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PHILADELPHIA — The recently launched URBN Center Annex on the Drexel University campus was packed with students and fashion executives Wednesday night as Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, received the second annual Westphal Award.
This story first appeared in the May 3, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The award honors a leader in the fields of design, media or the arts, and is one of Drexel University’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design’s highest honors. Downing was tapped for the award not only for his leadership as the luxury department store’s tastemaker but also for his work in the fashion community helping to develop young designers.
Downing started his day at a Neiman Marcus Champagne reception in his honor in nearby King of Prussia, followed by a luncheon and a spring fashion presentation, where 100 percent of the proceeds from sales went to a Westphal scholarship program. Missy Dietz, vice president and general manager of Neiman Marcus King of Prussia, said that the symbiosis between Downing and Drexel is clear. “The great fit between Drexel and Ken is that they both appreciate the past, but through their belief in luxury fabrics and workmanship, they’re both always looking toward the future in fashion,” she said.
When his time at the retailer wound down, Downing then popped into a Drexel classroom to give off-the-cuff critiques of five senior collections. Telling the students that the most crucial thing about designing luxury apparel is that it must fit well and be impeccably made, he spent time giving feedback on their designs. But he soon bid the burgeoning designers adieu as he headed over to the URBN Center to accept the Westphal Award.
He was introduced as a “style czar, tastemaker and visionary” by Allen Sabinson, dean of the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. “I have to meet this Ken Downing. He sounds amazing,” Downing said as he took the stage after receiving a standing ovation.
Dressed in a black leather jacket, skinny black tie and second-skin tuxedo pants, Downing used runway shots of his fall must-have trends as a backdrop as he regaled the audience with his insights into the industry. After dispelling the myth that it’s all glamour, all the time (“People think we just drink Champagne and drive around in a Winnebago”), he charged the students to work hard and develop their own voices. “What white space do you fill? What are you going to do that’s going to make my eyes open wider and say, ‘No one else is doing that now?’”
Downing also gave the students a realistic view on what being a successful designer is really about. “You must balance fashion with commerce,” he said emphatically. “You can have an amazing idea, but if it’s not relevant to the woman you dress, you won’t be a success.”
But most importantly, he implored the students to find their passion. “My passion is that I want women to have confidence. When they look beautiful, they feel beautiful. That’s what drives me,” he said. “Now listen to your gut, listen to your heart…find out what drives you.”