No Average Joe
by Deirdre Kelly
photography by Mike Ford
Is Joe Mimran (BA ’74) the busiest entrepreneur in Canada? The celebrated York grad is not just on the go – he’s firing on all cylinders, directing both his own private equity investment firm and a product development and design company that bears his instantly recognizable name. In his spare time, he sits on several boards in an advisory capacity, or creates new product for the revamped Staples Working and Learning Company or Tilley Endurables, the Canadian travel-wear brand he recently pulled back from the brink of insolvency. Mimran does it all looking like he just stepped off a yacht moored in the Mediterranean: a tailored Italian wool seersucker blazer, custom-made white shirt, stretch white trousers, a large gold Rolex and large, dark designer glasses on an amiable suntanned face haloed by brilliantined silver hair worn long at the collar like a rock star’s.
Mimran works in fashion and knows all about the power of a well-groomed image. But it’s not a put-on. When you meet him in person, he’s as nice as he appears – looking you in the eye, easily answering questions, making you feel not like you have intruded on his busy day but like you have somehow enhanced it – which is a real knack. “I love to see people succeed,” he says, “and I love to have fun when I work and to enjoy myself when I work, and I love being around creative people. I come from a rough background and can be tough, but I’d rather treat others in a very beautiful way.”
Joe Fresh, the affordable clothing brand Canadian supermarket chain Loblaws named for him, later taking it around the world, easily represents his approachability. His runway shows at Toronto Fashion Week were always standing-room-only affairs, studded with celebrities in the front row and on the catwalk. Mimran made fast fashion both chic and desirable when he served as the brand’s creative director from 2006 to 2014. He just as quickly took responsibility for any shortcomings when Bangladeshi factories where Joe Fresh product was made imploded in 2013, killing more than 1,000 people. Other fashion brands that also had ties to the Rana Plaza disaster tended to look the other way, heightening Mimran’s fundamental decency by comparison. JOE FRESH DOES THE RIGHT THING read a headline from the day, detailing not just the remorse but also the steps taken by the company, including monetary compensation to ensure that Bangladesh’s manufacturing sector, an important source of income for local labourers, develops in accordance with strict safety protocols.
Post–Joe Fresh, Mimran’s nice-guy status swelled when, starting in 2015 and continuing for three seasons, he took a star turn on the popular Canadian reality television show Dragons’ Den. He hardly ever breathed fire, however. He rarely met a new idea he didn’t like. “I came across as a softie,” he says. “I would relate to the people who could see something that wasn’t obvious and turn it into a business opportunity, giving it room to gestate. I am empathetic to the passion of young entrepreneurs.”
I had a houndstooth suit at the age of 12. I was into fashion
Mimran comes by that feeling naturally. Born in Morocco in 1952, he came to Canada from Casablanca at age four with his older brother Saul and his parents, Eli and Esther Mimran. Dad worked in distribution and mom, a couturier in the old country, as a maker of made-to-measure clothes for women in the family’s adopted city of Toronto. Both were endowed with an entrepreneurial spirit that their children absorbed while living on the edges of Forest Hill, one of Toronto’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. From the get-go, the Mimrans stood out. They were penniless, but everyone in that tight-knit family had drive and determination in addition to oodles of style, the result of growing up in a small two-bedroom apartment littered with sewing needles and bolts of fine fabrics. “I had a houndstooth suit at the age of 12,” Mimran says. “I was into fashion for sure.”
But he didn’t have money and relied on his mother to help him cut a figure. It didn’t take long for that dependency to chafe and ultimately motivate him to work hard to get what he wanted out of life. And what he wanted was bigger than the family’s cramped living quarters. “I remember sitting around the kitchen table watching how my parents struggled,” Mimran says. “I became a business guy because I always knew not to be poor.” Going to Forest Hill Collegiate, known as a rich kids’ public school with a tough academic curriculum, “gave me the fire as well,” he adds. “I shared a bedroom with my brother, and it was also our den. It forced me to move out early as a young man and choose a business profession tied to fashion, a marriage of my two loves.”
If he wanted to sell clothes for people to wear, Mimran thought he had better first figure out what makes people tick and so, in 1970, he enrolled at York University. Four years later, he graduated with a sociology degree studded with other courses, mostly in the arts. His classes took place at the Keele Campus, then at the northernmost reaches of the city. Mimran usually drove up from downtown and remembers that the commute was terrible and the parking even worse. But once he got to the University, he uncovered a treasure trove of intellectual people and activity that mightily stimulated him. Every success he has had over the years, from launching Club Monaco and the Alfred Sung brand of clothing and fragrances in the 1980s to the progressive medicinal cannabis companies he backs today, can be traced back to the mind-expanding time he spent at York, Mimran says.
“I took art history, which exposed me to the arts, and I took Japanese cinema, which the prof insisted on showing without subtitles, wanting us just to watch for their artistic nature and not their stories. I also took a course called Parables of Reality, which talked about futurism – something extremely relevant to what I do today – and I still go back to it in my mind for insights about history and culture and how the world functions.” He also read literature at York, where he was fortunate to have acclaimed Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood as one of his TAs. Author and film scholar Murray Pomerance taught him creative writing and much more. “He was a real brain and he helped challenge me,” Mimran recalls. “He said I had this ability to concentrate on what really mattered, that I had a laser-focused perspective. It was a skill I didn’t really know I had at the time. But he brought it out. I am grateful to him to this day.”
