Business of Fashion: A Conversation With Joe Mimran

If you’re a man that lives in Canada, chances are you’ve worn a garment that’s gone through the hands of Joe Mimran. The king of Canadian Fashion has had a long and steady track record of scaling retailers in Canada starting all the way back in 1983 with Alfred Sung and ending with Joe Fresh. The #Menswear era can also be largely traced back to Mimran. He founded Club Monaco, which was one of the first brands to get the everyday guy interested in fashion. With such a storied career in fashion, Mimran decided to retire a-couple years ago to focus on other endeavors. I got a chance to chat with him about his view on menswear, his advice for entrepreneurs and what he’s planning to do next.

Anthony O’Dell: Tell me abit about your first family business and how you got involved in that?

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Joe Mimran: I started off as an accountant. As soon as I got my designation, I went into business with my mother and my brother Trevor. They had started a dress business, just the two of them. I learned very quickly, I did the books and spent a lot of time in the factory, sweeping floors, doing abit of everything and really learning the business from the ground up. I learned very quickly that branding had all the power. So we went out and started to interview designers saying we’re going to make you famous because of our brand. We hired one designer; she quit after a few months. Then we interviewed Alfred Sung. At first he was skeptical but he came on board and we just started growing. We moved from that little space on Richmond Street to a 6,000 square foot space on King Street. It was incredible because that was in 1979 when we did that and I thought OMG how are we ever going to fill that space. We had little sales and when you really don’t have anything, you really do have to take risks to get into the game. So we took that risk and got the space. We launched Alfred Sung in the US right away, we made a lot of mistakes but we also got a lot of distribution and sales. We were doubling our business every year and it came in very handy that I was a financial guy as well as a creative. We did our first licensing agreement in 1983 after being in the US for a couple years. That was the beginning of the license business, which was very lucrative and smart direction to go in that time. We also did all our manufacturing in Toronto; we grew that 6,000sq foot space to a 40,000 square foot one. We had 200 people working and we made some of the best clothing at the country at the time.

Tell me about how Club Monaco came about?

In 1984, I had an idea that was pretty unique at the time. The idea was thinking from a design standout, what was needed in the market. I was searching for the perfect white shirt, which I couldn’t find anywhere and Club Monaco was born out of that. I went to The Bay, Eaton’s, Simons, you name it but nobody got it. That forced us to open our own stores and that’s how we got into vertical retailing. At the time in 1983, The Gap was called Generation Gap and they were selling Levis and other brands. Vertical (retailing) was super strange, all stores were muti-branded stores. We were manufacturers so we really knew what went into the product. By cutting out that wholesale component we were able to bring incredible value to the consumer. We opened in September 1985 and we had line-ups from the beginning. We went public in 1986 and private again in 1989. I was able to grow that business pretty dramatically. We opened stores in Korea, Japan, the United States, we did CMX (Sports inspired 10th anniversary collection). In NYC in particular we had a cool factor, we were in the Flat Iron district with a 10,000 square foot store as well as Soho. In 1999/2000, I sold that business to Ralph Lauren.

How did you get involved with Joe Fresh?

After I sold Club Monaco I took some time off and consulted abit. Then Loblaws called me asked if I could design some home products (about 20) for Presidents Choice. They loved it, so they asked me to do more. I came out with a full range of home products for them. They then asked me to launch apparel for them. So in 2005 I did a presentation about what I’d do and how I’d go about it etc. Joe Fresh was born from that concept; we really grew it very quickly from 40 stores to the #1 apparel brand in Canada within 5 years.

What did you learn from growing Alfred Sung that you applied to Joe Fresh?

I think the fundamental of every (fashion) business is integrity of design. That’s been my Mantra every since I stared in the business. You have to understand the customer you’re trying to serve as well as make sure there is a large enough market. Those fundamentals are really important. When you have a clear vision of where you want to go then you can communicate that vision to the people that you bring into the company. Once they understand it clearly, it’s easy for them to naturally become brand ambassadors. You need brand ambassadors and if everyone has a different view on what it is it becomes hard to communicate that. When I first launched Club Monaco, I was fanatical that everything had to look very Club. We cut everyone’s hair a certain way, we had them style their clothes a certain way. It was very orchestrated and I made a conscious effort to communicate the style message and brand message. I think that’s what really catapulted it and I people really understood that quickly. I also think that for every concept theirs a different way of looking at the marketplace. One of the hardest things for brands to do is just stay true to themselves.

You mentioned when you were creating Club Monaco it really had the cool factor. Club Monaco has made a huge impact on menswear exploding in terms of popularity and the rise of the everyday guy becoming interested in fashion. How would you define menswear in 2016?

