At noon on a summer Saturday in Toronto, the Joe Fresh on the upper level of the Church and College Loblaws—the giant, fancy one built in the old Maple Leaf Gardens space—is doing its bit for Pride. Clothing racks hold signs with a rainbow motif, and there’s a live DJ and a photo booth where shoppers can take pics in front of a rainbow backdrop. It’s a lively display, but the shoppers are largely ignoring it. They’re engaged in the sort of athletic, unselfconscious, highly determined shopping you only see when prices are really, really good. They finger fabrics, check sizes and fling striped midi-dresses ($24) and linen culottes ($59) into shopping carts already filled with Loblaws grocery bags. A teenage girl with a Céline duo cross-body rifles through a rack of 100 percent silk flutter-sleeved tops ($19.94), while a young Japanese couple, pigtailed daughter in tow, picks $4 polka-dot socks out of a bin. In the middle of the store, a thirty-something redhead is taking off her jeans—she has Lycra shorts on underneath—and slipping on a pair of taupe ankle-length pants. Her mother, a regal woman with a precise steel-coloured pageboy, has what appears to be an entire rack of clothing slung over her arm as she assesses the fit.
“It’s our favourite store,” the mom, Mardell, offers with a grin, before I’m even through my I’m-a-reporter-can-I-talk-to-you? spiel. The daughter nods vigorously. “The prices are so great,” Mardell continues. “The things I have from Joe Fresh, I keep for years. I can get something like this”—she points out her white distressed jeans, for which she paid $39—“and anywhere else it would be over $100.”
At the Joe Fresh corporate headquarters in Toronto’s Liberty Village, a different kind of frenzy is underway. It’s only three months since Mario Grauso, the company’s new president, took over the label from founder and namesake Joe Mimran, and the brand is embarking on what will be its busiest year to date. After launching 15 stores over the past two years in countries that include the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the Canadian retailer has just announced the opening of four more in Mexico this September and an undisclosed number in the Philippines in 2016. Next year also brings big ambitions at home: an extended line of cosmetics and jewellery will arrive in Shoppers Drug Marts in October; a much-hyped footwear collaboration with Aldo Product Services debuts in February; and the fall will see the launch of the Joe Fresh Centre for Fashion Innovation in partnership with Ryerson University’s Fashion Zone, a new program that will support 21 style-based start-ups over an 18-month period. It’s a multi-pronged plan for national style supremacy.
All of this is amid a more immediate matter: preparation for the fall 2015 collection—a lineup of autumnal tweeds, wool and faux-shearling outerwear, along with ’70s-informed separates—that Grauso says is maybe his favourite ever. Plus, he’s tapped Karlie Kloss, model of the moment, as the new rep. (You can almost trace the Joe Fresh success story through its campaign models, from the unknown faces of the mid-2000s to homegrown beauty Lisa Cant in 2009 to Kloss, global sensation.)
Above, she wears a slouchy knit (from the Joe Fresh x FLARE six-piece capsule collection, see it now) that captures the accessible chic of both model and brand. “The pieces are very sexy, but they’re ones anyone can wear,” Grauso says, pointing out that the tweed coat from the same capsule can go from high fashion to preppy with a switch of accessories. “I think that’s what our team does well: we create pieces that are easy to understand.” These signature simple-to-wear shapes are kept up to date with vibrant colour and bold prints—a shift dress in a leopard and paisley pattern ($29) or a Jane Birkin–esque orange-and-brown ribbed sweater ($29)—while a profusion of fun faux-fur collars and scarves nod to the brand’s heritage (apropos for Canada, fur-detailed outerwear is a staple in almost every fall Joe Fresh collection). Grauso is an unlikely figure to head an empire of Canadian cheap chic. A born-and-bred New Yawker, he has an affable demeanour and the rounded-vowel accent to match. He spent his entire career in the luxury market, working for Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani and Céline before acting as president of Puig Group, the Spanish fashion and fragrance force that operates Paco Rabanne and Nina Ricci (where he cast Karlie Kloss in her first campaign back in 2009). Then followed a stint as president of Vera Wang—where he “caught the bug” for the lower price points of the company’s diffusion lines. In 2011, Joe Fresh opened its first international flagship store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and Grauso attended the launch party as a guest. Looking over the brand’s versatile, value-priced collection, he says, he had a light bulb moment: “I remember thinking, Wow, where have they been hiding this stuff?” He began following the collections closely. By the time Mimran invited him to join the company as chief operating officer in 2013, he was ready to jump on board. Grauso’s luxury-heavy resumé was less important than his track record in global retail, as he headed the label’s expansion into Asia, the Middle East and Central America.
If the Joe Fresh ascent—from grocery store apparel brand to global retail mega-force—sounds unlikely, that’s because it is. Risk-taking is part of the brand’s DNA, coded in 2006 when Loblaws tapped Mimran, then known as the co-founder of Club Monaco and the brain behind Alfred Sung, to create a line of quality, affordable apparel for the national supermarket chain. In Europe, grocery stores like the U.K.’s Tesco have been selling clothes since the 1960s, yet, as Joe Fresh senior vice-president of brand development, Alixe Boyer, points out, “It was a novel concept in Canada.” Many within the industry were skeptical the idea would work. Yet the retailer quickly rose to become the number two private clothing label in the country, behind Walmart’s George, reportedly raking in $400 million in its first 18 months. In 2007, sales jumped when Joe Fresh introduced kids’ items, and in 2009 it added cosmetics. Twelve stand-alone stores in major Canadian cities followed, and then there was the expansion to the U.S. in 2011.
