Joe Mimran (a.k.a. Joe Fresh) has built an empire producing high-end style at low-rent prices. His Canadian company recently announced an expansion plan that includes 140 new stores in 23 countries. And this week, the latest line of Joe Fresh garments will be on display at Fashion Week. We caught up with Mimran just before the runway reveal to talk $5 t-shirts, the Toronto Tuxedo, and why people should give a damn about Canadian designers.
You are both the ambassador of Toronto Fashion Week and the king of the $5 t-shirt. Those two concepts seem out of synch.
They can be, but that’s what separates Joe Fresh from so many other mass brands: We have an integrity of design and an integrity of vision.
What was the vision for your latest collection [to be presented March 19 at World MasterCard Fashion Week]?
I would say the great outdoors. The tagline is “fresh expedition.” It’s taking this [polar] vortex that we’ve been living in over the past four or five months and being inspired by it. I started thinking about it back in November and December. We were already having the most horrible weather, and I thought we should do something polar. I was also really inspired by the work of Adam Helms, a New York artist who did a series of paintings of Afghani mountain ranges. You get a theme going and then you just sort of lean into it.
People are always arguing about whether Toronto Fashion Week matters.
I think it’s really unfair to compare what we’re doing in Canada to fashion weeks in Paris and Milan. Those cities have been fashion meccas forever. People used to say that American fashion didn’t matter, and now look at New York. There are so many countries that have fashion weeks, but the fact is that the international press can’t visit 100 countries. Does that mean these places shouldn’t celebrate their designers and their national styles?
Joe Fresh has been in serious global-domination mode lately. You recently announced plans to expand into 23 countries.
The expansion into the States [in 2011] has been huge for our international visibility. We started to get requests from all over—Korea, Spain, Mexico, the Middle East, the Americas. We’re very excited about moving into many of these countries. I think every brand would love to grow internationally. It gives us the ability to compete effectively with other international brands.
Can you give us an update on your production process? Last year, there was the collapse of the factory in Bangladesh where your clothing is produced.
Obviously there’s nothing worse than an industrial disaster. Our social compliance testing is incredible. Nobody could have predicted the building collapse. Testing is now being done that goes beyond normal industrial standards. We’re out there trying to design clothes, and at the same time be responsible. I think it’s a group responsibility for the entire garment industry. Emerging countries have always entered industrialization and commercialization through the apparel industry—look at Japan, Korea, China.
Are you offended by the expression “fast fashion”?
No, I don’t think it’s offensive. It really just means that it goes from runway to store really quickly. Joe Fresh is slightly different in the sense that our goal is to filter the trends and give everything we do a Joe Fresh spin, rather than serving up knock-offs of whatever designer is huge for the season.
Fast fashion also connotes certain disposableness. Does that allow you to have more fun?
Definitely. You can do more colour. People don’t mind spending $30 or $40 dollars on the colour of the season, whereas most shoppers would be hard pressed to spend $700 on that lime green [piece] that you may wear once or twice.
Don’t take this the wrong way, but I know a guy who buys Joe Fresh because it’s so cheap that he can toss it rather than doing laundry.
Yes, we do a polo shirt that’s $12. I wear them. I could buy a designer shirt for $350, but that shirt might shrink or get ruined in the wash. With more expensive clothing, there is sometimes an assumption that people are going to dry clean. Our clothing has to pass wash testing. We hold ourselves to a very high standard. I don’t think the consumer always gets that.
Okay, let’s talk spring fashion. What is the one thing I desperately need in my wardrobe?
Denim is huge this season. It’s been trending for I don’t know how many years. It’s really a world unto itself. Finish is important; fit is important. Colour was important [in the past], but today we’re seeing more of the white jean, dark jean.
I noticed you are also advocating for double denim. I can remember when that look was a serious nerd alert.
Nerd alert—right! Today that jean jacket is as hot as can be. With mixing denim, it’s all about silhouette. If you’ve got distressed on the bottom, maybe [wear] a more cleaned up-version on top. Street style is huge now. Things have to appear as though they’ve been pulled out of your closet rather than looking like you’ve just been outfitted.
Why do people refer to jean-on-jean as the “Toronto tuxedo?” Do people not sport the look in other cities?
I’ve heard the expression, but I’ll be honest—I don’t get it. They wear double denim everywhere. If you go to Italy, that’s what you’ll see on the coolest guys.
And yet they don’t call it the Italian tuxedo.
No, they would never call it that.
The Italian tuxedo is something different.
Haha. I don’t even want to think about that.
Is there a fashion trend from last season I should toss?
There’s never anything you should toss, and never anything that’s ugly. As soon as you say that, it’s back in style. [My wife] Kim once said to me, “I’ll never wear a pair of Birkenstocks” and then you see that look coming down the runways. As Justin Bieber says, “Never say never.”
Is that really who you want to be quoting right now, Joe? But since you brought him up—how would you dress Justin Bieber?
I think we could make him look pretty good. I don’t want to comment on him, to be honest. I think he’s had incredible success and it’s hard to keep your head straight at that age, no matter what.
And hard to keep your shirt on. You mentioned your wife, Kim, who has her own fashion empire, Pink Tartan. You guys always look so coordinated. Do you get ready together?
She has her closet and I have mine. Sometimes we’ll come out and she’ll look so great in black and cream and I’ll think, maybe I should change my navy suit.
So it’s her lead?
No, we go back and forth. There is no dictator in our house.
You’re famous for your signature footwear. When did you start wearing slippers?
I bought a pair in England on Jermyn Street*
about 25 years ago. They were just so comfortable. I started ordering them and I’ve never stopped. I would say I wear them about 80, maybe 90 per cent of the time. They’re so convenient and comfortable. You feel like you’re floating.
How many pairs do you think you own?
I wouldn’t even want to publish that number. I have a lot of slippers. Like, lots.
And if you could only save one pair of slippers in a fire….
What are these questions?! I love it. I guess I would save the ones I was wearing since I’d be running out the door.
White or black?
Paisley or polka-dot?
Best fashion decade?
Must-have grooming tool?
My French teacher.
Joe Mimran’s fashion empire
1985: Mimran and older brother Saul found Club Monaco
1999: Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. buys Club Monaco for US$52 million.
2002: Mimran consults on Pink Tartan, a womenswear line by his wife, Kim Newport-Mimran.
2004: Mimran is approached by Loblaws to design a clothing line.
March 2006: Forty Joe Fresh retail outposts make their Canadian debut.
Spring 2009: Joe Fresh Beauty, a cosmetics line, launches.
2010-11: Joe Fresh spearheads collaborations with the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and Scouts Canada.
Fall 2011: The line’s first standalone location opens at Queen and Portland.
March 2012: The flagship US location opens in Manhattan.
April 2013: A boycott is threatened after 300 workers are killed at a garment factory in Bangladesh.
Feb. 2014: Plans announced to open 140 stores in over 23 countries.
Play the Price is Right!
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CORRECTION, MARCH 20, 2014: The original version of this article—as it appeared here and in the March 20, 2014 print edition of The Grid—featured an incorrect spelling of Jermyn Street.