Fashion designer Kimberley Newport-Mimran

On inspiration, critics, and being one half of Canada's most powerful fashion couple.

Kimberley Newport-Mimran achieved superstardom in the Canadian fashion business in 2002, after launching her acclaimed Pink Tartan label, known for its high-end, preppy-chic womenswear. Her success prompted her to open a New York showroom in 2004, and today, Pink Tartan is sold at luxury boutiques across North America, including Holt Renfrew, Neiman Markus and Saks Fifth Avenue. Her husband and collaborator is Club Monaco-founder Joseph Mimran, whose affordable Joe Fresh clothing line, sold at Loblaws stores, is projected to hit $1 billion in sales by the end of 2010. Newport-Mimran spoke with Canadian Business editor Steve Maich.

How did you get started?
My first job was as an assistant buyer at the Hudson’s Bay Co. I studied merchandising and manufacturing management. I just sat and crunched numbers and did assortment plans, and it was not very creative, and it was not very fun. Then I did product development for quite a few years. I worked with a design team, and I would execute the product — you know, source the fabrics, get the first sample, work on it with a technical team — so I learned a lot about design by being very hands-on. And when I came to designing, which is what I’m most passionate about, I had a very, very strong background in taking fashion to market — what needs to be part of a collection, how to formulate a cohesive idea that will resonate with customers, and what was selling and what didn’t sell. To have that background has been invaluable. I always compare it to the Karate Kid. He didn’t think he was learning anything to do with karate — he was just: wax on, wax off — but at the end of it, it was this training that made him be great.

People are sometimes quick to dismiss fashion as frivolous. Why does fashion matter?
It’s like food matters. Everybody gets dressed! How we get dressed in the morning reflects how we feel, what we relate to.

What’s a typical day like?
Well, right now we’re heavily into the design phase. It’s a lot of meetings, and at the same time there is a tremendous amount of fabric sourcing going on. What I’ll do is, I’ll go to the mills I deal with, they’ll show me their new collections, everything they’ve been working on developing, and we’ll start to colour up our key fabrics, our signature fabrics for Pink Tartan.

How do ideas come to you?
I might see something that’ll inspire me, I might read something that’ll inspire me, I might be at a restaurant and a girl’s wearing something fantastic and it inspires me. And then I’ll also go back into archival Vogues and research ideas that kind of speak to me. For example, this season I’ve done a lot of research into the ’40s. Then we’ll go and we’ll get vintage samples. So, for instance, I bought an old military jacket just to study details that we can bring into the collection. The research-and-development process is quite extensive. We do a lot of sampling of our designs because then I can actually see [the garment], and then we manipulate the fabric and add design details to it. I guess the reason it all becomes such a cohesive collection is because it’s all edited by me.

When you’re going through that editing process, what are you looking for?
Perfection! Each piece has to be stand-alone, but it also has to work cohesively in its group. It’s really about pulling it all together and telling a story. Each collection has its own little identity and own little idea.

How do you balance the desire to be creative with the need to make clothes that sell?
I’m fortunate because my taste is more commercial. I don’t do couture, which is a totally separate world of fashion. They’re pieces of art. I really design clothes that fit into my lifestyle. I think that’s part of the reason it resonates with my customers, because I design the clothes, I live in the clothes, and so it’s almost like I test-market everything before it goes to market.

What distinguishes those who succeed in fashion from those who struggle?
Fashion is a very difficult business. It’s highly, highly competitive. There are a few designers who come out with a bang, but most of the ones who have done really well, it’s because they’ve done a lot, a lot of hard work. People don’t see what goes into it, and it’s a lot of years, usually, before a designer really breaks through.

Your husband, Joseph Mimran, is also your business partner. Is that difficult?
We have a great relationship. I’m very lucky because Joseph is not only creative, but he’s also a brilliant entrepreneur. I’ve been able to watch him in his businesses and hopefully a little bit of that has rubbed off. But I think that it works for us so well because we both love it, and I think that that’s the No. 1 key to being successful at anything — you have to really love it and want it.

Do you collaborate on everything, or do you keep certain things separate?
We keep our day-to-days very separate. We work in separate offices and have separate teams, but you know, Joe and I spend the rest of our time together — we travel together, we shop together, we are interested in the same things — so the time we spend together we do get inspired by things that are around us. I always bring Joseph in to review the collection once it’s finished, because I really appreciate his insight and his opinion. But I always like to show him when it’s done — because in the middle it’s a little, you know, fragmented.

Do you still get nervous?
Oh, absolutely. Especially at runway time. It’s 12 minutes of your entire collection out there in front of, you know, a thousand people, so they’re filled with a lot of pressure.

Fashion has a reputation for being kind of nasty. How do you deal with critics?
You’ve gotta have thick skin, and I know when I first started I was a lot more sensitive to it. But you know, for every person who doesn’t like it, hopefully there are a hundred people that do.