The kaleidoscope of New York City shopping bags is a mesmerizing thing, a language. The thrifty carry some variation of red—red and black for H&M, red and white for Uniqlo, red, white and black for Century 21. The weak-dollar-spending tourists have the navy and naked bodies of the Gap and Abercrombie, the star-crossed lovers the teal of Tiffany’s. For the fashion-forward, Small, Medium and Large brown bags.
Then, last fall, a bright orange bag began to appear in the overburdened arms of Manhattan shoppers. Inside were the dreams of all the other bags put together. It was not some down-market Hermés, however, but an upstart brand called Joe Fresh.
If that moniker conjures visions of the grocery store, you’re not far off. Joe Fresh was launched in 2006 by Loblaws, a chain somewhere between Trader Joe’s (they have a great in-house brand, approaching Newman’s Own) and D’Agostinos (the selection is nice, but it’s no Fairway). If that does not seem like a strange enough place to find the next great fashion line, Joe Fresh, and Loblaws, happens to be Canadian.
“It used to be weird, going into the grocery store for socks and maybe a sweater, but it sure was convenient,” said Tara Ariano, a writer from Saskatchewan-by-way-of-Toronto who is especially well known for her SNL recaps for New York magazine’s Vulture blog. “Now, they’re on Fifth Avenue, and that’s kinda crazy, but also kinda awesome.” Ms. Ariano admitted that she owns five pairs of pajamas from Joe Fresh—no blogger jokes, please—and said that whenever she goes to visit her sister, “I have to go to the store and check out what’s new.” Not anymore!
Joe Fresh conquered Canada in a matter of years, largely through the benefit of the 350 Loblaws in which it was sold, but now it has crossed the border into one of the most challenging retail realms on the planet. Following three pop-ups, an international flagship is set to open at 510 Fifth Avenue on March 30, at the corner of 43nd Street. One block south is Zara and H&M, a few to the north everything from Benetton to Bergdorf. The great orange hope from the Great White North has come to conquer New York.
There is one group Joe Fresh has had no trouble winning over: New York Canucks.
Rachel Sklar, the Toronto-born media presence, said she did a double-take when she saw the first store on lower Fifth, at the corner of 16th Street, where she might soon be “purging the shopping jones.”
“I own two things from Joe Fresh—one is a nice basic white sweater that I’ve got with me here at SXSW (it goes great with my purple jeans),” Ms. Sklar said via email. The other is a blue scoop-neck T-shirt, which she purchased along with a yellow, giraffe-printed blanket for a friend’s baby. “I discovered to my delight aisles of FUN stuff to buy, and something to distract me from wandering the candy aisle,” Ms. Sklar said.
Devotees of the brand include everyone from gallerinas to TV news anchors. “They’re legendary for the quality of their clothes, like the Gap in better days, or H&M if it didn’t fall apart on you,” NY1 morning man and Calgary native Pat Kiernan told The Observer (though he admitted that he mostly shops Saks Fifth Avenue and J. Crew).
Part of the appeal of the brand used to be convenience. As you put on your shoes to head to the store for a carton of milk, you realize the socks have a hole in them. Or it is an especially blustery day, so why not grab a windbreaker—it costs only 30 bucks. John Barnes, a Columbia grad in the process of applying to med school, recalled a trip home to visit the family cottage on Georgian Bay. His luggage disappeared somewhere between LaGuardia and Toronto Pearson International. His family stopped off for provisions at Midland Superstore, a division of Loblaws, and he managed to build an entire weekend wardrobe, from shorts to sweatshirt to skivvies.
New York is a market that makes sense, as the number of Canadians living in Gotham has swelled in recent years, thanks to NAFTA and its subsequent exports of human capital. A boom in the Loonie has also made New York an attractive destination for Canadian tourists. After all, how many New Yorkers wear Abercrombie? And yet, the line outside its Fifth Avenue flagship has become a New York institution.