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Joel Carman Leading Iconic Denim Retailer Over the Rainbow Toward a Half Century of Success: Interview

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For nearly a half century – 46 years to be exact – one iconic Toronto retailer has consistently served its customers, building and supporting a community around its operation to serve as an intrinsic piece of the Bloor-Yorkville neighbourhood ensemble. It’s a retailer that has adeptly evolved and transitioned with shifts and changes brought about by technological advancements, market trends, consumer preferences and just about everything in between. And it’s managed to do so while remaining true to its roots and core values, never wavering from its objective to provide a vibrant and fun experience for its visitors. However, this description provides only a meagre glimpse into the collective reasons that help explain the success of Over the Rainbow and what it means to its scores of loyal customers. In order to really begin understanding what makes this independent boutique so special, you’ve got to meet its Founder and leader, Joel Carman.

Leading by example

Joel Carman, Founder of Over the Rainbow – Photo by Dustin Fuhs

When asked about his profession, the 72-year-old retail veteran speaks with verve, glowing about his store’s adoring patrons, raving over its brand partnerships, and beaming with pride concerning the role that it’s managed to serve within the city for the better part of five decades. Growing through the years to be considered by many as Toronto’s number one destination to find premium denim – becoming famous among locals on account of the store’s ‘denim wall’ which has continuously boasted an array of brands, styles, fits and shades – Over the Rainbow also offers a wide selection of tops, outerwear, and accessories. Carman reflects with satisfaction concerning the store’s growth and evolution since opening its first location in 1975, riffing on the intricacies of the operation with an acute understanding of the business he built and the market that’s second to none. And when discussing the ways in which he’s led the store to such an iconic status, he’s incredibly humble, directing much of the credit toward the team around him. However, he also shares what he recognizes as the qualities a leader must possess in order to organize, inspire and run a store on a day-to-day basis.

“I’ve always believed that you lead by example and hard work,” he says. “If you do that, your staff and the people around you will follow and emulate your work ethic and the high standards that you set. A leader must also be able to communicate effectively with their staff to understand challenges and overcome them quickly. By doing so, you’re better able to understand what an individual is capable of achieving and can then better support them to maximize their growth and achievements. Underpinning all of this is a clear vision and the ability to properly convey that vision amongst your team, motivating and encouraging them to help make it a reality. And, to make sure that everyone is on the same page and heading in the right direction, you’ve got to be transparent with everyone involved. If you can execute on these things, there is very little holding you and your team back from achieving your objectives. And most importantly, you’ll enjoy doing what you do, allowing you to deliver a fun and vibrant experience for your customers in a warm and friendly environment.”

Nurturing a positive culture

Over the Rainbow at Manulife Centre – Photo by Dustin Fuhs

He goes on to explain that there is obviously a long list of other qualities that a great leader might possess, categorizing them in groupings of “high level” and “grassroots”, suggesting that a balance of both can help in providing a more holistic understanding of the business, the roles of the people within it and the ways to bring out the best performance in everyone. He says that leading in this way also lends significantly to the cultivation and nurturing of a healthy and positive culture within an organization, translating often into superior customer service and relations. For Over the Rainbow, Carman explains, tending to the needs of the customer has always been its top priority.

“I’m really proud of the culture that we’ve created,” he says. “A big part of a leader’s responsibility is to help set the tone for the business and to ensure that everyone buys into the culture and is committed to maintaining it. If the culture is grown properly and organically, it allows you to really focus on the needs of the customer and provide them with the service that they’re looking for. I’ve always conducted the business as a one-store operator and really love my contact with customers. In many ways, I grew up with the business. Long ago it became a part of my life. Over the years a lot of my customers have become my close friends. Our culture has allowed us to build a community around the store. That’s the most rewarding aspect of my career to this point.”

Reputation and legacy

JOEL CARMAN IN FRONT OF THE FORMER YORKVILLE AVENUE STORE IN 1982. PHOTO: OVER THE RAINBOW

Carman travelled Europe for a couple of years back in his early twenties after completing university and worked as a cab driver when he arrived home. He did so, he says, in order to “earn a living and pay the rent”. This might seem like an insignificant piece of the Over the Rainbow story if it weren’t for the fact that it was while driving his cab when he met Peter Jackman, an alterationist, with whom he would become friends and business partners. Together they ran a store that did alterations before it began selling ladieswear with fashion denim as the central product. After a year of business and substantial growth, Jackman left the operation, leaving Carman and his wife, Jinni, as the sole owners of Over the Rainbow. Soon after, the couple moved the store to a new and upsized 1,450 square foot location at 120 Cumberland Street in Yorkville, growing the store’s staff as well. And in 1982, it moved once again to an even bigger 2,800 square foot space at 101 Yorkville Avenue. It would expand that space a couple times before the turn of the millennium, becoming an integral stitch in the fabric of the Bloor-Yorkville neighbourhood and Toronto as a whole.

