One On One with Joe Mimran

If you’re a man who lives in Canada, chances are you’ve worn a garment of Joe Mimran’s. The King of Canadian fashion has a long and steady track record of success, starting in 1983 with Alfred Sung and culminating with Joe Fresh.

by Anthony O'Dell

The menswear era can also be largely attributed to Mimran: He founded Club Monaco, one of the first brands to get the everyday guy interested in fashion. With such a storied career under his belt, Mimran decided to retire a couple of years ago to focus on other endeavours. DTK had the opportunity to chat with him about his career, his advice for entrepreneurs and what he’s planning to do next.

Tell me a bit about your first business and how you got involved in fashion?

I started off as an accountant. As soon as I got my designation, I went into business with my mother and my brother Trevor, who had started a dress business. I did the books but also spent a lot of time in the factory; sweeping floors, doing a bit 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 interviewed Alfred Sung. At first he was skeptical but he came on board, and we just started growing. 

We moved from our little space on Richmond Street to a 6,000 square foot space on King Street. It was incredible – that was in 1979 and I thought “how are we ever going to fill that space?”

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. 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, and 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; thinking from a design standpoint, 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.

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, Vertical (retailing) was super strange, and most stores were multi-branded stores. Even the Gap was called Generation Gap and they were selling Levis and other brands.

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.

I was able to grow that business pretty dramatically. In NYC’s Flat Iron district we had a 10,000 square foot store. We opened stores in Korea, Japan, the United States, and we launched CMX; a Sports inspired 10th anniversary collection. In 1999 I sold that business to Ralph Lauren.

When you don’t have anything, you really do have to take risks to get in the game.

How did you get involved with Joe Fresh?

After I sold Club Monaco I took some time off and consulted a bit. Then Loblaws called me and asked if I could design some home products for President’s Choice. They loved them, 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 Joe Fresh was born. We really grew it very quickly, going from 40 stores to the #1 apparel brand in Canada in 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 ever 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. 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.

One of the hardest things for brands to do is just stay true to themselves.

How would you define menswear in 2016?

North American men weren’t interested in fashion for the longest time, 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 don’t like to shop.

15 years ago, when Casual Friday began, they were predicting the death of the suit... To see a man in a skinny suit in North America is fantastic!! It took a long time. I remember selling flat-fronts back in 1990 and it took a long time for mainstream retailers to jump that.

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.

You’ve had experience in shaping a variety of fashion brands. Would you ever consider starting a menswear line?

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

Toronto is now home to retailers such as Nordstrom and Saks 5th Avenue, as well as fashion incubators like TFI and Joe Fresh Centre helping young brands. What do you think Toronto needs to do to become a true fashion capital?

Toronto has to forget about mimicking other cities like NYC, Paris, or Milan). Toronto should follow what has happened in the downtown core; embrace it’s own unique energy based on the great ethnic diversity of the 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 market.

Tell me a bit about your first season on Dragon’s Den.

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

You’re really going to love or hate them by the end of that.

Exactly, because you have to get to know the other Dragons. First [you’ve got] the CIBC family, which consists of great cameramen, producers and support staff. Then there’s what goes on with the Dragons— 5 A-types all vying for deals and camera time. Then there are the pitches—200 within 20 days– and we have no idea what’s going to come from behind that wall.

The days are pretty intense. You have to stay focused and really concentrate, so it’s really a fascinating dynamic.

What do you look for in a pitch from an entrepreneur or a 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, is really addressing their market and has 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 can’t go in with no sales and think [your company] is worth 5 million dollars. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Success is in the execution: you have to do the work.

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

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.

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 family's well-being!” but if you don’t do these things sometimes you’ll never be in the game. You have to be a risk-taker.

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 to—and it worked out. It’s a matter of risk vs. reward and if you have the personality type that’s willing to do it. I have a friend that goes sailboarding and downhill skiing all the time, but when it comes to business he can’t take that kind of a risk.

So I look for intelligence, but also a willingness to take risks; if you have both sides of your brain working that’s really good and also rare.

What advice would you 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. 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 piece of advice would be not to fall in love with your own idea. You’ve got to have the ability to stand back and assess whether there is a market need for it.. That doesn’t mean you should be talked out of your idea. There’s always a caveat anytime I give someone advice: I always say that if you truly believe that you have something so unique that I can’t see it, then you should go for it.

You've invested in a variety of industries including steel, fashion, and even medical marijuana; what are your views on the pending legalization of pot 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.

You have to own your brand and you have to believe in it; that should be the rallying cry, however, that manifests itself. If you control your brand, you control your destiny.”

Photography Lily & Lilac

Grooming Grace Lee at Plutino Group