Joseph Ribkoff is a Canadian fashion pioneer who, at the age of 21, went into business to share his love for fashion, women, and quality. Working through the iconic eras of the 60s and the 70s, Joseph Ribkoff continues to create and innovate today.
Joseph Ribkoff is a name known from North America to Europe. From humble beginnings, he built an empire and has earned his place as a top player in the world of fashion. His wit, charming demeanor, and the wisdom that comes with 58 years of experience make him a truly interesting and delightful man.
What brought you to the fashion industry?
It was a happy accident. I dropped out of school when I was 15 be-cause I was bored and I didn’t know what I was doing there. I had some friends that were working, so I would go visit them on lunch hour at the Bay, which, at the time, was called the Henry Morgan Company. They worked in the stock room and they had caps on and they were giggling, throwing sweaters at each other, and I thought this looked like fun. What the hell was I doing in school? I quit that day. My parents were immigrants. My mother was illiterate and my father dropped out of school in the sixth grade. They berated me with words and threats and told me I had to work. I said I would work but that I wasn’t going back to school. My brother gave me my first job. He was a cutter; the guy was so talent-ed it was disgusting. He didn’t really want to do what he was doing, but he had to help out and pay the rent and food for the house. He worked six months of the year, and the other six he traveled to California and to Europe.
On my first day, he said, “You’re going to work. Don’t give them any headaches and you’ll bring in some money.” We were poor. We had ice on the walls, and we slept three in a bed just to keep warm. My brother showed me what he was doing, and soon I was cutting fabric too. At twelve o’clock, on that first day, my brother said, “Okay, let’s go for lunch.” I responded, “You’re going to lunch, but I’m going home. I quit.” “Quit? You haven’t even started yet!” I’ll never forget it. I took a couple more jobs after that, but I lucked out through a friend who was getting promoted in a dress factory. He said, “I’ll teach you, but the first two weeks are without pay. If you’re good, I’ll hire you at 16 bucks an hour.” I didn’t know the value of 16 dollars; we would spend the money at the racetracks anyhow.
I took the job. He taught me for two weeks and I was happy. I was a sweeper and a message boy, but he was training me to take over the shipping area. The boss’s wife came in one day and said, “Irvine, did you call in a cleaning service in here?” He said, “No, it’s the new guy.” He introduced us and she said, “You’re unbelievable.” I never heard that before. I got a few whacks from my father or my mother, but her telling me I was unbelievable was just wow. We became lifelong friends. In four months, I was doing the shipping and I really liked it. I needed to make a contribution or do something that made me feel satisfied with myself. It was my inner dissatisfaction that kept me moving.
You worked through the iconic eras of the 60s and 70s. What was it like for you?
I went into business when I was 21. It was 1957. I must have had horse-shoes all around me because I did everything right. I remember, I need-ed my father-in-law to sign for me for the banking, but he wouldn’t do it until I had some orders. Theoretically, he was right. He advised me not to go into business.
This couple that I loved from a pre-vious job—they had a small busi-ness—fired me because they had a brother coming out of jail. I trained him for a little while, but it was so he could take my job. It was hard because they were like my family. I cried like a baby. After that I didn’t work. I went to my friend Lou’s office for six weeks. He had a business by the age of 14 and was doing well by 21. He saw me looking at a newspaper and said, “Why are you reading The Herald? You’re not going to find a job in there.” It took me six weeks and a day when it struck me: I was going to start a business. I had just gotten married and had some money from the wedding. It was $3800 that we were planning to spend on furniture. I asked my wife if I could use it. She said, “No, what do you want to do?” She was 18 and didn’t know business. And, I was so young. It was all quite ridiculous. We both didn’t know what it meant. She ended up being very good help. She worked with me for a year before she got pregnant and gave birth.
I was fortunate. I did have some very good friends in retail, two in particular. I have their pictures in my office. They believed in me. They both used to say, “Why aren’t you going into business. You’re so good at what you do.” I said that I didn’t have the money and didn’t know what I was doing. This guy Ernie told me it didn’t matter, that I was smart enough and that I was going to learn and figure it out. I said, “Ernie, just who are you talking to?” He said, “You, and when you go into business, I want to give you your first order.” That stayed with me. Going into business was the best decision I ever made.
