Fashion / Shopping

Ken Downing Talks About Leaving Neiman Marcus and the American Dream to Come — a PaperCity Exclusive

An Intimate Conversation With the Man Shaking Up Fashion

BY // 03.26.19

It is Monday afternoon and my cellphone rings: It’s Ken Downing calling from Atlanta, where he is staging his final runway show for Neiman Marcus. It will be, he says with a breath of enthusiasm as he describes the precise number of models and looks, “an extravaganza.”

A few seconds into our conversation, Downing stops me as I ask how he’s been handling the last few days. “I thrive on crazy,” he deadpans. And that’s a good thing — as the last few days have been nothing short of crazy.

On Friday, Downing announced that after 28 years with Neiman Marcus, he was leaving the company. And three days later, following a swirl of news stories speculating his next move, a morning press release went out with word of his next chapter: On April 1, he will join Triple Five Group (the retail and entertainment group behind mixed-used developments including Mall of America) as the corporation’s chief creative officer.

The idea that Downing would step down from his role as senior vice president and fashion director for the 111-year-old Dallas-based luxury retailer shook every inch of the global fashion stratosphere. His connection to top designers, leading fashion industry and media professionals, and luxury clients runs deep — and his decades-long influence on retail is vast.

Downing’s departure is also one of many recent, high-profile changes at Neiman Marcus: In February 2018, former CEO Karen Katz stepped down after 33 years with the company; this January president and chief merchandising officer Jim Gold announced his departure after 28 years with NM; and this month, Neva Hall, executive vice president for Neiman Marcus stores, retired after 35 years with the retailer. With Downing now on the move, it would appear the old guard of Neiman Marcus has officially made way for the new.

“It’s been very emotional,” Downing says of leaving the company he has called family for almost 30 years. “I’m sad to leave the people I love… But, you know, I’ve always been about reinvention.”

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Changing the Retail World

Downing’s career has been built on breaking down barriers — and, quite frankly, shaking things up. It all began at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, where he worked in fashion merchandising and began redefining how the store would activate and display its wares.

From Los Angeles, he moved to Dallas, having been put in charge of PR and events, here. It was in this world of planning Fortnights and fashion shows that Downing stepped into his own, defining himself as the dandy and charming creative genius behind Neiman Marcus’ over-the-top fashion world.

He became the famous face behind the store’s larger-than-life designer PAs and parties. In 2006 he brought in cheerleaders and a marching band to celebrate Stella McCartney’s foray into Dallas; and in 2004 scantily clad male models helped usher in designer Tom Ford during a party celebrating his namesake book.

Downing’s deft hand at styling gave way to many memorable in-store runway shows of unparalleled creative caliber, proving he was simply more than just a figurehead — but rather a true creative artist. In 2015, to celebrate NorthPark Center’s 50th anniversary — and the 50th anniversary of the Neiman Marcus store, there — Downing styled 50 different models, wearing 50 different outfits, for a fashion show that lasted nearly an hour.

“I redefined parties, events, fashion shows,” he tells me of his tenure with Neiman Marcus. “Customer experience… I always believed in experience, even before that word was the industry norm.”

On a global scale, Downing established himself as a front-row mainstay at every major national and international fashion show. And he is known for perfectly walking a fine line in the industry: He is as loved by his customer (ask any Dallas woman her opinion of Downing and her answer will resemble something that is equal parts swoon, obsession, and adoration), as he is a respected and rare-air member of fashion’s closely guarded elite.

Fashion’s American Dream

During our chat, it is quickly apparent that Downing’s new role with Triple Five Group is one that will allow him to expand his passion for fantastical experience from the luxury realm to a much more democratic audience.

His first project on the docket is the late-summer opening of American Dream, a 3 million-square-foot development in East Rutherford New Jersey, with more than 450 stores, restaurants, and points of entertainment (American Dream has a theme park and an indoor ski hill).

“Everything you see, smell, touch, and taste… I’ll have touched it,” Downing tells PaperCity of his role as chief creative officer, which will include overseeing American Dream’s design, advertising, marketing, public relations, events, even an art program. “This is about reinventing what I bring to retail. It’s really big retail — but on a really human scale. People will feel very attached to [American Dream] but in a very real way.”

American Dream Mall
New Jersey’s American Dream aims to change the way people look at malls.

The project and career shift is daunting to be sure, especially during a time when brick-and-mortar retail — traditional malls, in particular — struggles to compete with the challenges posed by a growing digital world of e-commerce. How, I wonder, does one make the transition from luxury retail to retail for the masses?

“There’s nothing about this that scares me,” says Downing, who finds the largesse of American Dream thrilling. “I have no fear. I always jump in head first. It’s sink or swim. And I’ve never sunk yet.”

Finally, a bit sentimental I wonder, what does this mean for his lifestyle. Will the longtime Dallasite trade up for the East Coast? Well, sort of.

“I’m relocating to New York,” he says, noting that he has kept a pied-a-terre in Manhattan for a while now — and his new office is in New Jersey. “But I have no idea how I’m going to get to work on my first day,” he jokes.

Still, Downing will pop in and out of Texas, keeping his Cedar Creek lake house. And then there is Detroit, where he and his partner Sam Saladino have spent the last several years renovating a historic mansion.

“I’m not abandoning Detroit,” he says. “We just finally finished having the roof redone.”

In fact, Downing tells me, his new career aside, not much will really change.

“I’m going to live how I’ve been living for the last decade. Airplanes are my main mode of transportation,” he says. “And you know, I always say about traveling: Wherever you land, you must live like a local.”

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