Ken Downing
Credit: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

It was clear that fashion would be the topic of conversation at last night’s fundraiser for the High School of Fashion Industries in New York from the moment that revered style journalist Teri Agins took the stage as mistress of ceremonies. By the end of the evening over $100,000 dollars had been raised to support the program. Students also left with a more than a little career inspo from the man of the night, Ken Downing, who shared his journey to becoming fashion director and senior VP of Neiman Marcus.

Downing was presented with the Fashion Visionary Award after an endearing introduction by CFDA CEO Steven Kolb. “If fashion is like high school, then Ken Downing would be voted Most Popular, Class President, and, needless to say, Best Dressed,” Kolb said. “He is first and foremost a business man. I learn so much from Ken. I kind of see him as an upperclassmen or a big brother, although he’s probably younger than me. We don’t discuss age.”

The celebrated guest accepted his award graciously and then delivered sound advice for the students in attendance. “Be passionate, follow your dreams, but understand that the business dynamics that make this industry amazing will make you the successes that you look to be,” Downing said. Of course, he didn’t fail to share a warm childhood memory of his mother forcing him to speak with Diane von Furstenberg inside a department store in Seattle. “I was scared out of my wits and she pushed me in front of the glass desk with a woman who was one of the most feline individuals I have ever seen in my life,” he added. “She said, ‘What can I do you for, darling? What can I do for you?’ I said, ‘I want to work in fashion.’ ‘You will darling, you will’—and today I do."