Ken’s Downing’s ‘American Dream’: Make Retail Great Again!

Ken Downing

As senior vice president and fashion director for Neiman Marcus, and one of the most seasoned, passionate and outspoken voices in fashion and retail, with a HUGE customer following, Ken Downing has always been on a mission to make retail great. On Monday, after 28 years of working at the famed store, he will take his vast knowledge and experience and put on a new hat: creative officer of Triple Five Group, the Canadian developer known for combining retail and entertainment at humongous centers such as the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota and the upcoming American Dream in East Rutherford, New Jersey. It’s a position created just for him.

Ken will officially report to American Dream president Don Ghermezian who hailed him as “one of the most well-known and well-respected executives in the luxury sector, whose leadership will strengthen our mission of providing one-of-a kind world-class destinations”. He will lead the design, advertising, marketing, public relations and events teams for existing, new and future projects and his responsibilities will extend beyond luxury retail to include all brands at the center, as well as entertainment and culinary offerings.

I spoke to Ken (by phone) on Thursday, right before his final day at Neiman Marcus, and asked him to weigh in on his exciting new role, his goals, the recent changes in the fashion landscape, New York Fashion Week, the CFDA Awards (and the announcement of Tom Ford) , and his favorite designers for fall 2019.

MK: What do you see as your biggest challenge as you take on your new position?
KD: I actually don’t feel there are a lot of challenges going forward because this role as chief creative officer for Triple Five really brings together all these skill sets that I’ve been honing over the many years not only at Neiman Marcus but at I.Magnin: my visual merchandising background, my understanding of special events, my experience in public relations, and my interaction with customers. My work in the market place with my merchants and my buying teams with various brands has really made me prepared for what we are looking to do going forward with the reinvention of the idea of big scale retail. I’ve helped to create a name and brand myself with the over the top events I’ve created at Neiman Marcus and fashion shows. And of course, there is my vast fashion knowledge. I will be translating all the good things that I’ve done with customers into what we’re doing at American Dream. You know, lessons learned are good for many locations and it’s exciting to be able to refresh things that are happening at Mall of Americas and the other projects that are on the books right now.

Actually, the biggest challenge I have is figuring out how to get to my new office in Rutherford New Jersey every day. My commuting up until now has been going to the airport and going to another city but I will still be doing a lot of travel in my new role. Our offices are right next to the American Dream project which is underway right now. I’m not inherently a commuter but I am starting on Monday so I’m sure I’ll figure it out pretty quickly.

I feel that so much of what I’ve done in the past has really prepared me for a role like this. When you work in retail, you see things that have been great successes, and things that have not been successful. I certainly have quite a library of knowledge from retail 20, 30 years ago up until today. Retail has had its own issues because of budget cutting and employee cutting, not to mention brick and mortar transitioning into online in a digital era which is not going anywhere.

We are all going to continue to shop online but there is a moment, a resurgence, and a want. Customers are looking for a journey, for an experience, and this is what we are going to give them. It’s really bringing creativity back into retail and bringing theatre back into retail. And when you look at the great retailers like Mr. Selfridge, Mr. Marcus, Mr. Bloomingdale, you can see that there were eras of great theater when retail thrived.

Now is not the time to pull back. It’s a time to push forward and be bold and very fearless in your approach to what you’re doing and I feel that with Don Ghermezian and the team at Triple Five there is a very fearless approach to shopping centers, to creating Utopic environments that aren’t just about retail and about dining but about entertainment in an inclusive way. Certainly, there will be luxury retailers that are going to be in one of the wings of this facility in New Jersey, right across from New York. But it’s really more than that. It’s the idea of creating this inclusive community that’s welcoming to everyone and is more than just shopping through visually arresting things that are going to be exciting. The hope is that it will constantly be changing.

There is so much retail everywhere. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world; the shopping experience becomes very similar because every store has the tendency to look very much the same. Our hope is to create environments that allow us to transition and transform and change the attitude of the shopping environment seasonally and give a reason for the customer to want to come back because they are curious as to what we are doing next. Be it interactive art, or art exhibits, or music exhibits, or interesting new and emerging talent that will have their own shops that appear and will be there for a season. There are various things we are looking at to bring the excitement back to shopping and bring things into a shopping environment that customers are really going to want and really crave.