Montreal was a great fashion hub at the time. Can you tell us about some of the best memories from your early days?
It was a very good period for styling—an exciting period. I think if you ask me when my best years were, it was those early years. The first 10 years stood out. The reason for that is that we did very well. I even won an award in the first year in business. That was good for me. I was hot and I was selling. From the begin-ning, many people were going to the U.S. for styling, and I did that as well. I was up against retailers who would pay a yearly fee to have a brand or line in their store. I was determined to be different and to work with somebody on designs, but I didn’t know who yet. Designing was not something that everybody did here. I met a woman by the name of Alison. She was excellent, and she just opened a design studio on Sherbrooke and Peel. I chased her down and didn’t let up until she joined me. Then, I traveled to Europe four to six times a year. I built a life there with other photographers, models, and designers, like Kenzo. I was doing the nightlife there, as well as the day life. I met a music manager from Montreal living in London; he managed a band called Stone the Crows who were big in Britain.
In France, I knew Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy, French singing stars at the time. So, I was in the mix. It was a wild time for me. I was able to be in touch with the trends that were taking place. I met a fellow; his name was Jack Litt. He passed away, but at the time he owned the second biggest dress company in the U.S. His company, Arpeja, had two clothing lines: Young Edwardian and Young Innocence. We were friends for the next 25 years, and we used to trade information. When I visited, I used to live at his house in Holmby Hills, California. Hugh Hefner was his neighbour. Everyone was working in the United States, and, as far as traveling went, I had never gone anywhere before, except on my honeymoon. We were one of the first brands to open up in the European market. I had friends there, and I just knew that everything was happening in Paris and London. So, I went.
What was your first sign of success?
Well, on the first day that I went into business, I had my worst sign. I went out to sell. I brought dresses to the retailers, and they told me I wasn’t any different; they didn’t need me. That’s what motivated me to sell. At the time, you had firms, like Algo, who were very big, and it was hard to break down the doors and get in because they were well established. I was offering too much too soon for a guy who just started. A little grandiosity took over and even some insecurity, I would say. I told my wife that night, “Dolores, I think we lost our money.” My wife, God bless her at the time, she was a good sport. She told me I had so many great designs in my box, and then it struck me. I told her I was going back to the retailer tomor-row. I realized that I had gone in with too many garments. I zeroed in on what I knew wouldn’t be asking for too much from a young guy and what I thought would sell. When I opened up the box they asked, “did you have these pieces yesterday?” I told them I did, but that they didn’t see them because there were too many of them. That was it. That day I must have signed 18 accounts and only one guy refused me.
I went back to visit my friend Ernie, and his brother stopped me at the door because he had taken over the buying. He said he wasn’t buying and didn’t need my designs, but Ernie heard my voice and when his brother told him it was me, Ernie had him bring me right in to see him. He said, “So you’re in business!” We went downstairs and opened my box. Ernie said, “You’re going to be unbelievable.” He said, “Ship to me first because if they sell I want everything you have in the works.” So my success really and truly started right there. There’s no magic—just a lot of hard work.
58 years in the business says a lot about who you are. What has been the most rewarding aspect of this journey?
I would say the people around you, the ones you really like to work with, real life connections, and honest relationships. I’m nobody’s boss. I was never anybody’s boss. I trust people. If it doesn’t work, you got to let them go, but if they’re good, you want to take them from one place and try them in another, until the fit is right.
What was the hardest choice you had to make?
It was to let go of a very important person in the company. I’m not going to mention his name in case his mother is reading this. We’ll call him M. He was a very important piece of the puzzle. It wasn’t entirely his fault. I felt guilty, but I had another partner and M wasn’t taking certain things seriously. I loved M be-cause he was committed and loyal and doing the right thing for the company. He had a lot of wisdom. I went to examine the complaint for myself. I went to the contractors, and I saw he wasn’t using his head, and he had a good head, but he wasn’t using it. I said it’s not working; you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. He said he respected my opinion, and so I let him go. It broke my heart and I’ll never forget that. He tried his hand at getting a new partner, but it didn’t work out. His wife called me one day and said, “Joe, he misses you, and he misses the place. He’s driving me crazy. I’ll pay you to take him back.” So, I called him and I told him I needed his help. I told him to lay it on a little thicker and I said I would like to see him back. He was back on the same day. He stayed with us until he passed away recently. Of course I had other tough decisions, but his one was tough because of who he was.
