This Must Be the Place: At Home with Neiman Marcus' Ken Downing

For Neiman Marcus’ foremost fashion authority, home (in Dallas) is where the art is.

Although “house” and “home” are often used interchangeably, the words carry different connotations. Some might consider the difference to be an intangible quality—love, safety, attachment—but for most, what essentially distinguishes the latter from the former is the stuff we put in it.

The one-story bungalow where Ken Downing and longtime partner, Sam Saladino, have lived for more than 15 years, comprises an expansive collection of blue-chip art as well as works by local and emerging talent; sentimental heirlooms; with antique mid-century furniture, consigned pieces and flea market finds.

An eclectic mix of artwork and coffee table books fills the spacious living room, where natural light pours in from the floor-to-ceiling windows that highlight the lush, green foliage outside. There’s a small sculpture in the garden that also came with the house, and was said to have belonged to the original owner.

According to Downing’s grandmother, from whom he inherited his innate sense of style, interior art and wall décor (or a lack thereof) could be especially telling of one’s personality.

“Empty walls made her nervous,” said Downing, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus. A native of Seattle, he moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘80s and started his career with the Dallas- based retailer in the visual department.

Missoni Neiman Marcus

Despite the notoriety that comes along with the title—sitting front row at Fashion Week, working alongside Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld, mingling with Rihanna (“who is just a doll,” Downing says)—the jet-setting “fashion oracle” lives a much more low-key home life than one might immediately assume. He travels with a worn leather Coach duffel that he wouldn’t trade for anything, and recharges from long weeks with quiet weekends at their lake house, another impeccably designed renovation with a decidedly California-in-the-‘70s vibe.

Unpretentious yet sophisticated, the historic Oak Cliff home is certainly indicative of the owners’ passion for art collecting, from the outdoor sculptures on the deck and in the garden to the paintings in the foyer and the living room to the large photographic prints in the bedroom.

“Ken has a distinct taste level, but he’s also someone that can put together very disparate elements and make it all work,” Saladino said. “I think what we do really well together is edit,” Saladino said. “I think that I help to temper sometimes ... if he’s getting a little too exuberant,” Saladino said.

The original construction, completed in 1956, remains almost completely intact, with the exception of the ceilings and updated lighting fixtures. The statement chandelier in the corner of the living room, for example, Downing fished out from a flea market, then reassembled it by hand.
“I’m a Virgo,” Downing said when asked about his attention to detail, a trait common of the astrological sign. (CoCo Chanel was a Virgo; Karl Lagerfeld is, too.) But according to his mother, Downing began exhibiting his knack for visual composition around the age of four.

“I picked out her church outfit and laid it on the bed—accessories and all,” he said. Even now, his early memories of events or gatherings are about the details—the table setting, the placement of a painting, an interesting color scheme at a wedding.

Neiman Marcus spring fashion

When Downing and Saladino moved to Dallas in 1997, they rented until they could find the right house and the right community, which they found in Oak Cliff’s Kessler Park neighborhood. The established enclave lies just south of downtown, camouflaged by lush, mature trees and separated from the urban din by the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge.

Characterized by older homes, spacious lots and unique architecture, the Kessler Park community has always attracted a certain kind of crowd.

“We really respond to naturalist landscapes. That’s the real attraction to this side of town,” Saladino said, in addition to the diversity in both architecture and community. “We’ve always responded to diverse environments, cultures and influences, and that was something we just didn’t find immediately [in Dallas].”

Like Downing’s career path, their discovery of the Kessler Park house could have been written in the stars.

 “[It} sort of found us,” said Saladino, a Dallas realtor specializing in historic homes. Like Downing, he came from a luxury retail background; Saladino was at Ralph Lauren on Rodeo Drive when mutual friend introduced him to Downing in Beverly Hills. “Almost all of the art we’ve bought or collected has some sort of touchstone, like a time of our lives that some- thing has struck us, or a kinship with a person we’ve met.”

Downing and Saladino cite Tim Bavington, Nathan Green, Matt Chambers, Matt Cleburg and Jeff Elrod as contemporary artists whose work they enjoy.

“Collecting is a disease and I have it in spades,” Downing admitted. Had they not decided to decant the looming collection of art and furniture collecting dust in the garage, he jokes that his “love of stuff ” might have evolved into a starring role on “Hoarders.”

Neiman Marcus Home Dallas Ken Downing

Fortunately, their nearby lake house and their latest renovation project, a historic mansion in downtown Detroit, allows him to continue feeding his habit while making a historically significant impact in the community.

“We’ve always believed in preservation, but to go to a city like Detroit and do it is more important because of the social impact,” Saladino said. This time around, the Detroit house will blend their “modern sensibility” with pieces from the turn of the century when the mansion was built.

“Ken’s always had his mind a (dare I say) Victorian style that mixes modern with vintage; the Detroit house is going to be the apex of that combination.” For Downing, who said making progress on the Detroit project was a goal for 2018, allows this passion for art and history to translate to his role at Neiman Marcus.

Kessler Park Dallas Mid-Century Architecture

“I have an appreciation for the past that allows me to help move fashion forward. I don’t think we have to live in the past, but I like when we can harken back to it, refresh it and make it relevant for how we live today.”

This mantra can be applied to fashion as it can to architecture, real estate or socioeconomic trends. This season, Downing is looking forward to modern interpretations of ‘80s trends and attitudes inspired by the punk rock and new wave movements.

As a former punk rocker, Downing said the current fashion landscape is also influenced by the political climate, which is what initially gave rise to the original punk movement in London. “The ‘80s defined a woman who was in control, who had great strength,” Downing said. Enter the power suit, shoulder pads, and iconic women like Madonna, Pat Benatar and Cher, who represented both strength and femininity.

Of course, Downing cautions against following trends—and even designers—blindly. Not every runway collection is a home run: many, in fact, are far from it. But trends will come and go as they always have, and consequently the only accessory that never goes out of style is confidence.  

As for Downing, he’s traded in his punk rock aesthetic for a low-maintenance style that’s more au naturel, but his affinity for leather jackets (he has over a dozen)—and unique juxtapositions—remains unchanged.

High-brow and low-brow, designer and vintage, feminine and masculine: these dichotomies, Downing says, create the tension that defines fashion and makes it exciting. “Without that tension it’s not fashion, it’s just clothes.”


GALLERY: AT HOME WITH KEN DOWNING

(Photos by Paige Davenport)

Jaimie Siegle
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