MK: I know you were at the Hudson Yards opening. What is your take?
KD: Well you know we have a Neiman Marcus there, and I am there until tomorrow. Our store has been really well received and there’s been a lot of foot traffic and the business has been very strong since the store opened and that’s a nice sign that a collection of stores that have come together does have life in Manhattan and beyond. Certainly, there are a lot of shopping centers that are not as exciting and we’ve seen them disappear. But I think it’s the excitement, the freshness, the mix, and certainly we feel that is important at Triple Five. What we are doing at the American Dream is a very eclectic mix.

Certainly there will be stores that people will know and will love and will be familiar with, but there will also be stores that won’t be as known. And there will be brands known to fashion insiders that may not be as known to the consumer. The fashion community is very insular. One of our challenges in the fashion community is that we assume that these under the radar brands have recognition. To have a platform to bring some of these unknown brands to life and put them in front of the customer beyond just the fashion community, and give them a chance, is one of our goals. What a great opportunity we have to really promote emerging talent and work with some of the great fashion schools like FIT and Parsons and bring the work (of some of these really brilliant young kids right out of school) to life.

With Don, no idea is too big and he is so NOT afraid of ANYTHING that it’s really refreshing. It’s easy to say “No” and in the world of retail and fashion it’s rare that people want to say “Yes, let’s do it!” That’s what we need more of and that’s what we need in order to bring retail back and make the retail experience exciting again.

MK: When did you first meet Don?
KD: We met briefly and we connected by an individual in New York who said “Your energy and his energy are going to be one in the same” and they were right!

MK: How did this all come about? Were you specifically seeking a change?
KD: There are a lot of changes happening in fashion today. There’s change everywhere and it’s certainly something I had been thinking about. I love Neiman Marcus. I’ve had an amazing career there and they’ve been very good to me and I have amazing customers who follow me around the country. At the Hudson Yards opening they came from all over the U.S to see the store and to see me and to share our love of the store. Leaving the customers is hard for me. I just had a huge show in Atlanta last night and it was very emotional as connected to the customer as I am. But I also know that reinvention is important not for the world of fashion and for retail but for me personally.

I’d been thinking for some time: how relevant is the fashion show anymore? The fashion industry, with regards to fashion shows and fashion weeks, need to be more introspective and take more of a reality check as well. I’ve found myself wondering if going to certain shows is really the best use of my time and my talent and I think I can have an enormous impact on retail and where retail is going to go, by bringing new ideas and a new perspective back into retail through an entirely different lens as a retailer; refreshing and revitalizing it.

MK: What are the biggest challenges with regards to big malls?
KD: I like to say that what we are doing is big retail, but its retail at a very human scale. And I want it to have a very human touch which is something Don and I feel really passionate about. You can have a huge facility; an enormous shopping utopia, but it can still be very human of scale and very human of touch, making you feel as though it’s your neighborhood and where you want to be. American Dream is a former mall that was under construction and we’ve gutted the entire structure and made it larger and refreshed the architecture and the interior spaces. It’s nothing like its former self. One of the few things still intact is a ski slope where it snows and one of the things I’m super crazy to get done is once we open, I’m going to do a fashion show on a ski slope so I am going to be looking for models who actually know how to ski and I know they’re out there. Even the ski slope has been re envisioned and will look NOTHING like it was originally.

MK: How do you feel about Calvin Klein not doing a collection going forward, and the departure of Raf Simons?
KD: I am a huge fan of Raf Simons and of Raf being at Calvin Klein but any business is like a relationship. And if the relationship between the creative and business people wasn’t what they were anticipating, it’s probably better for both parties not to go forward. I was excited that Calvin Klein had another life ahead of it and it was exciting to hear customers talking about Calvin Klein again and hearing the name Calvin Klein back in the fashion conversation because it hadn’t been for a long time. It was nice to see the New York Fashion Week calendar with Calvin Klein on it in an important way. We are all stronger in the U.S when we all support American brands and I feel it’s a loss on the calendar but it’s their decision not to have a collection. Anyway, that can change. They might decide they want a collection again in a few years.

