After 28 years of working at Neiman Marcus, Ken Downing wants to leave his imprint on shopping centers.
Triple Five Group, the Canadian developer known for combining retail and entertainment at enormous centers such as West Edmonton Mall, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., and the upcoming American Dream in East Rutherford, N.J., on Sunday revealed to WWD exclusively that Downing will become the company’s first chief creative officer.
The luxury department store veteran will report to American Dream president Don Ghermezian and lead the design, advertising, marketing, public relations and events teams for existing, new and future projects. His purview will extend beyond luxury retail to include all brands at the center, as well as entertainment and culinary offerings.
Downing on March 29 will depart his role as Neiman’s senior vice president and fashion director. He is the latest senior executive to leave, following close on the heels of the exit of Jim Gold, the retailer’s president and chief merchandising officer. No successor to Downing has been named by Neiman’s.
“Ken’s appointment as chief creative officer of Triple Five underscores our commitment to providing guests with the highest level of service and style,” Ghermezian said. “He’s one of the most well-known and well-respected executives in the luxury sector, and his leadership will strengthen our [mission] of providing one-of-a-kind world-class destinations.
“Ken has a proven track record of working with designers and curating premiere consumer experiences,” Ghermezian said, “mixing the best in fashion, art, culture and design.”
“There are forces of nature and then there is Don Ghermezian of Triple Five,” said Downing. “No dream is too big, no detail too small. These are the ideals that are the cornerstones of my career. Joining Triple Five as chief creative officer is beyond exhilarating. With Don and the Triple Five teams, we’ll redefine the idea of redefining retail. I’m looking forward, first and foremost, to contributing to American Dream.”
Shopping centers are doing everything they can to attract younger consumers, who typically haven’t been as eager to hang out at the mall as previous generations. American Dream aims to offer something for everyone. Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York and a collection of luxury and designer brands will be housed in surroundings replete with fountains and flower plantings.
There’s also a full menu of specialty stores and fast fashion. On the entertainment front, there will be what’s billed as the largest fully enclosed indoor water park from DreamWorks, and Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park; a 16-story Big Snow Indoor Ski & Snow Park; a 300-foot tall Observation Wheel; a Sea Life Aquarium, and a Lego Discovery Center.
The fact that Downing is exiting Neiman’s for a shopping center developer says a lot about the state of department stores, luxury or otherwise. Neiman’s has been working to cut costs and restructure its onerous level of debt. Two weeks ago, when the retailer opened its first New York store, which anchors The Shops & Restaurants at Hudson Yards, Downing was present, smiling and greeting guests.
While some observers believe the store failed to break the mold of department stores, it so far has performed strongly, breaking its sales target for the first weekend, when the development overall was thronged by sightseers and shoppers.
Downing has been senior vice president and fashion director for Neiman Marcus since 2006. He joined the Dallas-based company in 1990 and held positions in p.r., visual planning and presentation as well as in the fashion office. He mentored designers, brand partners and associates and connected with customers, bringing them into the stores for events. Neiman’s executives noted that Downing had an ability to style “high-low,” creatively mixing ready-to-wear and accessory pieces from designers so women could feel they were outfitting themselves in more individual and modern ways. He’s also recognized for putting together strong visual presentations that told fashion stories.
Ghermezian said Downing “realized that no other developer would ever have the need for this type of role, but because our properties are different this is truly a one-of-a-kind role.” While Downing’s job is unusual for a REIT, it’s not entirely without precedent. Simon Property Group in 2017 named Chidi Achara senior vice president and chief creative officer over branding, marketing and advertising. Achara had worked with brands such as Levi’s, Ralph Lauren, Hugo Boss and Salvatore Ferragamo.
While Downing will help to drive, define and distinctly shape all of Triple Five’s projects, he’ll immediately turn his attention to American Dream, which is set to open in the summer.
“He will be very influential in curating and determining tenant mix, both within and outside of luxury,” Ghermezian said. “Ken is known for discovering niche and up-and-coming brands, which is a huge focus for American Dream. We want to serve as an incubator for emerging labels and a place for consumer discovery.”
The Collections will feature Hermès, Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys, among others. “Ken is so deeply ingrained in the luxury and fashion world and his relationships are so vast,” Ghermezian said. “The respect that the entire fashion industry has for him is a testament to himself, his accomplishments and his personality.”
Ghermezian clearly was attracted to Downing for the strong relationships he’s forged with designers and clients in Dallas and Hollywood. Downing told WWD on Friday that working at Neiman’s for so many years was “a monumental experience and I’ve forged invaluable relationships with brand partners and certainly my customers.”
Downing will accompany Ghermezian to the European runway shows. “Ken and I are going to be spending a lot of time together,” Ghermezian said. “I plan on Ken being a very public personality for Triple Five. He is the premiere tastemaker, and the most influential ‘influencer’ in the marketplace. What Ken has done for Neiman Marcus is nothing shy of spectacular. I’m look forward to seeing what he will do for Triple Five.”
Ghermezian said he immediately felt a kinship with Downing when he met him. “It was instant chemistry with Ken — we connected on multiple levels,” he said. “We’re both full of big ideas.”