Joe Fresh's Founder on the Mistakes that Led to His Success

This week, Joe Fresh celebrates its one year anniversary doing business in America. In my homecountry of Canada, Joe Fresh, founded in 2006, is already a really big deal, with 300 stores nationwide and a dedicated following eager to snap up its fashion-forward, super affordable duds. While it's new to the States, it's wasted no time in following a similarly lightening fast expansion: In just 12 months, Joe Fresh has launched four standalone stores in New York and opened up 680 shop-within-shops at JC Penney. It's a dizzying pace, but as I learned on Wednesday, when I spent the morning hanging out with founder and creative director Joe Mimran at the company's New York headquarters, that's just kind of how he rolls.
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Hayley Phelan
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This week, Joe Fresh celebrates its one year anniversary doing business in America. In my homecountry of Canada, Joe Fresh, founded in 2006, is already a really big deal, with 300 stores nationwide and a dedicated following eager to snap up its fashion-forward, super affordable duds. While it's new to the States, it's wasted no time in following a similarly lightening fast expansion: In just 12 months, Joe Fresh has launched four standalone stores in New York and opened up 680 shop-within-shops at JC Penney. It's a dizzying pace, but as I learned on Wednesday, when I spent the morning hanging out with founder and creative director Joe Mimran at the company's New York headquarters, that's just kind of how he rolls.
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This week, Joe Fresh celebrates its one year anniversary doing business in America.

In my homecountry of Canada, Joe Fresh, founded in 2006, is already a really big deal, with 300 stores nationwide and a dedicated following eager to snap up its fashion-forward, super affordable duds. While it's new to the States, it's wasted no time in following a similarly lightning fast expansion: In just 12 months, Joe Fresh has launched four standalone stores in New York and opened up 680 shop-within-shops at JC Penney.

It's a dizzying pace, but as I learned on Wednesday, when I spent the morning hanging out with founder and creative director Joe Mimran at the company's New York headquarters, that's just kind of how he rolls. After all, this is the man who dreamed up and launched Club Monaco nearly 30 years ago--a concept which at the time was pretty revolutionary (more on that later).

Though it was arguably one of the retailer's busiest days, with an all-out anniversary bash (that would see the likes of Mickey Boardman, Dani Stahl and Corey Kennedy walking the runway) planned for later that night, Mimran was gracious enough to let me follow him around for the morning to see everything that goes into running a successful retail chain. Even with the massive event looming, it was business as usual at Joe Fresh's Chelsea headquarters. And for Mimran that means one thing: Meetings, meetings, meetings.

"[A typical day for me] is what you're seeing now...a lot of meetings," Mimran said.

The suitcase of fabric

The suitcase of fabric

The first one on schedule that day is a fabric buying appointment for next year's spring-summer season. Joe Fresh's Design Manager Ingrid Delvalle Sr, and VP of Design Yolande Heijnen, who Mimran lovingly refers to as "the Dutch," sit in with Mimran while a rather chatty fabric merchant presents a seemingly endless array of fabric options (seriously, there was a massive suitcase filled with the stuff). Color patterned silks and paisleys are swished on the table and then vetoed or okayed with a nod or a few words. "I feel like we've done that one before," Mimran will say, or, "these ones look sad," or, "no, I'm not digging these ones."

"I was in love with green like four years ago," Mimran says when a series of green fabrics are presented. "But I'm just not in love anymore."

Ever the polite Canadian, you get the feeling Mimran almost feels bad when vetoing. When the fabric salesman mentions his girlfriend designs some of the company's fabric, Mimran furrows his brow and says, "we'd better watch what we say then."

Once the selections are made, the team further deliberates, whittling the edit down to just a handful of fabrics. "So are we going to get our insanely low price again?" Mimran asks with a twinkle. He steps out of the room briefly--another meeting--while Delvalle stays behind to bargain.

With a few meetings out of the way, Mimran sits down with me to chat.

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Fashionista: Would you say this is an average day for you so far? Joe Mimran: I break my days down into different meetings--and obviously my days are broken down between Toronto and New York [Mimran splits his time between the two cities]. Looking at product is a big part of [my day], looking at fabric is a big part of it. Talking about commitments and where we're going to be placing bets is a big part of it.

How important do you think it is for a creative director to be involved in that kind of day-to-day decision-making? I think a filter is important--whether it comes right from the top or whether it's through designated people that understand the brand as well. I do think that's what makes the difference between just any old brand and [a good brand.] It's not enough to just be a filter, they've gotta be good filters so that there really is a [brand] point of view that understands fashion, understands the history of fashion, understands where the consumer wants to be and where you are relative to where the brand is. It's all very complicated because it's sort of a black box--you don't know: Will they like it? And who will like it? And what's the customer? How broad is the customer?

It sounds... stressful. How do you make those kinds of decisions when you don't really know for certain? I think they're all made intuitively. I think, switch goes on or it doesn't. It goes on and off and you just gotta trust it. And if you don't have the feel, you should get out of the game.

Do you ever make a big mistake? I make them every season. As long as I only make a certain percentage. There's no such thing as a perfect buy, whoever tells you that they do a perfect buy is full of malarkey as far as I'm concerned. I think you just gotta make more right calls than bad calls. But you can't be afraid to make the call either. I think being afraid to make the call or trying to look to history to make your call alone is what will get you into trouble. You've always got to look forward, you've always got to be willing to take a risk in terms of what you think is going to trend and how you feel about it, you've got to change it up for the consumer and you've got to make it interesting because there's just so much competition.