MK: What are your thoughts on NYFW? You once said there were too many formal shows and not enough presentations.
KD: I think with NYFW and all the other fashion weeks, we are seeing fewer and fewer shows, but I still feel it can be a little tightened. All fashion weeks need a little bit of a refresh and people need to be introspective and take a look at it. Everyone is saying that but some mumble about it under their breath but to me, it feels still very long.

What’s unfortunate is that in New York, there are some really great shows but because it seems to go on FOREVER, by the time the week is over, you forgot about the great things that started the week. There is so much in between that doesn’t really captivate. When there are powerful shows that fill the calendar and have something to say and represent New York at its finest, that is when NY feels its most vital.

MK: What did you think about Celine and Hedi’s new direction?
KD: I was happy to see that after Hedi made his strong statement about what his DNA was, that he really took a retrospective look into Celine and brought us a collection that felt like it was more Celine than where he had been, and for that I was happy. Hedi is very good at taking a message and driving it home in a very powerful way and I think it will be a couple of more seasons of those power messages that he will deliver that will eventually define exactly what he sees happening at Celine. This show had little to do with his inaugural show but there’s always a method to the madness behind what he does; it will come to light. I think he’s a super talent and a major force in the industry.

MK: What designers do you consider to be overrated?
KD: I can’t say that (laughing). I think there are designers who do amazing things one season and next season may not be their greatest. But they eventually come back. There is great talent and a lot of diversity. There are many people out there looking for clothes and there is such diversity on how to dress and that is a good thing. You can choose how you want to look and who you want to be and there’s a designer out there to help you do that.

MK: What were your favorite collections for fall 2019?
KD: Miuccia Prada who was brilliant this season. I liked the dark romance, the articulated couture flowers that were manipulated not only on the floral dresses but on the army woolens her use of nylon the romanticism of her lace and the capes that played back to the militaristic ideas. I thought that was a very brilliant Prada show. It was one of my favorites for some time. I also liked Fendi and Dolce & Gabbana in Milan. In London: Victoria Beckham, Burberry, JW Anderson In Paris: Balenciaga, Dries Van Noten, Valentino, Chanel, Alexander McQueen. In New York I thought Oscar was beautiful. The customers have been loving the clothes and I thought it was a great collection. Gabriela Hearst also topped my list as did Michael Kors. His romp with Studio 54 was super fun it was high energy, great entertainment, and individually, amazing clothes when you go back to the showroom. The customers are going to be very excited about it. I love that he took the idea of a fashion show and he brought great entertainment back to life with a fashion show and that’s terrific.

Marc Jacobs was amazing. Sometimes when you see those amazing confections they don’t always end up getting translated into a collection that shows up in a store but a lot of his clothes are being made which is really great. He’s taken this extreme volume idea but did it in a way that is going to translate for a lot of women. The show was really strong! He’s always been such a great talent and really keeps the energy of New York there and he is always anticipating the next moment, and for that I have great respect for Marc. He is a creative genius and he never disappoints us when he delivers on the runway.

MK: Let’s talk about the CFDA Awards: Do you agree with Vanessa Friedman who noted that she had long had issues with the increasingly confused prize giving in the designer of the year category. In a recent article, she proposed that the glamorous glitzy fundraiser might focus on the special honors that recognize achievement over time and that we should choose “Designer of the Year” every five years so that it would not feel like a “high school popularity contest”.
KD: I think there is a lot of truth to that but also the CFDA raises a lot of money through that event which goes to do good work in the city and to be supportive of the industry and the talents that are out there. It’s certainly an award show but also an important fundraiser.

MK: What are your thoughts on Tom Ford?
KD: I love Tom and am waiting to hear what his vision for the CFDA is so I have no comment yet. I know that he wants to make it relevant but I’m waiting for him to get here and make his statement on what he’s actually going to be doing at the CFDA. I’m wishing him all the best.

MK: I know one thing; he’s going to want to make the CFDA “Fucking Fabulous”!
KD: (Laughing) Let’s hope so!!!

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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