One key to the label’s rapid rise, says Joe Thacker, a chief strategist for Fusion Retail Analytics in Toronto, is its location inside stores consumers already trust. “They were able to leverage the existing store traffic in the Loblaws and Real Canadian Superstore sites,” he says. “They were also able to benefit from the existing brand strength of other Loblaws private-label products [like President’s Choice]. This gave Joe Fresh very quick brand recognition and positioned them as a label that would provide good value.” And the timing was right. At the moment Joe Fresh launched in 2006, the retail scene was being transformed by what is now called the democratization of fashion. The rise of social media gave consumers unprecedented access to high-fashion culture, while the global market crash decreased disposable income. The result was an erosion of the traditional boundaries between luxury and mass retail. “People started to say, ‘You know, I’m not just a luxury customer. I’m a customer, and I pull different things from different brands at different price points, and that’s OK,’” explains Grauso.
Around the same time, fast-fashion retailers like H&M and Zara flooded the global market with low-priced knock-offs of trendy designer goods, challenging the department store’s century-long rule of mass-market apparel (sales in department stores have been declining since the early 2000s). Mid-range retailers have felt the crunch: in June, Gap announced it would be closing nearly half of its North American stores, while Canadian brands Jacob and Smart Set are closing up shop altogether. With the rise of designer collaborations in the mid-2000s—think Isaac Mizrahi for Target and Karl Lagerfeld for H&M—the high-low revolution was in full swing.
But even within the opportunistic climate of mid-aughts retail, Joe Fresh anticipated—and filled—a very specific niche in the market. Unlike other purveyors of fast fashion, the Joe aesthetic was not especially driven by runway looks; instead, it followed a consistent mandate of thoughtfully designed, highly mixable basics in the line of Mimran’s previous work at Club Monaco. “We’re not chasing trends,” says Grauso. “You can buy things that will be interesting in a year. You’re not going to say, ‘Oh, I can’t wear that anymore.’” A double-breasted peacoat from 2011 is as relevant today as it was then; a chambray pussy-bow blouse from 2009 is almost identical to a denim one from the current collection. Thanks to their clean lines and construction, Joe Fresh pieces don’t look cheap. “While the idea of inexpensive basics can be boring, this is a positive brand,” says David Ian Gray, a retail analyst and founder of DIG360 Consulting in Vancouver. “Women aren’t ashamed of being seen with a Joe Fresh shopping bag.”
And unlike its competitors, Joe Fresh took a luxury approach to multiple aspects of merchandising, keeping collections small and retail spaces organized and navigable. Ads stuck to a clear visual formula—one or two models in the collection’s most classic styles, posed against a neutral backdrop—that, over time, communicated the kind of distinct point of view we associate with high-end brands. For years, the label also closed out Toronto’s fashion week with an expertly produced high-impact runway show, complete with internationally known models and a celebrity-stuffed front row. (Imagine Tesco closing out London Fashion Week!) Marrying the production model of fast fashion with the credibility-building tactics of luxury branding made Joe Fresh something special indeed: a line of supermarket clothing that trends on Instagram alongside #ragandbone and #isabelmarant.
While Grauso hasn’t made any changes to Joe Fresh’s core values and aesthetic, his presence has coincided with an increased high-end sensibility. The introduction of cosmetics at Shoppers Drug Mart will see refined packaging and display, while the Aldo footwear collabo will elevate the quality and design of the label’s shoe collection. And, perhaps most crucially, he’s loaded the team with talent from the luxury sector. Henriette Ernst, the senior vice-president of women’s design, for example, was a designer at Dries Van Noten and worked in fabric development for Jil Sander and Calvin Klein before moving on to Céline, where she collaborated with Phoebe Philo. There are traces of such blue-chip resumés in the new collection’s subtle turn away from the bright and cheerful looks Mimran once described as “happy” toward relaxed silhouettes and sophisticated, ’70s-tinged prints.
All of this growth adds up to potentially big consequences for Canadian fashion. Long dominated by the U.S. market, the local industry has faced financial challenges at home, and aside from a few recent exceptions in niche markets (like Lululemon and Aritzia), our retailers have failed to make a mark abroad. Ironically, it’s under the U.S.-born Grauso’s leadership that we might see a national retailer not only conquer the Canadian market but also become synonymous with Canada abroad, in the way Zara is with Spain or Uniqlo with Japan. The company’s million-dollar investment in the Joe Fresh Centre for Fashion Innovation aims to position Toronto as a hub for creativity and to reverse the brain drain that has sucked generations of Canadian fashion talent out of the country. As part of Ryerson’s Fashion Zone incubator, the centre will follow the successful job-creation model of the university’s DMZ—a tech incubator that has launched 125 companies since 2010—and likely funnel talent into Joe Fresh itself. And as the label exports its clothes around the globe, it also exports the specific Joe Fresh aesthetic. It’s a type of outerwear-centric comfy-chic that, along with Canada Goose parkas, Lululemon yoga pants and Aritzia crepe layers, defines Canadian style.
Watch: Go on set with Karlie Kloss and editor-in-chief Cameron Williamson