What else would you enjoy doing if not for working in fashion?
Well, I go to school now. I go to school at night and I take humanities courses: philosophy, psychology, history, business, how to live a life, basically. It’s like everything else. Business opened up to me because I was open to the world, but I never had time for this. I had parents who were quite good, but who couldn’t expand on a lot of these areas. You learn that you can’t do it all. But, at this time, that’s my passion. I’ve been going to school for 30 years now.
Are you the designer?
When you say designer, I don’t want to mislead the readers. I would say I was responsible for the styling and putting it all together. But, I worked with Alison. She was working through me because I didn’t have the training. She was bright. We had discussions. I wanted certain things and she would sketch them. We would look at fabric and travel through Europe together, but I wouldn’t take the credit. I would say that I have a good eye and that I was good at business, so I was able to access our consumer. It took a while to discover, but I made a study of it for myself. I would say that my fingerprint is on it, but I don’t actually sit there and design.
Today, we have a team of 14 in the design room; they are involved in the whole process. I can’t do it all now. I am 79. I’ve done everything from the beginning; I was the only employee. Until she gave birth, my wife was packing garments and making in-voices. We had part-time cutters and pattern makers but no full-time staff. It developed like that. I had to do the styling and I had to do the design one way or another, and that’s how I evolved. I didn’t like the roller coaster. One season the designs were good and the next the designs were no good, and you’re on the skids. It was tiring, but I found a method that works and we still use it to this day.
Are you designing for the same type of woman today as you were when you started?
Yes, just about. Times change, but the women we design for are the same. We design for a state of mind—for a woman that feels young. I have a granddaughter who’s 22. At 16, she was wearing our clothes to her graduation, but it’s too expensive for that age group. We focus in on a fit for a woman who is anywhere from 40 to 80 years old. However, the women who wear our clothes don’t see themselves as older; they feel young. I was at lunch with some friends who are 70-80, but in our minds we’re still kids. It’s ridiculous.
You have travelled around the world. What do you have to say about the way Canadian women dress?
Well, they’re as good as anybody else! Quebecers them-selves are very good dressers—trendy— and the rest of Canada at one point was not like that, but today it is. The garments that sell best here are the same as the ones that sell best in Spain, Paris, or England, all the western countries. The same consumer that lives there lives here. We have a niche business; we have a particular consumer and we pay attention to that consumer.
Joseph Ribkoff is made in Canada. You are proof that it’s absolutely possible to produce in this country and still have a competitive product on the international market. What advice do you have for designers and brands that want to produce in Canada?
It’s very possible, but I wouldn’t tell anybody what’s best to do. We’re doing what is best for our business. I’d like to say we’re very Canadian. We think about Canadians and about creating Canadian jobs. We’re selfish and it suits us very well, thank you! If another company has a business model that works for them in China or Singapore, then that’s good for them. I remember Sam Walton in the day wrote his book, Made In America; it was a joke! The companies just want to drive the stock up for investors. Some suppliers Wal-Mart buys from make products in America, but 98% of them are from China and everywhere else in the world. That’s what business is; anybody who says they’re doing it to be more Canadian or more American, that’s bull. It’s a whole other game. I don’t judge them, but made in Canada works for me.
You love casual wear for yourself, yet you design dresses for women. That’s interesting. Is there a reason why you never designed clothes for men?
It was “par hasard” that I got involved with women. I usually like to undress them. [laughs] Dressing them up is not quite as much fun. When I was a youngster, and I started working that job, I still thought that the man was supposed to be the boss. But, there, the boss’s wife was the real boss. She wanted to see what I could do. To this day I still visit her. She’s 91 and she can’t even see, but she knows my voice. She was responsible for helping me pick out fabrics and cuts. She asked for my opinion even though I had no background in it, and that’s how my interest in designing for women developed. If I had another run at this I would like to design for men.
I know you have a love for quality. Where do you think that comes from?