What I think is happening that’s really fascinating is North American men weren’t interested in fashion for the longest time. It’s hard to get men to care about silhouettes and I think over the last 6-8 years there has really been a shift. Maybe it has to do with online accessibility, as men generally didn’t like to shop. But to see a man in a skinny suit in North America is fantastic!! It took a longggggg time. I remember selling flat-fronts back in 1990 and it took a long time for mainstream retailers to jump on a flat-front pant. I think men today are far more interesting in grooming as well. This whole Brooklyn, bearded aesthetic has really helped men to get interested in different parts of the fashion world. 15 years ago, they were predicting the death of the suit, when Casual Friday began. Casual Friday’s were the most horrible thing in the world because guys didn’t know how to dress casually on a Friday. So to see men very interested in fashion is a long time coming and quite a refreshing sight.

Youve had experience in shaping a variety of fashion brands, would you ever consider starting a menswear line?

I might, if theirs one thing that would ever entice me back into the fashion world it would be to create a full-scale luxury men’s line. Do everything from a very creative, selfish point of view that would be a lot of fun.

I feel Torontos fashion scene is in a great place with retailers such as Nordstrom and Saks 5th Avenue opening as well as Incubators such as TFI and Joe Fresh Centre helping young brands. What do you think Toronto needs to do to take the next step as a true fashion capital?

Toronto has to forget about mimicking other cities (NYC, Paris, Milan). Toronto should follow what has happened in the downtown core which is to allow itself to become it’s own unique energy based on the great ethnic diversity we have as a city. It’s incredible to see and people are so comfortable with each other in this city; it’s something that’s really special. If that can somehow manifest itself in fashion, Toronto will continue to grow as a major marke.

Tell me abit about your first season on Dragons Den?

It was a fascinating time, its like going on a canoe trip with four other people who you’ve never met before for 20 days.

Youre really going to love or hate them by the end of that.

Exactly, because you have to get to know the other Dragon’s. Three things are happening. The first is the CIBC family, which consists of great cameraman, producers and support staff. Then theirs what goes on with the Dragons, when you have 5 A-types all vying for deals and camera time. Then theirs the pitches, we have no idea what’s going to come from behind that wall. We see 200 pitches within 20 days. The days are pretty intense; I worked from 8am-6PM every night. You have to stay focused and really concentrate so it’s really a fascinating dynamic. Another thing that’s interesting is from a celebrity perspective people would always stop me because of Joe Fresh but it was always fashion but now I’m getting everything under the sun so it’s a very different experience.

What do you look for in a pitch in terms of both the entrepreneur and company?

A-couple of the things they’ve got to do is tell their story in a short period of time, be synced and credible. So I look for someone who’s organized their thoughts, are really addressing their market and have a business sense. If they don’t have those factors it’s just not going to work. We do get people that come on that are totally unprepared and unrealistic about their evaluations. You have to be realistic about your evaluation. You can’t go in with no sales and think it’s worth 5 million dollars. Ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s in the execution and I think some people that come into the show think all I need is a dragon and all my problems will be solved. That’s not the way it works you still have to do the work.

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What are some of the personality traits you look for in entrepreneurs?

Intelligence, which comes in many different forms as well as a good energy level. They have to be energetic and determined and to be able to express their ideas as well. You have to be a risk-taker. We get into arguments in the show all the time and the Dragons will say you should never put your house up for collateral, you should never risk your families well-being but if you don’t do these things some times you’ll never be in the game. If you want to stay poor then stay poor and don’t take any risks but if you want to go with it then you got to take some risks. You have to weigh whether or not you can cope with taking those risks. I put my house up when I was building my business, I had too and it worked out. It could’ve not and I would’ve had all kinds of issues but if you want it bad enough you have to be a risk taker. It’s a matter of risk reward and if you have the personality type that’s willing to do it. I have a friend that goes Sailboarding and Down-Hill Skiing all the time. When it comes to business he has this little business and I always say to hi, why don’t you do this or that and if you do this I can introduce you to so and so. He always says oooo no, I can’t take that kind of a risk. So I look for intelligence, a willingness to take risks and if you have both sides of your brain working that’s really good and also rare.

Whats one lesson youve learned from running all these different business that youd give to an entrepreneur?

I think one of the most important things you have to understand is how to finance your business. It’s a really basic essential. It’s like you can’t go out into the forest camping without a compass, you need some basic financial skills. I always say go and learn so you don’t get yourself into trouble. The second thing would be is to not fall in love with your own idea. Make sure theirs a real market for it. You’ve got to have the ability to stand back and assess whether theirs a market need for it but that doesn’t mean you should be talked out of your idea. Theirs always a caveat anytime I give someone advice, I always say that if you truly belief that you have something so unique I can’t see it then you should go for it. I always end with you never no if you really believe, go for it.

Youve invested in a variety of business such as steel, fashion as well as the medical marijuana, what are your views on the pending legalization in Canada?

I think it’s long over-due, this is something that to me is a recreational drug. I don’t believe it’s a gateway. I think it’s less dangerous than alcohol. I just think it should’ve been legalized a-while ago and it should be a controlled substance.

Whats one piece of advice youve gotten throughout your career thats really stuck with you?

You have to own your brand and you have to believe in your brand and that should be the rallying cry for anyone, however that manifest itself. If you control your brand, you control your destiny.