Remember Galliano’s first collection, and that of Chalayan? When they were fresh out of Central Saint Martins, Browns bought their entire collections, displayed them in their windows, and became one of the leading institutions to embrace the talent of young designers. Machine-A, the Soho-based store founded by Stavros Karelis, followed the example set by Browns, and has quickly become one of the main globally recognised destinations to sell clothes by recent graduates and that of designers who are still studying. From Astrid Andersen and Nasir Mazhar, to Grace Wales-Bonner and Tigran Avetisytian, Karelis was the first to spot them.
But the route to getting there wasn’t a fashionable one at all times, and Stavros’ story is one of extreme dedication and non-stop work. He’s adopted the attitude that separates the wheat from the chaff: not having a day off or a holiday in years. Time is filled with tireless work until the early hours, hosting exhibitions, working together with SHOWStudio’s Nick Knight on projects, and throwing launch parties with Nicola Formichetti. Stavros works as hard as a machine and aptly called his store just that: Machine-A, with the ‘A’ meaning ‘new beginnings’.
But, he’s not just a hard-core buyer. More importantly, Stavros has become a sounding board to those emerging designers who he supports and consults. Because, as he says about the stocked garments, “the final result should be absolutely perfect. Better than high-end brands, as you are going to be judged much harder. If you see a fault in a Prada piece, you’re going to think that it’s a production fault. If you see a fault in a graduate piece, you’ll think: “he’s not ready yet”. Courtesy of Dishoom, we met the eloquent and very humble Greek for an extended breakfast, dressed from top to toe in CSM graduate fashion – discussing London, the politics of buying, and what it actually takes to start your own brand.
“I feel like any foundation that can support should support.”
How is your morning/breakfast routine?
I have to admit, I’m not very healthy in the morning – it’s usually coffee and cigarettes. I don’t even drink that much coffee, it’s more smoking. I think I’ll have the fruit and yoghurt – nice and healthy.
As we’re talking over breakfast — the beginning meal of the day — let’s start with discussing your beginning in the industry. Did you have any experience in fashion before starting Machine-A?
Since I was 18, I worked as a fashion editor at a magazine in Greece. In a very short period of time, I was asked to become the fashion director. After a year, I moved to work in luxury retail, but at that point I was already planning to move to London. I came to London to study International Studies – basically politics and international law — at Goldsmiths. I was planning a very different career!
But fashion was always an interest of yours?
For sure. Sometimes I feel like I have a bipolar thing going on inside me. I’ve always been interested in politics, but at the same time my passion was really for fashion. It’s addictive to me. It was never something that I chased, it just happened
Was Machine-A always a retail idea, and what was the initial space like?
Initially when I created the first store, the idea was to create a space – not necessarily a fashion space, where loads of young people would be able to do different creative projects. It was 6-7 years ago, and it was really rare to see in London any spaces devoted to young people – no one was paying attention to the young talents in fashion and other creative fields. I started that store in Berwick Street, and it was really fun: it was very raw, very different from what it is today. That was the first time I started working with all the graduates, and we started picking up collections from students who hadn’t even finished school yet.
You were quite often their first job?
Yes. It was nice, challenging and exciting; I remember the first year of Machine-A, where we had Astrid Andersen, just finishing school. Lots of people came together, and I started working with [stylist] Anna Trevelyan very closely – she came in at a very early point, when she was still assisting Nichola Formichetti. It was a very nice era – people came from all over the place, we met in that kind of strange environment where something was always happening – window installations or whatever. There were really no limits. The most amazing thing that happened in the first store was the feedback: the store started to become more well-known; we had a lot of good responses, and I realized that it had the potential to be a really big thing.
The industry supported it massively, but also the general public — our customers — were responding so positively to our concept. It was obvious that there was a market. People were not just interested in the well-known brands, they wanted something more unique, more up-and-coming. They were very willing to learn. This is something unique to London – I don’t think I could have launched this project in a different city. The one thing I remember so vividly was that there weren’t enough spaces or enterprises that were supporting and showcasing emerging talent.
What about the commercial aspect?
To be honest, the whole thing started without thinking about the commercial aspect, but as time passed, we had to make money in order to continue. I had an extremely good deal with the space. My lease was short, and I wasn’t 100% sure that it was going to be a permanent space, so when the lease expired, we sat down with Anna, and said: “let’s do this properly”.
Do you feel like you filled up a gap?
I don’t really like big expressions and statements, and say “oh, I did that”. It’s more to do with what kind of enterprise you are, and what kind of expectations you have. I understand that some enterprises can support and some can’t – but I feel like any foundation that can support should support.
“Customers have really changed the way they shop. There is more of a sense of ‘I’ve been there since the beginning – and I’ve been supporting since the beginning’.”
