Soft spoken, reserved,thoughtful,empathetic.
Hardly the epitome of a dragon.
Yet, Joe Mimran’s definitely a dragon – a television one – among the
newest on the panel of investors in the Dragons’ Den, CBC’s hit entrepreneur reality show.
The Canadian fashion designer, clothier icon and entrepreneur best known for launching the Club Monaco and Joe Fresh brands, is also a partner
in Gibraltar Ventures, investing in early stage digital businesses.
The 64-year-old Moroccan-born immigrant has spent nearly his entire life immersed in business ventures, on his own or with family members, particularly in the clothing industry.
At an early age, he assisted his mother, Esther – a former couturier in Morocco – in her Toronto-based home boutique garment outlet. That business grew, necessitating the purchase of a small factory in Toronto’s garment district in the mid- 1970s. Joe joined to lead operations, manufacturing and finance.
“I was inspired by the design, and aesthetic world,” he says. “I like designing products, building stores, inspired by great prints, inspired to want to be
That evolved into Ms. Originals, tailoring suits and pants for women, and soon thereafter, Joe and brother Saul hired designer Alfred Sung, together with a goal to create their own modern line of clothing.
It was a risk that paid off, when The Alfred Sung collection swiftly soared in popularity across the continent.
“If you’re not a risk taker and abhor taking risks, entrepreneurship is not for you. If you don’t have ability to think through financial situation, it’s not for you," he says.
By the mid-1980s, he launched yet another line, based on the idea that a plain, white quality cotton shirt was unavailable in the market.
The now-iconic Club Monaco brand was born.
“There were many people along the way of my career who said ‘you’re crazy, don’t do this or don’t do that. What do you waste your time for doing that?’ I have stuck to my guns. Sometimes you need to say to naysayers that you have to pursue your dream" Unfortunately, the plan didn’t quite go smoothly at first.
The Bay and Eaton’s department stores, to re coin a phrase, were “out”, disinterested in carrying the product.
To the Mimrans’ chagrin, Club Monaco merchandise had already been manufactured and bought.
“We realized that we had all these goods coming in and the only way we could move forward was to open our own stores,” he says.
And so they did. They rolled the dice on a 5,000 square foot store, opened in trendy Queen Street West in Toronto, showcasing an array of attire. The day it opened, in September, 1985, saw their marketing campaign pay off in a major way, with line ups just to get into the store.
“It’s interesting in a couple of ways. From adversity comes something terrific. We realized as we opened our own stores, we’ll cut out the wholesale margin.”
At that time, such a move was unheard of – typically retail stores would have bought through a wholesaler, such as Gap selling Levis, he says.
“Being naive can sometimes help you. When you’re a golfer, you’re at the first tee and you see water on the right, you see sand traps on the left, and invariably you might hit it into the water or the sand traps,” he explains.
"I liken it to that because an entrepreneur does not see those troubles. They don't see the water, they don't see the sand traps, because they've never been there before. Sometimes you know too much, and it keeps you from moving forward."
In other words, people often make all kinds of excuses, he says, reticent to make a move due to fear of failure.
“But sometimes you just have to dive in, make the mistakes, fix it, move forward, make more mistakes, and try different things.”
Mimran himself dived in, and not only opened a flagship Club Monaco store in New York City on Fifth Avenue in 1995 -- but also opened another 120 stores in the next four years.
That success caught the eye of Polo Ralph Lauren Corp., who purchased both Club Monaco and Caban (another Mimran line) in 1999.
His advice to fellow business people, after these ups and downs, is to not let the criticizers steer you away from your dream.
“A lot of business people, having had lots of problems in the past, will try to dissuade somebody else,” he explains.
“But your idea might be done in a new way, might resonate in a way that this very experienced person didn’t, couldn’t, anticipate. There’s always an idea that surprises people, and that leads to success.”
Taking his own advice, Mimran has continued that very success, time and again.
