall made over two homeless Florida women who were looking for work.
Fashion is an educational process - an artistic journey into self expression, Downing believes. Although a savvy clientele shops at Neiman's, he says his staff "gently bring(s) the customer into the next fashion moment.
You don't want to drag them kicking and screaming, because if they don't understand, you've lost them."
Downing spends most evenings "reinventing black tie,
which he often replaces these days with a turquoise choker. When not shuttling between formal galas and cocktail parties, he fills his '50s ranch house in Dallas' regentrified Oak Cliff neighborhood with mid-20th-century art and furniture.
In his natural social setting, Downing's extreme hipness can be intimidating.
His style and passion challenge fellow PR practitioners, says Craig McDaniel, VP and management supervisor at Michael A. Burns & Associates. "It takes real talent, skill, and sensitivity to play the behind-the-scenes role of a PR exec and at the same time maintain a high-profile personally,
observes McDaniel, who has worked with Downing on charitable projects.
"He's a god in Dallas,
declares Holly Moore, editor-in-chief of the Paper City group of local fashion/society magazines. "Everyone knows him."