How do you think the retail landscape of London differentiates itself from New York or Paris?
When you think about retail, you have to think about your customers. In general, you have to think about who your customer is, who it is that shops in London. But now, London, Paris and New York don’t really have the same importance, as we are dealing with a world-wide region. Things are very different. Your customer is no longer necessarily a Londoner, which is why we launched an online store in collaboration with SHOWStudio.
Secondly, it’s the culture. In London, we have all of these amazing designers coming straight out of the colleges and universities, so you get an immediate contact with so many talents. If your market is ‘the young’, no one has the same amount of access as people in London have. You have so many amazing people working creatively, amazing talents, coming to London to work, live and study. It makes things way easier and way more attractive – and that’s what makes London very different, even in terms of the shows and the designers.
I think London is an extremely difficult city for retail: you’ve got the high-end stores, and then you have the high street stores. No city in the world has such a strong high street culture. We are an independent store, and it’s extremely difficult to find a position and niche in the market. That’s been the real challenge and I think it’s nice – it intrigues me and makes me keep going cause it’s that kind of challenge. It’s rewarding when customers compare you to really big stores around you, like Dover Street Market or Opening Ceremony, for example: stores that have been around for years.
Generally, would you say that it’s commercially viable to stock graduates?
Yes, if you do it in the right way. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to carry on doing it.
Why do you think other stores are scared of stocking new designers?
I think quite often they’re scared of the price point. When you come along as a graduate, you don’t have too many stockists, so your orders are not going to be very big, which means that production is going to be very expensive. When a jacket is a thousand pounds, the customer is going to think about whether to spend this money on someone unknown or someone established.
But I can see there’s a real market for that. Customers go for more exclusivity. If Machine-A picks up a designer, presuming that this designer is going to be really big in the future, a lot of customers want to get all the first pieces of these designers. They think that after 4-5 years, when the designers are going to be big, they’ll have archive material from them. Customers have really changed the way they shop. There is more of a sense of ‘I’ve been there since the beginning – and I’ve been supporting since the beginning’.
“I have so many designers sending me things wanting to be stocked, and they tell me “I’ve tried to do something very Machine-A”. This is the completely wrong approach with me!”
What are the challenges working with a graduate designer?
The challenge is never the talent. The challenge is more on the designers, as they have to be able to produce. This is retail, not lending pieces to shoot an editorial. This is going directly to the customers through the stores. One of the things I always keep repeating and that I am very strict with, is that the final result should be absolutely perfect. Better than high-end brands, as you are going to be judged much harder. If you see a fault in a Prada piece, you’re just going to think that it’s a production fault. If you see a fault in a graduate piece, you’ll think: “he’s not ready yet”. The production itself can be extremely challenging, because it’s the first time they’re doing this. It’s different from your graduate show, where you have so many facilities in universities, but after that, you are by yourself. Of course, we are there, and we really try to assist.
The whole graduate project is so important because it’s a great experience for a designer to understand what makes a designer. When someone like Joyce Hong Kong comes along to collaborate; it’s a store designers would kill for in order to get in to it. For you to get that opportunity is amazing, but it’s even more important to understand what that means. Thinking about it in a realistic way; thinking about budget, your time-limits, and that at delivery everything has to be perfect. There are no excuses.
So are you quite comfortable taking the role of a mentor?
A lot of people use the term ‘mentor’, but honestly, I’m more friends with them – there has to be a chemistry there. It has to be comfortable enough for me to say “that’s not going to work” or “that is going to work”. If one of them comes to me and tells me they can’t meet the deadline, I try to find a way to make this happen. I’m not sitting in my office with closed doors with no understanding of their situation. We are fully there for them.
What do you look for in a graduate?
The personal appeal is important when we meet, seeing if we’re on the same page. It’s kind of like an instinct: I see something and think “this can work”. It’s not about being the best designer, as there are so many amazing graduates coming out. I have so many designers sending me things wanting to be stocked, and they tell me “I’ve tried to do something very Machine-A”. This is the completely wrong approach with me! Don’t try to design for me, design for yourself. If it’s good, I’ll come to you. Furthermore, a lot of graduates don’t want to continue doing their own brands, and they go to work for someone else. You don’t want to give this opportunity to someone who doesn’t want it fully.
Where do you see the future of Machine A? With over 30 brands, you’re running out of space soon!
I really enjoy being in Soho, I really love the location, and to me, it was always about that area. I would love to expand, and we are going to. We’re collaborating closely with SHOWstudio – I respect Nick Knight so much, an amazing person who wants to support young designers. It’s really about helping young designers as much as we can.
Words by Jeppe Ugelvig
Photography by Jorinde Croese
Follow @stavroskarelis on Instagram
A special thank you to Dishoom!