Speaking of taking risks and making big decisions, why did you decide to start Joe Fresh? Well I was doing work for the Westons [a Canadian family that owns grocery store Loblaws, Selfridges, and high end department store Holt Renfrew] and they actually approached me and said 'Can you do an adult apparel line for us [to be sold in our Loblaws supermarket chain]?' And I said, 'Yeah sure, I’ll do it.' And they said well here are the parameters: You have to be super competitive, competitive with these other mass merchants, and, you know, our average customer is size 14, and we want this, we want that. And I said to them, 'OK, I can do all that but I really do need control in certain areas. Because if I don't have it I’m not going to be comfortable with the project.' So they gave me autonomy to put the team together, put the positioning together--because the positioning could have gone very down-market.

Right, and instead it's actually really fashion forward. I always treated it as a specialty brand. I never looked at it and said 'Oh we’re in discount pricing range so we’re going to pick fabric that way, I'm gonna have category management structured like that.' We made it very design-centric, very quality-centric, very fashion-centric. All of the imaging we controlled right from the outset. We controlled what everybody saw. And if it wasn't going to smack of a specialty business then it was not to be.

A look from Joe Fresh's spring collection.

A look from Joe Fresh's spring collection.

Well that obviously worked out. It was a big risk. A lot of people sort of thought I was a little crazy, they were like, 'You’re going into food stores and selling at such low prices?' and, 'That's kind of goofy what you’re doing... you know it's like you came from Club Monaco and it was kind of this It brand, and had this cult following and now you’re doing this?' But I had this vision, an end game in mind [for us to be this global brand]. We’re still working towards it, hopefully we'll reach it, but we’re not there yet.

Speaking of Club Monaco, you've obviously had a long career in fashion. Were you always interested in fashion--even when you were a kid? Yeah I was. I mean my mom was a couturier. So that's where it all started from. She worked super hard. It was immigrant parents: My dad had two jobs and my mom made dresses at night for people, and she also worked at Simpsons, which was a department store, doing their high-end alterations. So in my household there was always a 'Judy' or a mannequin, sewing machines, and straight pins everywhere--and it was a really tiny apartment. I always got jabbed by straight pins growing up.

Did you always want to work in fashion? Well, art was really what I loved [first] and I had an art gallery when I was 18 years old on Scollard [street in Toronto] and worked two jobs so I could afford to have the gallery. I worked in a clothing store because again, clothing was just something I was good at it. And then I worked as a door man at one of the clubs, Colonial. I was a door man--a bouncer, if you can believe it.

I kind of can't! Yeah, so I did all that, and then I got my accounting degree, because, coming from a sort of poor family, you really are interested in being successful, you really want to perform. So I got that degree so I could mix business and art at the same time. And the minute I got that accounting degree, I decided I wanted to go into the fashion business. And... I just got into the fashion business.

What were those early times like? I started with my mom and brother. That was a company called Ms. Originals at the time, and that morphed into Alfred Sung which morphed into Monaco Group. I really started on the manufacturing side. We had six sewing machines, and I had to sweep the factory floor every night, learn how to fix the button-hole machine, learned about every single machine, learned how to lay fabrics, learned how to do it all from the ground up.

How did that first small business morph into Club Monaco? I was looking for a white shirt, and I went out shopping on the busiest day of the year. I was watching everybody buying all this stuff and I couldn't find a decent white shirt anywhere. I thought to myself, here we are killing ourselves making these really high quality garments when there isn't a 100% cotton shirt I want in stores. So we created a line, it was a unisex line at the time, and it was all about 100% cotton, really casual clothing. It was about great pricing.

And did the idea just take off? Well, I thought I could sell it to the department stores because we were really connected at the time. And they looked at it and no one wanted to buy it. They didn't get it at all. I'd bought all this product thinking it was no problem, we'd just go in they'd love it and we would sell it. And obviously that didn't happen and now we had all this product.

So what did you do? Well that forced me to open up a store. And that's actually why the stores opened because we had to sell it somehow. And when all of a sudden we became retailers we thought, 'Well, what can we do that would be really great as a retailer?' And that's when vertical retailing, one thumbprint in the design, came into play. At the time vertical retailing was unheard of--everything was a boutique that carried multiple brands back then, so we were obviously different.

When the buyers first shut down your idea, did you ever have any doubts, like 'What have I done?? You know what, I never thought of it that way. I was so certain that what we were doing was needed in the marketplace that I was willing to bet the farm on it. And we did bet the farm. We opened three stores at one time. The bank was not happy with us for doing it and we just did it. And then it turned into this huge success.

A look from Joe Fresh's spring collection.

A look from Joe Fresh's spring collection.

Did taking that kind of big gamble help you, in terms of how you take risks in your career today? I think in any business, there's a point where you have to be a bit of a risk taker. I don't think you can analyze everything, particularly with the fashion industry. And so I think you may as well make your risks big, because it's the same amount of work at the end of the day.

What's your advice for a budding entrepreneur? I would say really make sure you understand the market you're going after. Try and project your thinking as to where it can ultimately be, the business, and work backwards. So really think about where is it that you want to end up--visualize the shot, visualize the end game--and work your way back.

Have you learned any hard lessons to pass on to entrepreneurs? I think for me it's about always controlling. You have to control the brand and you gotta control all the elements that go into it. The minute you lose control, the minute you are not true to the brand or true to an aesthetic, I think you can run into trouble. I think you just have to have an amazing amount of tenacity to still allow people to play around with all the elements that make up what people see, but still control it. It's a contact sport: Day in day out, you gotta be involved in a lot of decisions.