From being exposed to it during my travels. When I was maybe 25, there was a shop in Montreal called Brisson & Brisson. When the owners started out they were very poor. But, back then people like Pierre Trudeau went there. Families from the wealthy classes, both Anglo and French, went there too. I went there at 25 and I was buying the best. I didn’t buy many things, but I loved the quality. The guys I met in Europe and the United States were all from wealthy families, business people. I was in this crowd and it rubs off. You start appreciating what is out there. I didn’t know the difference as a kid; I was happy to have my brother’s clothes or hand-me-downs. Maybe that’s why I treasured everything that was new and different.
You are passionate about what you do and, at 78, you’re still in the office working. What are some of the challenges that you face? What are the best parts of it all?
I do love what I do, although I don’t work as hard as I used to. One of the challenges is just getting up in the morning. I’m in the midst of doing as little as possible at this point. If you want a company to carry on, you can’t continue to be its centerpiece. You have to allow others to grow and develop if the company is going to grow and develop too. We have a very good team. The idea is to do it while you’re healthy and alive, rather than fall down when nobody’s ready. Then they’re all waiting for this great father figure to make all the decisions. I’m a great believer in being responsible in a handover. It’s not just about me. It’s a good company and it would be criminal just to close it because Mr. Ribkoff died. It doesn’t make any sense to me. It would be irresponsible to make it all about me, so I would rather give it away a little earlier than wait before it’s too late.
Who inspires you most and why?
The people who inspire me are very creative and energetic about things that are new and exciting. I think people with a passion for what they do. The word “passion” is frequently bandied about, but it is something. To be alive in your skin, those are the people that excite and inspire me. When you’re in the company of someone who gets high on what they do, you’re automatically going to be transmitted into this creative energy.
Once I had a relationship with a woman who was a world champion skier. I always come back to her. She was married to a pilot and they split, and I was divorced at the time. I met her at Saint-Sauveur with some friends. She gave me her number and asked me to call if ever I wanted to ski. One time we were skiing down Saint-Sauver and I said, “You’re bored of this. How could you do this here?” She had skied in the Alps and all over the world. She replied, “I think you’re missing something. When I go down this mountain, it’s always fresh and new. I’m always playing with the mountain in different ways. I never just go down.” She said that if we see life that way, there’s no longer that been there and done that feeling. She opened my mind. These are the kinds of people who inspire me.
What do you like to do on a day off from work?
Be with the people I like, but part of me is also just a loner. I like to read and go for walks. My wife would ask if we could go for a walk and I would say not today. She knows it’s not because I don’t like her. I just like alone time. I’m a mix of these two worlds. When I was young it was all so fresh; I was a party animal looking for action. Today, quality time is more important than anything.
What do you wish you had more time for?
There’s never enough time. I do less now and there’s still not enough. There are too many things that I would like to do. It will drive you crazy if you start thinking about this too much! I’d like to be able to look over my readings for class twice or three times before I get to class the following week, but it’s impossible because of the kind of reading it is. It can break your head just trying to understand it, but that’s what I love. The more time you take for whatever you want to do, the richer the experience is going to be.
You are currently in 55 international markets. What have you learned about people?
I’ve learned that they’re all the same; they’re different but the same. Business peo-ple are business people and an accountant is still an accountant—no matter where you are in the world. Everyone is unique and everyone is different. What’s interesting are the differences in cultures and where people come from. Just to think of all the languages and foods and habits. We’re very fortunate in North America to have a mix of cultures; we’re exposed to them all the time.
You barely had a plan when you started this adventure. What’s next for you? How would you like to see your brand and its heritage evolve?
If possible, I would like to see it continue—for a lot of reasons. My name is attached to it, but I don’t think that’s the big one. I believe that when you put your life into work, it’s like making art; you have to detach yourself from it and see it live on. That’s part of the process. Many brands live on, but it takes people that understand what comes with the territory. You’re giving a gift over to someone. It took 58 years of work to get to where I am. You try to select people who are committed to the brand and have the poten-tial to do the right thing with the business. With that potential comes freedom of expression, and maybe that means trying something different.
Photography, Sylvain Blais.
Fashion Editor, Fritz.