Throughout the past four-and-a-half decades and some, however, Over the Rainbow hasn’t simply grown the size of its store. During this time, it’s also managed to grow in reputation and prestige among the industry and its community of customers. And, it’s also marked a number of significant milestones along the way as well. In 1982, it secured Wayne Gretzky as the brand’s very first celebrity endorser. Two years later, it began importing Japanese denim, introducing Edwin Jeans and Big John to Canada for the first time. In 1985, the store launched the first Tommy Hilfiger collection in Canada and in 1994 launched Chip & Pepper. It was also part of a select group of retailers that launched the very first Canada Goose city collection in 2005. It rode the crest of trends like the resurgence of wide bottom denim in the mid-nineties, the velour and terry cloth tracksuit craze of the late nineties as well as the initial frenzy around UGGs.

In addition, it’s also experienced a digital transformation that’s been taking place over the course of the past couple decades, getting in front of it with the development and introduction of its RainbowJeans.com website in 2001, which received a boost in 2015, relaunching with full ecommerce capabilities to help celebrate the store’s 40-year anniversary. Considering Over the Rainbow’s extensive and celebrated history, it’s easy to see why it’s so loved by those familiar with Carman and the experience he offers. The longevity of the store is one of the things that the retail leader says he’s most proud of, having to navigate through seismic changes that have occurred throughout the industry during the time that he’s been involved.

“When I first started, I was riding a horse, and now I’m flying a jet plane,” he jokes. “The digital evolution that’s taken place over the course of the past 20 years or so has been remarkable. It’s really sped up the transfer of information and made communication that much quicker and more effective. It’s also elevated the level and sophistication of the resources that are available today. Information is the key to running a business. And, leveraging the latest technologies and tools has helped us grow and solidify Over the Rainbow. It’s clearly the biggest difference between running the store today as opposed to 46 years ago. Having access to all of the most important information in near real-time allows you to better understand all of the different aspects of the business, ensuring a smoother and more effective operation. It also helps you get closer to your customer, developing a clearer understanding of what they want and the assortment they’re looking for. Understanding more about my business has allowed me to enjoy running it so much more, too.”

Influence and inspiration

Over the Rainbow at Manulife Centre – Photo by Dustin Fuhs

Although it’s clear that the majority of Over the Rainbow’s success has come as the result of Carman’s savvy, ingenuity and business intellect, he’s quick to offer praise to some of his contemporaries and to those who preceded him in the industry who influenced and inspired him. He mentions leaders like Harry Rosen, Thrifty’s Irving Lerman, AG Jeans’ Adriano Goldschmied, Citizen of Humanity’s Jerome Dahan, Diesel’s Renzo Rosso and Replay Group’s Claudio Buziol, among others, as those who have been particularly influential, admitting that keeping a close eye on each of them and the ways they’ve done things has enabled him to continue improving and developing his skills as a leader.

“The clothing business is rich with individuals who have been incredible role models and people to really learn from,” he asserts. “There have been so many people within the industry who have grown phenomenal businesses through incredible character and innovation. Their contributions have been amazing. Everyone learns from one another. And everyone seems to also feed off of the passion of the other. To become involved in clothing retail, you’ve got to be committed and love what you’re doing. And, it sounds crazy, but you’ve got to approach the business with passion, without thinking of financial gain. Wealth and financial success may come later on as a by-product of your work. But there are other successes that you’re rewarded with in terms of community and the incredible relationships that you’re able to develop through the work that you do.”

Building community

Over the Rainbow at Manulife Centre – Photo by Dustin Fuhs

Many of the relationships that Carman refers to have been developed through Over the Rainbow’s active participation in community events and causes over the years. In 1997, Carman organized the first Harley Davidson Motorcycle Charity Poker Run providing toys, photos and fundraising to the patients at Hugh MacMillan Rehabilitation Centre in Toronto; in 2010, he celebrated 35 years of business with an outdoor barbeque and shopping event in support of Autism Speaks Canada; and in 2011, he raised $41,000 for Movember and Prostate Cancer Canada by shaving off his signature mustache. These are but a few examples of the involvement that Carman has ensured for Over the Rainbow through the years, further embedding the store as a mainstay of the Toronto cityscape.

“Throughout our history, we’ve been involved with so many incredible charities and organizations that make such an important difference in the lives of so many people,” he says proudly. “It’s really important to me that we give back to the community that’s supported us all of these years and to try to make ourselves as essential to our surroundings as possible. And, in the end, it’s about doing the right thing, developing and staying true to give-and-take relationships that have the capacity to help everyone involved.”

