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Getting Joe Fresh
If Joe Fresh can be better-edited than H&M, cheaper than Zara, and slightly more interesting than Uniqlo, it could find its sweet spot. Making the Joe Mimran-led brand an ALDO-level success story.

Joe Fresh staffers Danielle, 26, and Nick, 40. She's a manager and he's the visual merchandiser. She goes to concerts in her spare time (Death From Above!!) and he illustrates and blogs. (Photos: Raylene Knutson)

On Wednesday, October 19th, at 9 p.m., the whole local fashion corps will be assembled in less-than-ruly lines, clicking heels and tongues and waiting, with a collective straining eagerness, to get into an undoubtedly late runway show. There will be grumbles, but nobody will think of leaving. This is it: the biggest—in audience, budget, and expectation—spectacle of all LG Fashion Week.

After twenty or thirty hot minutes, we will sit, Twitter-machines at the ready, and watch with reverent faces a parade of little white shirts and decorated skirts and cool jackets and smack-on-trend shoes. Some of us will stand, not unhappily; others will sneak in, seriously. There’ll be expensive models and a perfect little playlist. It’ll be a real show.

And nothing in it will sell it for more than $149.

“Welcome to Joe Fresh!” Just inside the Queen and Portland doors of the brand’s first Canadian standalone store, there’s a peppy girl re-folding cashmere sweaters ($69) and a plaid-shirted boy browsing so politely that I ask him for a navy flannel ($29) in another size. City moms shop with strollers and purpose, while a faint ringer for Jane Birkin, aged maaaaybe 23, buys trousers (“it’s faster than going home to change”). Two faux lumberjacks browse corduroys (oh, they’re back). One late-30s woman points to a brown suede platform loafer, an Ali MacGraw-slash-Ralph Lauren kinda thing, and says “that’s the same shoe I paid $300 for this year.” This one’s $52. In the air is the fluoro hum of commerce; on a stack of TV screens loops high-grade runway footage of last season’s big show. And I’m standing inside the brand-new reason no one—not even me—will leave this season’s Joe Fresh spectacle sighing all that for some cheap shit at the grocery store?Toto, we’re not in Loblaw’s anymore.

Five years and six months ago,  Mimran—the Morocco-born, Toronto-made retail star who created Club Monaco and Caban, selling both to Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. in ’99—embarked on his latest masstigious venture. Asked to develop an in-house clothing line for Loblaw’s (following, probably, the Target model), he came up with Joe Fresh Style: a line of minimal, on-trend “super-basics,” just like Club Monaco in its early days. And just like Club, it was anchored by a clean, white cotton shirt. This time, though, the shirt was audaciously cheap and only available at one of 40 mostlysuburban Loblaw’s. You’d think the audience, being all downtown and elitist and shit, would find this “new label” about as appetizing as Kraft Dinner with broccoli. Silly you! As it turns out, a spoonful of cool can make almost anything go down with fashion peeps, and Mimran & Co. have practically ladled it out. (Lest you shrug, consider that cool is relative, then try going to almost any other Toronto fashion thing.) For the shows, they enlisted star models: Coco Rocha one season, Crystal Renn another, a Keith Richards’ daughter yet another. Last season, they flew in Derek Blasberg, the New York-slash-everywhere journalisto, to sit front-row with all the social creatures. They’ve also designed collections for Barbie Apparel and for Boy Scouts, which is cool if you like mid-century gender constructs.

More to the point, Joe Fresh—they’ve dropped the erstwhile Style, now that its implied—is producing more and more of the “trend pieces” made at first for press-pleasing purposes (like blatant knock-offs of Isabel Marant pumps or Celine turtlenecks, or gold jeans so weirdly awesome that even our raddest-dressed intern wants them). Now, if you shop at Queen and Portland, you’ll notice “as seen on runway” tags on these pieces, as though the runway is just a fancy sort of infomercial.

Sometimes I wonder if we’ve all just drunk the orange Kool-Aid. Is it really so thrilling to see Canadian clothes make it from the runway to racks that we don’t even care the clothes are made in Cambodia, in Bangladesh? Do we like this stuff just because it’s cheap and Canada can’t, like, having nice things? Doesn’t everyone make a good white shirt now?

Then—kinda sadly—I think, if Joe can make it in New York, we’ll know we aren’t crazy.

