Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director for Neiman Marcus, was honored May 1 as the second annual recipient of the Westphal Award from the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.
The award recognizes not only the recipient’s leadership and creative success but also the recipient’s ability to inspire and nurture the next generation of leaders.
“Ken is an American tastemaker,” CoMAD Dean Allen Sabinson said. “He is the public face and the voice for Neiman Marcus, who brings cutting-edge fashion to the store’s most discerning clientele. Ken has transformed, and continues to direct, the overall creative look and public image of Neiman Marcus stores and products. Today he is one of the most influential voices in the fashion world and an outstanding and inspiring role model for the emerging designers we educate here.”
Downing spent much of the evening discussing style trends for the upcoming fall and winter seasons and giving advice to the fashion and design students in attendance. He discussed his humble beginnings in Seattle and stressed that any one of the aspiring designers in attendance could make their dreams come true as long as they’re willing to put in the work.
“If you want something really bad enough, … you will have it, because fashion is not just for a rarefied few. Our industry is looking for the talent and creative spirit of all of you,” Downing said.
One of his biggest pieces of advice was to remember the everyday lives of the people who will be wearing the clothes that students design. Downing said it’s easy to get caught up in the highbrow world of designing the most artful piece possible, but designers have to ask themselves whether their creation is practical for an ordinary person to wear because ultimately, it’s ordinary people who determine a designer’s success or failure.
“You have to say to yourself, ‘Here’s my dream, but will it translate into the reality of what a woman puts into her closet and on her back?’ Because you can make the most fanciful clothes in the world, but if they don’t sell, the buyers won’t come back and visit you,” he said.
When asked what drives him in the industry, Downing replied, “I want women to have confidence. … When I can make women look better, look more beautiful and like themselves more, it’s the biggest excitement I get. That’s how you know you’ve succeeded.”
He also warned the audience about getting caught up in the cacophony of fashion media and becoming too dependent on other designers for inspiration. “You have to develop your own voice. What white space in the industry will you fill? I’m not looking for someone who can create another Lanvin dress, because Alber Elbaz already does that perfectly. What is your space in fashion that you’re going to fill that will make my eyes open wide and say, ‘No one is doing that’?”
Downing has been involved in the fashion industry since high school, when he was briefly a model, before deciding he was more comfortable on the other side of the camera. He joined Neiman Marcus in 1989 and has been the company’s fashion director since 2006.
Downing gives credit to his mother, a model in her younger years, for being a source of inspiration.
“I credit my mother with a lot of my good design savvy,” he said.
Earlier in the day, the Neiman Marcus store in King of Prussia held a fashion presentation and reception in honor of Downing’s award, which benefited Drexel’s fashion scholarship program. Downing was taken on a tour of the new URBN Center, where he critiqued and discussed student designs for the upcoming Drexel Fashion Show.