Pivoting amid challenge

Over the Rainbow at Manulife Centre – Photo by Dustin Fuhs

Despite the success that Over the Rainbow has enjoyed through the years and the strong connection that it’s developed with its customers, partners and community at large, there was little that could have prepared it for impacts brought about by the COVID-19 global pandemic. Carman explains that the effect that the lockdowns had on the business was immediate and severe enough to stagger any retailer. However, through the digital agility that it had recently equipped itself with through the development of Over the Rainbow’s ecommerce site, Carman and the store were able to pivot quickly and continue operating even though he wasn’t able to welcome any customers into his physical environment.

“We were driving a car at 100 kilometres an hour and then the brakes were slammed,” he says. “The store closed on March 17 of last year without very much notice. We had just received all of our spring merchandise for that particular season and were loaded with inventory. And then, all of a sudden, our doors were closed. Thank goodness my children recognized the need to develop an ecommerce business. It had been working at a low level. But when the lockdown happened, we immediately put all of our resources into our ecommerce business and continued to develop the site. We had to monetize our inventory as quickly as possible, which we did. It was an extremely important pivot for us to make and allowed us to maintain our operation.”

Carman laments the fact that he was forced to lay off some of the store’s staff in order to survive the brutal jolt caused by the pandemic, referring to it as the “most difficult” thing that he’s ever had to do in his 45 years of business up to that point. However, even though these challenges have persisted throughout the past 16 months or so, he’s optimistic about the future of the store and is encouraged to finally be able to open up to visitors again and to begin recalling the team that he’s built.

“I’m really excited,” he exclaims. “I’m optimistic about what’s going to happen going forward because I believe that we have a fabulous business and a great culture. I’m really happy to be back in the store and to have my amazing staff with me so we can present ourselves to our customers again. There will be some logistical problems ahead. But we’re really prepared and really well-seasoned at reaching out to our vendors and customers to ensure an amazing experience for everyone. In the end, I want everyone to be safe and healthy; we’re ready to welcome people back to Over the Rainbow.”

More challenges ahead?

Looking ahead to a post-pandemic world, however, considering the continuum that is fashion, Carman believes that there will be further challenges. He recognizes the regular development of impositions in the clothing retail landscape as part of doing business within the industry. Having said that, however, he is wary of supply chain issues going forward and the struggles that small businesses may face in their attempts to rebuild in the aftermath of COVID.

“Costings within the supply chain are going to pose big problems for everyone,” he says. “The world is becoming a very complicated place. Access to inventory and proper pricing is going to be extremely important, allowing us to give the customer what they want at the right price. However, I anticipate it being difficult for retailers to achieve this until things settle down a little bit. Small businesses have been decimated by the pandemic in general. Things like rent and product are becoming very expensive and the ability to finance through banks is becoming increasingly more challenging. These factors will make it tough for some small businesses without the experience or resources to survive and rebuild. But Canadian entrepreneurs are a bit of a different breed, often possessing a tremendous amount of resiliency and creativity to help them get through difficult times.”

Continued growth and improvement

Joel Carman, Founder of Over the Rainbow – Photo by Dustin Fuhs

With respect to resiliency and creativity, Carman and Over the Rainbow have each quality, and others, in plentiful supply. Now located in a state-of-the-art store in Yorkville’s Manulife Centre and open for business, the retail leader is in his element and confident in taking full advantage of a return of footfall to the store. And, with respect to the months and years ahead for the iconic Toronto retailer, Carman suggests that there is still room for Over the Rainbow to continue growing and improving on its experience and offering.

“I’m a single-store operator who just moved to a 6,500 square foot store. Right now, I’m looking to consolidate my business, provide the best possible product for my customer, to continue evolving within the fashion industry, and to have fun. I want to get back to the atmosphere that’s created within our store on a Saturday afternoon and to enhance it to ensure that people really enjoy the process of doing business with us. If we can do that, everything else will fall into place. I’ve always felt fortunate to be involved in such a dynamic business with so many great people. This business is a big part of who I am. The relationships that I’ve built with the entire community through the years have been invaluable to me, enhancing my life. So, I’m just excited to be back in the store and doing what I love.”

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Article Author

Sean Tarry
Sean Tarry is an experienced writer who leverages his unique storytelling abilities to bring retail industry news and analysis to life. With 25 years of learning, including over a decade as Editor-In-Chief of Canadian Retailer magazine, he’s equipped with a deep understanding of the unique world of retail and the issues, trends, and innovators that continue to influence its evolution and shape its landscape.

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