Reached in Toronto, Pomerance, now retired, says Mimran left an indelible impression. “He remembers the details, but I remember Joe – inquisitive, a hungry open-eyed readiness to learn just about anything from any angle, just a kind of hunger that was really rare. And charming. Of course, Joe always is and always was charming,” Pomerance elaborates. “It would be a lie to say I remember any of the details of the interaction because, you know, I’ve had thousands of students since. But Joe being who he is, we had a very nice time together.”
Smart, sociable and stylish – an almost perfect combination of God-given attributes necessary to make it in life. But Mimran was not taking any chances. After studying the arts at York – and briefly opening a Yorkville art gallery while he was still a student at the University, his first entrepreneurial venture – Mimran told himself that if he were to succeed in business, as he’d promised himself, he’d have to develop a skill set. That goal compelled him to return to university to study accountancy. He had married young – to first wife Sharon Mimran, today a celebrated interior designer – and before too long had fathered three children. He needed to put food on the table and so took a desk job, working for Coopers & Lybrand. It wasn’t as boring as it sounds. Mimran has always had a gift for numbers. He liked the work. He found it almost fulfilling. But his creative side was just as dominant. He soon found a way to let his left brain and his right live in harmony. He joined his family’s fashion business.
It’s not frivolous. There’s a real purpose to it. Fashion moments are just bigger societal moments made visible
Ms. Originals opened on Richmond Street, near Spadina Avenue, at the heart of Toronto’s schmatte trade, in 1977. The principals were Mimran, his brother Saul and their mother, Esther, whose sewing expertise had become so renowned that she needed bigger digs to cater to an expanding clientele. The idea was to make dresses. But Joe had a better idea. He suggested that the family business focus on power suits for the new class of working women who were just then entering the marketplace in droves, reaping the fruits of the 1960s feminist movement. An old-time dressmaker employed at the factory thought Mimran was out of his mind and told him so. “What do you know from tailoring?” he said not long before being shown the door. Mimran had trusted his instincts and would be proved right after Ms. Originals sales of pants for women went through the roof. “It’s all sociology at the end of the day,” he says, making a direct connection between what he learned at York and his ability to connect with consumers. “Fashion is a reflection of what is happening in society. It’s not frivolous. There’s a real purpose to it. Fashion moments are just bigger societal moments made visible.”
If that’s his guiding principle, it has served Mimran well over the years. “There are few in the global landscape that understand true style collaborations. Joe Mimran is very much one of them,” says Roger Gingerich, regional director of Fashion Group International Toronto. “Whether it’s an apparel collection for a major grocery chain or putting his stylish eye on office products, Joe is brilliant at understanding the consumer, the ultimate end user.”
After ensuring that women wore the pants in the family, he and his brother moved on to create Club Monaco, one of the world’s first “vertical integration” retail concepts, selling everything from white shirts to patterned throws and sleek chaises longues under the brand’s Caban lifestyle moniker. The first store opened on Queen Street West in the mid-1980s, just as that now-hip stretch of Toronto was finding its groove. The Mimrans were forerunners. Within a few years, they had a 69-store chain with 56 locations in Canada and 13 in the U.S. Ralph Lauren took notice of what the Mimrans were doing north of the border and, in 1999, shelled out an estimated US$53 million to buy the business and operate it under the aegis of the Polo Ralph Lauren label. Joe was contracted to continue to work for the company as president and CEO. But it was the first time he’d had to work for anyone but himself since his accountancy days, and it didn’t sit right with him. The following year he was out – free to reinvent himself yet again.
He remarried around this time to Kimberley Newport-Mimran, a former Caban retail director whose triumphant Pink Tartan women’s ready-to-wear label – another Canadian fashion success story – he helped launch in 2002. Today, the couple has a teenaged daughter and a lavish lifestyle with properties in Toronto, New York City and Palm Beach, Fla.
They work hard for the money, Staples being a recent case in point. Mimran has spent the past year helping the former office warehouse company become a lifestyle hub for stylish product designed for the fluid way people now live and work. “Integrity of design. It’s not a price-point issue. It is a mental fortitude issue. It is a philosophy,” he says. “It’s certainly important to me, and certainly important to other people. I think when you look at companies that are winning today, they are design-driven companies. Staples wants to be part of the community, they want you to have a place to find solutions, not just stuff. And I think they’re transforming themselves in a really interesting way.”
Change continues to shape Mimran and keep him, well, fresh. He remains open to new ideas, which is perhaps one reason he looks so good. Age can’t wither him. He is just too busy to slow down – a self-made man made good. “It’s always exciting when you can look at a project and say, what can I bring that’s new? What can I bring that’s relevant to the consumer today? What input can I bring to give added value?” he says. “These are the things you look at, as they are the things that get you going.” ■