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The Drapers Interview - Joseph Ribkoff & John Ferraro

Already a favourite with retailers in the UK, Canadian womenswear label Joseph Ribkoff is laying the groundwork for further success.

You might think Joseph Ribkoff, the 77-year-old founder of one of Canada’s most successful fashion brands, would be kicking back and taking a well-earned rest. But you’d be wrong. Instead, alongside chief executive John Ferraro, Ribkoff is readying his 57-year-old womenswear business for its next phase of growth.

“That’s the kind of decision-making I help formulate,” says Ribkoff, referring to his role in helping to shape the wider direction of the company rather than being involved in its day-to-day running, which he leaves to Ferraro and his management team. “I would say I am more involved with ‘generativity’. By that I mean handing the torch on to the next generation of management.”

When Drapers visits the company’s Montreal headquarters, which houses a workforce of 300, the fruits of that guidance are clear to see. The mainstream womenswear brand, which is sold to more than 3,000 stores across 55 countries, has just invested more than C$1.5m (£840,000) into its shipping department. A new, three-level racking system has enabled it to double the capacity, while an automated sorter, which has a 1% error margin, went operational this month.

This follows the first phase of spending on a new computer system in 2011, which readied Joseph Ribkoff for this second phase.

Additionally, the company has added a further 20,000 sq ft of space in its fabric department by moving three automated cutting machines to a nearby facility.

Ferraro says the investment is for a “major push” in both new and existing markets. “We are on a growth pattern and it got a little tight on our space. So we said now is the time, let’s invest the money. We’re basically set. If we want to double our business we are prepared for it,” he says.

“Now is that going to happen overnight? No. But the idea is to work towards that goal in the next few years.

“If we hadn’t made that investment, we wouldn’t be able to grow even if we wanted to. With this we are able to service customers better and stock more merchandise.”

Business is strong and Ferraro says turnover has grown by around 10% each year for the past four years, though he is reluctant to reveal the privately owned company’s actual turnover, saying it is “anywhere between C$75m (£42.1m) and C$150m (£84.2m)”. Asked the same question, Ribkoff says: “It is in excess of C$100m (£56.1m) and growing. We’ve been doing very well and the profits have been very good. Any public company would be surprised. It is a very healthy company.”

Ribkoff started the company aged just 20, then newly married and with C$3,800 (£2,100) in wedding gift money to fund it. Apart from working for Montreal dress company Town and Countrywear, Ribkoff had no experience of running a business. “The very first year I made money. And I was competing with seasoned players, businesses that had been around 40 years. We’ve had 57 winning years, not a bad record,” he says with a smile.

Today Joseph Ribkoff is international and Ferraro says the US, Canada, Germany and the UK - it began selling here in 1992 - are its strongest markets, in that order.

In the UK and Republic of Ireland the brand has almost 300 stockists, and generated a 10% sales rise in the UK last year, according to Ferraro. It is a favourite among mainstream womenswear independents, regularly features in Drapers’ Indicator of best-selling brands, and beat off stiff competition from brands such as Frank Lyman, Betty Barclay, Olsen, The Masai Clothing Company and Adini to claim the Womenswear Brand of the Year title at the Drapers Independents Awards last November, a testament to the work of the UK sales team, headed by Mark Rowe.

The brand’s success is down to a product that appeals to women from the Canadian countryside to overseas cosmopolitan cities such as London. Joseph Ribkoff also has an all-important made-in-Canada appeal, with 98% of its garments produced in Quebec.

“Product and service is what it is about,” says Ferraro. “We are known for our fit. I’m travelling every second week, and every customer is the same: ‘Your fit is the best,’ ‘Your delivery is good.’ They are able to reorder styles and we are able to supply that in a very timely fashion. They don’t have to wait. The problem with people producing in China is if they want to reorder something it’s impossible or they have to wait six months.”

Joseph Ribkoff produces four collections a year, and is known for its efficient deliveries, operating a continual service based on what’s selling rather than grouping product into monthly drops. Each collection includes 300 pieces in sizes two to 20 (UK size six to 24) with wholesale prices ranging from £40 to £100 and retail prices from £100 to £270. “Our collections work all year round. You can sell it in January as well as in July. I’m not saying everything - if it has fur on it then you’re a little bit more limited - but 90% of our stuff is timeless. Customers have grown to understand that and in the UK it is the same thing,” says Ferraro.

Vicki Wheeler, owner of womenswear boutique Ambiance of Colchester, agrees. “The brand is a strong seller all year round, it’s not seasonal. It’s a very versatile, feminine brand and for us the dresses are really popular.”

Joseph Ribkoff is also a “consistent bestseller” at womenswear retailer Jacquies in Weybridge, Surrey, according to owner Claire Fallon. “We’re selling the transition collection at the moment and bits of spring 14 are starting to arrive, which is a really strong collection,” she says.

The autumn 14 collection will see the introduction of new treatments such as laser cutouts and sheer transparency , with ladylike lace and soft faux leather. Volume will be key on dresses, skirts and coats, in a monochrome palette offset with pops of colour.

Ferraro hopes to grow Joseph Ribkoff over the next few years by maximising existing markets, including the UK, with a committed indie strategy. “When you think of it in population terms, the US is 350 million people compared with 35 million in Canada, and we do roughly the same business there. So the US market is there for us to build, and we know there is still huge potential in Europe,” he says, mentioning the UK, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway.

“I had this fantasy that I was going to retire when I was 60. But today I realise it was the last thing I should ever want to do,” he says.

“I don’t know if I’d completely exit. I’m not afraid of [the current team] taking control. I believe this company can roll if the successors are up for it. And you know what, you don’t know it until they are alone in the saddle.”

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