This summer, Joe Fresh opened a pop-up shop in the Hamptons, then another on Madison Ave. Two are open in New Jersey, and two are due in Manhattan at month’s end: a smaller one in the Flatiron District (near the Ace Hotel) and a huge (18,000 square feet) one on Fifth Ave. Here in Toronto, where we don’t (yet?) have Uniqlo and are sick as shit of American Apparel, we need a place to buy those variously coloured soft cheap tees and cashmere sweaters. In New York, where the mass-fashion market is not even saturated, more like drowning, Joe Fresh is a much less sure bet. I found a promising article on the shopping site Racked NY, but it was written by a Canadian, while a piece calling Joe Fresh “the new Gap” was on the Daily Mail site, which is a) in the UK and b) the Daily Mail. But! Mr. Fresh won over one of my favourite (and least easily-won) New York fashion writers, Cintra Wilson, who describes his stuff thusly in Elle: “well-made, well-cut clothes, in good fabrics, at very low…price points.”

More serious analysis, the kind from people who can add and have salaries, is mixed. Some are skeptical and nobody thinks it’ll be easy, but according to Howard Davidovitz, quoted in the Globe and Mail, Mimran’s past experience gives him a “tremendous leg up.”

If Joe Fresh can be better-edited than H&M, cheaper than Zara, and slightly more interesting than Uniqlo, it could find its sweet spot in Soho. And if you can make it in America, well, you know what Jay-Z says, I guess. Joe Fresh could be an ALDO-level success story.

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Still, if I were to compare the Joe store to anything, it wouldn’t be another fast-fashion stop. It’d be Shoppers Drug Mart. You know, you go in to buy a toothbrush, you leave with three nailpolishes (for the price of two!), a stupid magazine, brown rice chips, wine gums, extra-strength Tylenol (on sale!), and some fancy new conditioner (they sell this here?!). Yesterday I went in to Joe Fresh on Queen to exchange that navy flannel for my boyfriend. They had sold out of his size. Instead, I left with a blue polyester tunic that feels alllllmost like silk, was like no money, and will make a great layering piece under the great grey mens sweater ($49) I found, plus two basic grey t-shirts ($6), and a checkered flannel ($29) for said boyfriend instead. We needed none of these things. But in the store, they felt so essential, so obvious. If Joe Fresh succeeds, this is a huge part of how: by turning basics into impulse buys, and making impulses both necessary and affordable.

The other part is—as Mimran tells me by email—“all about location.” On Toronto’s Main Street, Joe is home again. It’s easy to forget that beneath all his Yorkvillian, velvet-slippered suahhhve beats a risk-taking entrepreneurial heart, but Club Monaco was the first fashion-retail thing on Queen west of the mall, and responsible, ineluctably, for Queen West being the mall. In the summer I interviewed Joe Zee, the Elle fashion director and Bravo reality-star, about his humbler beginning: he worked at that Club with, he said, “all the cool kids.” There was nothing else there; all the staff hung out at this one sketchy diner after store-hours.

Mimran can’t quite recreate that, and he’s not trying. It’s a little braver than the mall, but Queen and Portland isn’t nearly the frontier anymore. There used to be, as Shawn Micallef tells me, “a hole” at Queen and Bathurst, a gap where no bars, no shops, hardly a diner thrived. But first American Apparel opened west of Spadina, and then came a Starbucks right at Bathurst, and now I’m writing this in an excellently restored commercial hub-slash-party space, the Burroughes Building; when I’m done, I’ll go to 416 Snack Bar, which is probably my favourite place next to my bed. My friend Zane Aburaneh has just relocated his accessories boutique from Queen and Dovercourt to three blocks west of Bathurst, and says the foot traffic is “crazy,” but not, you know, homeless-crazy. “It’s all these moms on their way to some baby store near the park,” he says.

So you can get moms and maybe, whatever “cool kids” here, and Joe knows, at these price points, that’s all the customer you need. Maybe that’s a stretch. Maybe you also need, I don’t know, crest sweatshirts. Certainly it requires a certain suspension of disbelief to think that a clothing line born in a grocery store, like some kind of hick-baby, is going to be a Major Thing in Our Lives. Which, fine. But I ask you this: who doesn’t like Shoppers Drug Mart?

__
Sarah Nicole Pricket is the Style Critic for Toronto Standard.

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