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Checkout Line

How Canadian grocery-store label Joe Fresh came to take a bite out of the Big Apple's fashion scene

Author JACQUELINE DETWILER

Joe Mimran, the man behind the colorful clothing line Joe Fresh
(Steve Alkok/Zuma Press/Corbis)

THERE ARE CONCERNS you don’t necessarily anticipate when opening a fashion boutique in the middle of a supermarket. Racks and mannequins will take regular hits from shopping carts, for example, and the dressing room queue must move quickly so customers’ ice cream doesn’t melt. Also, browns and tans can look drab next to the fruits and vegetables, so you’d best design in bright colors.

These were the challenges that fashion mogul Joe Mimran, of Club Monaco fame, faced when Canadian supermarket chain Loblaws approached him in 2006 about designing a clothing line for its stores. Mimran tackled the job admirably: avoiding mannequins entirely for the first few years, commissioning cart-proof stainless steel fixtures and crafting inexpensive, edgy basics in fanciful hues. From such inconspicuous beginnings, the clothing line—named Joe Fresh and including items like color-block dresses and bright orange neoprene bell jackets, all priced under $160—became a strong driver of Loblaws’ revenues through the recession. In five years, Joe Fresh spread from 40 grocery stores to more than 300, opened 17 stand-alone shops and became the fourth largest clothing retailer in Canada.

Now, after priming the Eastern Seaboard with a smattering of locations in New York City, the Hamptons and New Jersey, Joe Fresh has just opened its first U.S. flagship—on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, no less, alongside high-fashion-for-low-prices competitors H&M, Zara and Uniqlo. If the line’s peppy basics can garner the same sort of following that its international rivals have, Joe Fresh will have accomplished something entirely novel. “I joke that we’re going to Fifth Avenue from the frozen food aisle,” says Mimran. “It’s kind of a circuitous route.”

If anyone can manage that route, it’s Mimran. Exceptionally tan and immaculately tailored, Mimran was born in Morocco to a couturier mother and a father who owned a grocery store conglomerate. He knew from a young age that he wanted to work in fashion, and completed two bachelor’s degrees— the first in fine arts and sociology and the second in business—to ensure he’d prosper in his chosen field. Success came in 1985, when he launched Club Monaco simply because he couldn’t find a white shirt he liked. “I had been very influenced by the Japanese love of the white shirt,” says Mimran. “There was really nothing at the time here that fit the bill. Gap was still Generation Gap, and still selling Levi’s. There weren’t singular retail brands.” (In 1999, he sold Club Monaco to Ralph Lauren for $52.5 million.)

In Mimran lore, the white shirt story has taken on a mythological quality that illuminates the man’s branding genius. Like a particularly fashionable chess master, Mimran has a knack for spotting an opening in the clothing market and expertly resetting the board to make the unfilled niche not merely apparent but unavoidable. With Joe Fresh, Mimran’s coup appears to be recognizing that whimsical cuts and colors needed to be accessible on an entirely different level. “The variety of color, the pricing structure, the fact that [Joe Fresh] is not available everywhere but is convenient to pick up where it is available—it’s a, excuse the pun, fresh approach,” says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for market research firm NPD Group.

Still, there’s the question of whether the brand will have the same appeal outside its grocery store incubator, as well as whether it can hold up to the withering scrutiny of New York City’s fashion set. Can clothes manufactured to sell in Canadian supermarkets really compete with ultra-high-tech Japanese basics and H&M collaborations with Versace?

The cosmopolitan Mimran, who splits his time between Joe Fresh’s two hubs in New York City and Toronto, is bullish. He plans to amp up the line’s runway sensibility for the flagship while still pushing the bright colors and hypermodern aesthetic that have worked well for Joe Fresh in the past. “I think when you have the kind of success we have had, and you get the kind of response that we’ve gotten here in Canada, you look at it and say, ‘We should go out and give it a good fight outside our own borders,’” he says. “It looks like we’re well on our way to doing that.”

The rest of Hemispheres’ editorial staffers think that senior editor JACQUELINE DETWILER should really chill out with the orange pants already.


NORTHERN EXPOSURE

While retailers from the Great White North haven’t always been so successful south of the border (after poor sales in its U.S. National Tea Company supermarkets, Loblaws itself retreated in 1995), a few Canadian firms have managed to conquer the divide.

Lululemon
During its simultaneous drives into the U.S. and Australia in the mid-2000s, the Vancouver-based sportswear company tapped into a movie star-driven craze for haute yogawear, using a campaign called “Sweat Like a Celebrity.”

Roots
Though the outdoor outfitter had six U.S. locations in the ’90s, it wasn’t a significant presence stateside until it clothed the Canadian Olympic team in 1998. Soon after, everyone from Bill Clinton to Robin Williams was seen sporting Roots’ duds.

Tim Hortons
After decades of success in Canada, this coffee and doughnut shop merged with Wendy’s International in the U.S. market in 1995 (it has since gone independent, and public), which helped it spread to more than 600 locations in the Northeast.

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