“I’m 77 years old, but I’m talking to you as if I were 27 or 17. That’s my state of mind,” says Joseph Ribkoff.
The Montreal-native started his design company in 1957, a period of sweeping change throughout the fashion world. The following decade saw fashion reject the conventions. Clothing broke social traditions that dictated what could be worn when and by whom. As a young designer in the business, Ribkoff was part of that movement for change.
Decades later, he is still a driving force in the fashion industry. Joseph Ribkoff has become one of Canada’s most successful womenswear labels, sold in 55 international markets. He is one of the rare designers who design, sew and produce the entire collection in Canada.
And Ribkoff never thinks about retirement; instead, he seeks to expand his company. What’s his secret to longevity in business and what keeps him going? We chat with the designer in The Art Issue.
SARAH DION-MARQUIS: Do you consider fashion to be art?
JOSEPH RIBKOFF: Absolutely. It’s art with a commercial slap to it when it comes to selling to the mass audience, whether it is Yves Saint Laurent, Ralph Lauren or Joseph Ribkoff.
Do you have any pieces that include paintings or similar art elements?
Absolutely. One of the pieces that stands out is a [bold yellow] garment […] with a combination of a sequin kind-of-print underneath, and we overlay it with some sequin. It is as if you were looking at a painting, basically. As we would say: it’s a work of art, it’s a work of beauty. It definitely falls into that category.
What inspires you and how do you use it in your designs?
We have a team of designers and we have discussions all the time. We look at the marketplace, we look at fashion magazines. Every manufacturer has an idea of who their market is, who is the customer and what she is looking for in our brand. It’s a team effort.
We are an insight-driven organization. It comes from digging, asking questions, examining the trends and always examining colours, lengths and silhouettes to see if it is right for our consumers. If it is, that’s where all the inspiration starts. It could be from a print, a colour, a design or from somebody else’s design. Usually, it’s because of the work that has been put in, quite honestly.
Who is your target consumer?
Our target consumer is the woman who likes to stand out in the crowd — someone who likes to be recognized for doing something a little different. She likes to dress up. She likes when men flirt with her because she is looking great. She loves women, making a point of saying to them, “I love what you got. It looks great on you. Where did you get it? I’m looking for something like that.”
At first, your company was selling only dresses. Why?
Back in 1957, you were a dress company or you were a sportswear company doing matching sets. So, we were selling only one piece: dresses.
This eventually came to an end where there was an opening between what the traditional sportswear people did and what the traditional dress people did. Each one was in its own world. Because of my travels, it gave me the insight to see the ‘opening’ that would separate us from everybody: it was to take dresses into a third of our business and to expand our business into more separates, because the trend was moving that way.
Women started wearing matching jackets and pants. That was in the 60s. That was a big [opportunity for us]. Then the women said, ‘I don’t want to wear a uniform. I want to wear something of my own.’ We started to adapt and we were really a breakthrough.
What changes are you making to keep up with the market?
I think we’re heading for another transition, towards expanding newer markets and expanding in the [existing] markets. We rented more space for stock rooms, shipping and showrooms. We spent quite a lot of money on technology to help us expedite things to the countries we are now servicing and to new countries. We see the indicators, and we think that more people are looking for more products from us.
What distinguishes you from your competitors?
We are creating some kind of a spirit, partnering up with the consumers. We put together the pieces — they put together the puzzles. We put together the separates, and allow the consumer to become creative. They can mix and match a top with a shirt or a pant, or [wear it] on its own.
We create the design and they further explore how they would like to present themselves. We have a lot of pieces to help them make their selections. Four customers may have bought the same top or the same pants, but they are all wearing it differently.
Do women wear your clothes at work?
If a woman feels young, she looks to us. We have women that are lawyers who wear our clothes. There are other women who are lawyers who would never wear our clothes because they are conservative. We have women who go to an office but you’d think they are going out to a party.
[And] we have women who would go to the local supermarket wearing our clothes. As we would say in French, chacun à son goût et vive la différence.
What is the secret to your longevity?
We strive to do exciting [things]. We are in the business of selling ideas. And selling fantasies.
Women love to be triggered by how they see themselves. We may not see that person that way, but she sees herself a certain way. We want to trigger our consumer’s fantasy that is in line with her inner self. She is trying to be a person of integrity and authenticity. And in our clothes, she explores that and she expresses that.
There’s the race between the turtle and the hare. And you know who wins the race? The turtle. Do you know why? The turtle is focused on its destination and it’s our destination, to please our customers. It is definitely staying on target with what she is asking all the time.
We really make a study of who our customers are. Our tagline is: no one knows me better than Joseph Ribkoff. Women gave us that tagline. We didn’t dream it up.