Meet Joe Fresh

Fashion designer Joseph Mimran stages a comeback.

Inside the brightly lit showroom of his Toronto office, fashion designer Joseph Mimran is explaining what he loves about items in his Joe Fresh Style clothing line. Sporting a grey suit, a crisp white shirt and a tan from a recent trip to South Beach, he walks up to a mannequin dressed in a complete fall outfit. “This is a long down coat we did this season,” he says, gently running two fingers over the left shoulder of the jacket. “We sell it for $69 — an amazing, amazing value. You can't find this anywhere in the city for that price.” The 53-year-old similarly gushes over other parts of the ensemble, including black leggings and velvet flats. Finally, he plunges his right hand down the top of a striped sweater, pulls out a black tank top and says in a slightly hushed voice that borders on the incredulous: “Six dollars.”

Cheap chic clothing isn't new to Canada. Retailers such as H&M and Zara have been selling highly fashionable low-priced apparel for a few years. But what's unique about Joe Fresh Style is where it's sold: mostly within 10,000-square-foot boutiques — complete with change rooms and trained staff — inside roughly 70 Loblaw-operated Real Canadian Superstores across the country. (The grocery giant operates a handful of stand-alone Joe Fresh Style shops beside some of its stores.) The clothing concept targets moms in their mid-30s who want to look stylish but don't have the time or budget to shop for clothes at malls. “Consumers doing their weekly food chore can now get a little hit of fashion,” says Mimran. “It's a guiltless pleasure.”

A lot is riding on the success of Joe Fresh Style, which initially launched in 40 stores in March. A stronger non-food offering helps Toronto-based Loblaw Cos. Ltd. protect its turf against Wal-Mart's general merchandise and grocery superstores, which debuted in Canada on Oct. 18 in the Ontario communities of Ancaster and London. But for Mimran, his reputation is at stake. If the brand flops, he could be labelled a designer whose best work may be behind him. If Joe Fresh Style succeeds, Mimran will once again climb to the top of Canada's clothing retailing heap.

Long before Mimran had a fashion brand bearing his name, he was a kid growing up in a blue-collar Toronto neighbourhood. The Mimrans fell in the lower end of middle-income families. To scrape together spending money, Joe held all kinds of part-time and summer jobs, from operating an art gallery to working on a farm. But despite his humble background, Mimran's childhood seemed tailor-made for someone destined to make it in fashion.

For one, Mimran had an almost innate sense for style. “Even at a young age, he was a good dresser,” says older brother Saul, who runs a licensing business with designer Alfred Sung. Their mother Esther sewed made-to-measure clothing. “She worked from home so much,” Joe says, “I picked up what's involved in making a garment.” As a teenager, the younger Mimran brother spent a summer in the sales department of a knitting mill. “It gave me exposure to the manufacturing, selling and developing of product,” he says.

After high school, Joe completed a bachelor of arts from York University and a bachelor of commerce from the University of Windsor. Although he aspired to work in a creative field, he initially went in the seemingly opposite direction: he crunched numbers as a chartered accountant for Coopers & Lybrand. “The choice was really based on having a business background,” Mimran explains. “The minute I had that, I left the profession.”

In 1977, Joe became a partner in Ms. Originals, a small clothing company started by his brother and mother. Two years later, the team hired Alfred Sung and transformed him from a relatively unknown fashion designer into a household name. The Mimran brothers then founded Club Monaco in 1985, with Sung as a partner. Built on a concept of minimalist yet fashionable everyday clothing, the brand grew from a single store on Toronto's Queen Street West in the mid-'80s to a public international chain of 141 shops by 1997.

In 1999, Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. bought Club Monaco for US$52 million and the assumption of US$35 million in debt. The move catapulted Joe Mimran into Canadian fashion-icon status and made him a multimillionaire. But the good times did not last. Just over a year and half after the acquisition, Club Monaco sales had dipped. Mimran was fired from his role as chairman, president and CEO. His longtime friend and business partner, Sol Nayman, also got the axe from his post as executive vice-president and COO. The Polo Ralph Lauren press release describing the management changes didn't explicitly thank the two for their contribution to Club Monaco or indicate they would be hired as consultants, both common face-saving courtesies in high-level shakeups. “I think Joe and I feel the same way of situations like that,” says Nayman. “Once you turn the page, you don't look back and wish things were different.” Nevertheless, the firing tarnished Mimran's image as a top fashion designer and businessman.

In the years following his departure from Club Monaco, Mimran stayed busy. Among other things, he started Joseph Mimran & Associates, a brand and design consulting business, became a part owner of, and strategic adviser at, Pink Tartan, his wife Kimberly Newport's high-end women's fashion label, and developed housewares for the President's Choice Home Collection brand.

Then, in early 2004, a Loblaw team approached him with the idea of designing an adult fashion line. After looking at potential competitors, such as Wal-Mart, and studying the apparel sold at food retailers like Tesco, the group saw an opportunity in the marketplace. “Out of our discussions came the idea of style at an incredible price,” says Mimran.

Finding the niche for the Loblaw clothing brand was easy compared to making the idea a reality. Consumer research revealed the average price of the items in the first season couldn't be much higher than $13. At the same time, the quality of fabrics and the manufacturing process had to be superior to competing clothing lines in the market. The fashionable nature of the brand and the lengthy product-development cycle meant correctly forecasting popular trends a year before they hit the market. Mimran, however, seemed like the perfect fit. After all, he gained plenty of experience manufacturing stylish clothing during his Club Monaco years. Plus, as Louise Drouin, senior vice-president of general merchandise at Loblaw, puts it: “Joe has an incredible balance between business savvy and all of the skills of someone on the creative and aesthetic side.”

Seven months after the debut of Joe Fresh Style, the results are promising. “Every one of our sales objectives that we have set, we have surpassed,” says Drouin. What's more, the brand is enjoying repeat customers. “I've been involved with many projects over the years, and I can tell you the response to this has been overwhelming,” adds Mimran.

“I'm impressed by the presentation, breadth, depth, price point and marketing of the product,” says Dalan Bronson, a principal at Toronto-based retail consulting agency J. C. Williams Group. “But fashion customers are fickle, and there's huge competition here,” says the former president of trendy Esprit Retail Canada and vice-president of Jacob, a Montreal-based womenswear clothing chain. For now, Bronson feels the “jury is still out” on whether the Joe Fresh Style concept will ultimately stick.

“For marketers, there is only one word better in the English language than new, and that's free,” concedes Mimran. Nevertheless, he says time offers the opportunities to refine a clothing concept and to allow people to become familiar with a brand. “I'm not going to tell you how, but we're definitely going to make sure the consumers stay extremely interested in Joe Fresh Style,” Mimran insists.

Unlike Club Monaco, the Joe Fresh Style brand will likely stay in Canada. That's because Loblaw stores currently reside within our borders. But that doesn't bother Mimran. When it comes to building international fashion brands, he feels like he's been there, done that. Still, Mimran says, “I think Joe Fresh Style could be such an important concept in Canada that it's recognized globally.” If he can pull that off, Mimran will have sewn up the ultimate comeback.