Skip to main content

Great creative ideas are a dime a dozen in fashion. But having the savvy to make those ideas come to life and soar is quite another story. At a time when more and more Canadian fashion businesses are struggling to stay afloat in rough seas increasingly dominated by foreign interests, one successful home-grown brand is stepping up to the plate to help nurture emerging entrepreneurs.

On Monday, with World MasterCard Fashion Week getting under way in Toronto, Joe Fresh is announcing an investment of $1-million into Canada's fashion future: The burgeoning, accessible style and beauty brand, which plans to open 140 of its own stores in 23 countries over the next four years, is teaming up with Ryerson University's Fashion Zone to create Canada's first fashion innovation centre.

"We're aiming to identify businesses that have compelling ideas around all areas of fashion innovation, whether it's building the next e-commerce app or inventing a powerful new manufacturing process or starting a new label," said Joe Fresh president Mario Grauso, the former head of Vera Wang, who was brought up from the United States 18 months ago to help take Joe Fresh global.

Partnering with the Fashion Zone, part of Ryerson's learning network that also includes the successful Digital Media Zone, the new Joe Fresh Centre will incubate, develop and support up to 21 of this country's new fashion-inspired businesses over an 18-month period, allowing carefully selected, fledgling companies to benefit from the experience of both Joe Fresh and Ryerson teams, as well as Canadian business executives and fashion experts. But though the majority of young fashion talent I know would love to be able to pick the brains of Joe Fresh's founder himself, Joe Mimran, who stepped down from the company just last week, he will not have any personal involvement with the program.

Since the notion of mentorship is currently one of the most important and buzzed-about topics in circles concerned with passing the torch to the next generation of leaders, the concept of this new incubation centre is timely.

"I'm extremely pleased that a major Canadian brand understands the value of entrepreneurial thinking, that will be critical to our creative economy," said Robert Ott, chair of Ryerson's fashion school and executive director of the Fashion Zone. "I'm interested in linking more opportunities for students to take their ideas that have been developed within an academic context to another level, and commercialize these ideas."

But the Joe Fresh Centre for Fashion Innovation is not confined to those with diplomas from Ryerson, or any other fashion school. The application process is open to all individuals, 18 and older, or any business with a plan and prototype. Applicants will be chosen via a screening and evaluation process overseen by a panel from Joe Fresh, Ryerson, Canadian business and media. During their time at the centre, successful applicants will work with both academic and business advisers to develop their business models, products, and marketing strategies. The participants will also receive dedicated workspace in the centre, and have the opportunity to seek seed funding.

It's no secret that Canadian fashion insiders are concerned about the viability of our own brands and companies at a time when bigger foreign counterparts with much deeper pockets and greater international presence are all vying for attention. Perilous times indeed. So it's heartening to hear that a successful Canadian fashion company that understands how to build a strong brand has hopped on the mentorship bandwagon, poised to guide our future visionaries forward.

"My goal is to foster a 360-degree approach to mentorship, drawing from every aspect of business and design that can impact the success or failure of a startup," Mr. Grauso said. "Our goal is to create a true launch pad for new ideas and new businesses that have a real impact on the Canadian fashion landscape and beyond." The first wave of innovators will be admitted to the Joe Fresh Centre this September.

Loblaw Companies, the parent company of Joe Fresh, previously donated $1-million to Save the Children Bangladesh and the Centre for Rehabilitation of the Paralysed, to help those in the country's garment industry after a Bangladesh factory that manufactured Joe Fresh products collapsed, killing more than a thousand workers.