EXCLUSIVE: Ken Downing Joins Halston as Creative Director

Ken Downing and Bob D'Loren. Caroline Fiss

Ken Downing, the former Neiman Marcus fashion director with great panache, will become creative director of Halston on Aug. 1, WWD has learned.

The Halston brand is owned by Xcel Brands Inc., a media and consumer products company and front-runner in livestreaming that also owns C. Wonder, Judith Ripka, Logo by Lori Goldstein, Longaberger, and a minority stake in Isaac Mizrahi.

“Ken is going to be a household name soon,” Robert W. D’Loren, chairman and chief executive officer of Xcel, said during an interview Wednesday with Downing at Xcel’s Manhattan headquarters.

“It’s Ken mission to take control of all things creative — how the product looks, how the brand looks, how we message — every aspect of this brand,” D’Loren said. “We have product development, design, systems, warehousing, sourcing and merchandising teams. We have a head of design and a senior merchant, but Ken has to lead that creative team and set the direction….It’s a new slot.”

He said Downing will oversee the evolution of Halston and serve as “the public face and voice of the brand. Ken will be broadcasting into over 200 million households worldwide, starting this fall, through interactive TV via HSN and through livestreaming.”

“I am actually super comfortable on camera and very comfortable speaking to women,” said Downing. “Live selling through livestreaming platforms will continue to be a key way for Halston to communicate and engage directly with customers and fans, and the momentum Xcel is building through these channels makes this an incredibly exciting time to join the company.”

Downing sees both change and continuity ahead for Halston.

Asked what Halston stands for now, Downing said, “That’s something we are going to be redefining, as we go forward with a very modern point of view. It continues to stand for modern elegance and ease, and that’s always what he was about.

“What made Halston Halston was his ability to liberate women in a very glamorous way. He saw the zeitgeist of where clothes were going, very early on, and we are going to bring that spirit of knowing what the zeitgeist is before it happens, which is something I am very good at. There is always going to be a glamour element to it. There is always going to be a modern element to it, and there always will be an ease to it. That’s really the DNA of the brand.”

D’Loren said Halston at retail generates about $100 million in sales, and is paced by its premium eveningwear, and the accessibly priced sportswear line called H Halston.

“For the last three years, we have been cleaning up Halston,” D’Loren said. Xcel purchased Halston in two tranches, in 2014, when H by Halston and H Halston diffusion labels were bought and in 2019 when the Halston and Halston Heritage brands were bought. “We own all the rights worldwide to all categories except fragrance,” D’Loren said.

“New product categories are being considered,” D’Loren added. “Halston is going to evolve fast.” A premium sportswear line, currently under wraps, is scheduled to launch at retail in spring 2023. In addition, “amplifying” accessories, as well as adding footwear, men’s and home, are being considered, D’Loren said.

“Ken’s appointment is another key step in bringing our vision for Halston to full fruition and in our broad strategy of continuing to build our live-selling ecosystem, supported by well-known and authentic personalities, that enables our brands to connect directly with customers,” D’Loren said.

“DNA and brands shouldn’t change,” he added. “But you have to take that DNA and filter it through the lens of what is happening in the world.” He said the Halston brand was hampered over the past decade or so by the former owners, who he said “spent much too much time looking back as opposed to looking forward.”

Roy Halston Frowick, originally known for his millinery, used jersey, cashmere and suede to reinvent the jumpsuit, the shirtdress and the classic caftan. The ’70s and the era of Studio 54 became synonymous with Halston and his designs. Halston went on to create one of the bestselling fragrances of all time with a tear-drop-shaped perfume bottle designed by Elsa Peretti. Halston died in 1990 at the age of 59. Last year’s streaming television miniseries “Halston” introduced the brand to younger generations who may not have been aware of the designer’s prominence and lasting influence on fashion.

For the last six months, Downing was chief brand officer for Hearst’s HLC Commerce division. Before that, he was chief creative officer at developer Triple Five Group Worldwide for about two-and-a-half years, responsible for the architectural and interior design, advertising and marketing campaigns, public relations, and special events of the company’s shopping centers. He was influential in the launch of Triple Five’s American Dream mega shopping, dining and entertainment complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Downing built his reputation as senior vice president and fashion director for Neiman Marcus, where he worked for 28 years. He helped bring a global point of view to the store and took a fearless, often edgy approach to introducing fashion trends, and established close relationships with designers and customers. He was particularly skilled at staging fashion shows, working the crowds, and serving as the fashion voice of the Dallas-based luxury retailer. Neiman’s launched a series of high-touch customer experience and fashion-centric digital initiatives under his guidance, including real-time runway fashion coverage, VIP events and social media interviews with designers, celebrities, models and influencers.

Xcel, which is listed on Nasdaq, does not operate with a traditional wholesale business model. “Most of our revenue is fee income,” which amounted to $50 million last year, D’Loren explained. “In many cases we design and source for our retail partners, and do all the styling, merchandising and talent management. They open the purchase orders with the factories. They take the entire margin and they pay us a percentage of their retail sales.” Xcel’s portfolio of brands generated about $500 million in sales at retail last year.

“Xcel was founded 12 years ago to reimagine shopping, social media and entertainment as one thing,” D’Loren said. “We have never deviated from that mission.”

“We are living in a time where the speed of change has accelerated. There are a lot of technologies available to give customers what they want, when they want it. That’s what we are about.”

“Every retailer from Walmart to Signet to Macy’s is trying to figure out livestreaming,” D’Loren said.

He said livestreaming in Asia has in the last three years grown from a $3 billion business to over $300 billion. “It now accounts for 20 percent of all e-commerce in Asia,” said D’Loren. “Industry experts are forecasting (the U.S.) will have similar growth,” D’Loren said, noting that Amazon recently announced that livestreaming is a high priority. “They see what is coming.

“The players that will do this well will be Amazon, Google and Facebook. Google and Facebook will need partners for the parts of the ecosystem they don’t have — product and fulfillment capabilities. Amazon is the only one that has it complete, and quite frankly QVC has it complete. Amazon and QVC are sitting in a great place with a significant advantage, and Xcel is sitting in a unique position as a brand owner and a wholesaler and because we have an end-to-end tech stack built to livestream. We have the brands, the infrastructure and the technology to do it. That’s the strategic positioning we have created for ourselves. We have over 10,000 hours production time with QVC over the last 11 years. We simply just know more about this than others.

“The key to all of this is to engage with customers, to entertain them, to delight them and to sell them product that they really want and they need to hear it from an authentic, credible voice,” D’Loren said. “That is where Ken comes in.”

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