On this side of the millennium, Pink Tartan – a womens’ line - was yet another successful venture launched, appearing in high end retail outlets such as Holt Renfrew and Saks Fifth Avenue, as well as its flagship in Toronto’s Yorkville.
Since 2006, Mimran’s Joe Fresh Style became a private- label apparel line for Loblaw Companies Limited, and 40 supermarkets across Canada. Eventually, Joe Fresh opened free- standing stores – their first on Granville St in Vancouver in 2010, and later in New York City in 2011.
In a few years, the brand expanded to kids apparel, sleepwear, swimwear and even cosmetics. Additionally, the brand was commissioned to create ushers’ uniforms for the Vancouver Olympics, clothing for the Barbie franchise, and re-designing Scouts Canada uniforms.
“How you succeed is to fill a void, to create something new or give people what they don’t have. That’s always the best place to start,” he explains, as the essence to his achievements.
Despite the string of accomplishments, he knows that success isn’t always guaranteed. The apparel industry and general merchandise, according to Mimran, are among the most competitive industries in the world. Because of this,he says he can empathize with entrepreneurs who had tough breaks when they come to the Den.
“So there’s a level of humility. I’m not smarter than everyone else out there, because you’re only as good as your last season,” he says.
“And, no matter how good you are, or what you know, you can still fail in our business. It keeps you pretty grounded.”
So, to the Den mix, Mimran adds the fashion sense, business sense, as well as the aforementioned pragmatism.
And when you join him with two young women, a grandfatherly restaurant franchisee, and a flamboyant merchant banker, the fireworks begin.
“It’s like being tossed into a canoe trip with four other people that you’ve never met before. You’re 20 days on set continuous, 8 am till 6 pm,” he explains.
“And you’re stuck. You eat together, you’re in the same makeup room and chairs, and there’s nowhere to hide. It really is quite a bonding experience; you get to know the other Dragons quite well after that kind of intense period of time together. You respect the other Dragons and what their strengths are.”
A recurring theme he notes from the pitches he’s seen thus far with the other dragons, is that some entrepreneurs simply aren’t cut out to be entrepreneurs.
“They just haven’t developed the skills. Or, they fell in love with an idea that appears bad to me, or other Dragons. Though, if it’s just an idea that I just don’t like, it doesn’t mean that they won’t be successful,” he explains.
Ultimately, however, the investors need to know if the business is workable, sell-able and profitable.
“You see all this drama unfolding in front of your eyes on the show. I’ve seen these stories before, where people throw their lives into the idea, throw their life savings into it, and you can empathize,” he says.
“But it really comes down to the hard cold facts: we’re not a charity. That doesn’t help anybody. It doesn’t help the entrepreneur; it doesn’t help the people watching the show.”
On the topic of charity, nevertheless, Mimran is active in several philanthropic causes. He is a contributor to Reena (which assists those living with learning disabilities and autism), support of the Toronto East General Hospital, is a supporter of Canfar, Chair of Snap in support of AIDS Research, A Luminaire in support of Luminato Arts Festival and supporter of the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Additionally, Joe Fresh and Rethink Breast Cancer have teamed up to produce the Canadian Fashion Targets Breast Cancer T-shirts.
Finally, Mimran sees a future of entrepreneurs that have opportunities that were non-existent a generation ago – many advantages that shall make the business world a different place today and tomorrow.
“There’s more willingness to try by the new generation – millennials - who are asset light, where boundaries and borders not an issue, they live in a virtual world, and have the ability to take on more risk. They look at the world in a dynamic way that leads to entrepreneurial-ship,” he explains.
“Particularly in today’s world, where things are so different in terms of how one communicates with the consumer, all the new online fundraising channels that are available, what’s old is new, what’s new is old.
It’s the Wild West out there.”
Dave Gordon has penned more than a thousand articles, and more than five hundred editorials, on every topic imaginable. He writes regularly on domestic and international politics, current events, culture, relationship issues, and much more.
He has spent time in the newsrooms of the Toronto Sun, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Baltimore Sun, National Post and eye Weekly.