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'They told me I was crazy' – Machine-A founder

Stavros Karelis, Machine-A

The founder and buying director of London designer indie Machine-A does things his own way.

Stavros Karelis is the buying director of Machine-A, a compact 600 sq ft designer men’s and women’s store nestled on Brewer Street in London’s Soho. But the Greek 33-year-old is more than just a buyer – he personifies Machine-A, he is the centre of its community of collaborators and customers and, as its founder, is an innovative, risk-taking retailer.

He is also one of the UK’s biggest champions of fashion talent, and has made a name for himself as one of the industry’s foremost future star-spotters. As well as promoting and mentoring new and under-the-radar designers, he takes risks by putting his buying budget behind them – often before they have any proven commercial record.

He has stocked most of London’s biggest names and brightest stars. He had Craig Green and JW Anderson early on, and snapped up US label Alyx before anyone else in the UK. He tapped Central Saint Martins graduate Grace Wales Bonner for a menswear collaboration collection straight from university in 2014 – she later went on to win the 2016 LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers. Under his watchful eye, the store has become a treasure trove of fashion’s newest names, alongside established labels such as Raf Simons, Hussein Chalayan and Maison Margiela.

I didn’t even realise that being a buyer was actually a job

“You take a risk with a young designer, and it always needs to translate financially, but when you see them become successful it gives you so much joy – professionally and personally,” he tells Drapers with a wide smile, sitting in the basement of the London store.

As a teenager growing up in a small town on the Greek island of Crete, Karelis never imagined a career in fashion. It wasn’t until he moved to Athens to study political science at 18 that his interest was piqued. “While there I discovered [luxury men’s and women’s Greek store] Luisa World – that was my first experience of luxury retail,” he explains. “I realised all these products appeared because someone buys them. [Until then] I didn’t even realise that being a buyer was actually a job.”

He moved to London in 2007 to study for an MA in international relations at Goldsmiths.

“I was going out and meeting all these exciting people and designers. I was introduced to this world that I didn’t even know existed,” he recalls. “During that time I felt that young people – and especially young designers – weren’t represented enough anywhere. There was nowhere to actually buy their clothes.”

It was this frustration that led to the rather whimsical idea of opening a retail space. As the 2008 recession hit, rents plummeted. Karelis happened upon a tiny space on Soho’s Berwick Street with an 18-month lease, and decided to “give it a go”. He teamed up with the stylist Anna Trevelyan and they cobbled together Digitaria, a “sort of store” that opened in 2009. At first it focused on a Greek brand of the same name that Karelis had become involved with while in Athens, but it quickly evolved. Local London designers were added, and the store was renamed Machine-A, in reference to the Bauhaus movement.

Machine A

Machine-A

Machine-A

“All of a sudden, people started coming. It was the period when [singer] Lady Gaga was becoming huge, and [her then stylist, now artistic director of Italian denim brand Diesel] Nicola Formichetti came in and started buying all these young brands from us. Then Lady Gaga herself came to the store, which brought lots of attention. It was beautiful creatively – we were doing events every weekend and having all this fun. We had no business plan or anything like that, but we were selling – brands like Astrid Andersen and Nasir Mazhar.”

But the lease expired and the first Machine-A closed, says Karelis: “At that point I talked to Anna and said: ‘This is a great opportunity, but let’s do this properly.’”

It took them more than a year, but by February 2013 and with some financial help from Karelis’s family – “just enough to start the store,” he clarifies – they opened the new Machine-A on Brewer Street, just around the corner from the first location, with Karelis as buying director and Trevelyan as fashion director (having relocated to New York, Trevelyan has stepped back from the business, but remains an active partner).

“I remember in the beginning everyone told me I was crazy,” he admits. “I was crazy to do it in Soho – they said I was going to fail because it’s not a shopping destination. And second, I would explain the concept and they’d look at me like: ‘Is he mental?’”

But he has proved them wrong. Karelis smartly picked Soho for is edgy vibrancy and relatively affordable rents (“back then”, he adds), as well as its central London location. Machine-A was in Soho before many other retailers moved in to its once sex shop-lined streets and is now central to the area’s burgeoning retail scene – cult brands such as Supreme and Palace are nearby, Carhartt and North Face down the road, and the new Dover Street Market store is a five-minute walk away.

The first big label to back Karelis was the high-profile Raf Simons, whose founder went on to become creative director at Christian Dior and is now chief creative officer at Calvin Klein. For Karelis, it was already a personal favourite and felt like a perfect fit: “It suddenly felt like someone understood me, and we’ve stocked it ever since. They took the risk before we even opened and I owe very much to that. To this day I’m extremely grateful.”

Raf Simons

Raf Simons

Raf Simons

Back then Karelis didn’t even know what a wholesale mark-up was, but he learned on the job. And the business has flourished, he says, knocking on the wooden desk in front of him. He now employs 15 people across buying, the store and ecommerce, eight full time and seven part time. He will not reveal figures, but says turnover has almost doubled since last year and is expected to increase by the same again by next year.

Karelis was rocked by last year’s Brexit vote, and says it was the first time he was seriously worried about Machine-A’s future: “We buy so much of the product in so many different currencies. When it happened in June we had all the new arrivals coming in and were paying all these invoices out I suddenly realised I was buying in euros, in yen, in dollars. All of a sudden the pound went from being super strong to being super weak, so any buying budget we had before was completely different by the end of June. And that was a very big shock – we got through it, but it was hard.”

Although the store still accounts for up to 70% of sales, a key element of Machine-A’s growth has been its somewhat unusual path into ecommerce. While most retailers launch their own web platforms, Karelis partnered with Show Studio, the fashion content and video website founded by renowned photographer Nick Knight in 2000. Machine-A has sold its products online via showstudio.com since early 2015, and a relaunch of its ecommerce pages is in the pipeline.

I don’t drop someone right away if they don’t perform

Stavros Karelis

Stavros Karelis

Stavros Karelis

“Machine-A and Stavros are incredibly supportive of very young brands and we were creating fashion films about them and interviewing them, so it seemed obvious to team up to sell their clothes. Full circle,” explains Knight. “Machine-A is the most exciting boutique in London. There is a real social scene around it, which is always a good sign of a great shop. It is a great curation of brands – Stavros has just about the best eye for spotting new talent. He is an interesting mixture of someone who is very driven and someone who is very caring, loving and intelligent.”

Defiantly, Karelis has never wavered from his original concept, and big brands still share rail space with a plethora of unknown new designers. Bestsellers such as Raf Simons, Craig Green, Gosha Rubchinskiy and Maison Margiela sit alongside John Lawrence Sullivan, Ovelia Transtoto, A Cold Wall and Kanghyuk Choi.

“Every season we develop, but I don’t drop someone right away if they don’t perform. I always wait three seasons before I make the decision,” he says. “Especially in our situation, because it takes a bit of time for the customer to understand new brands, but also for customers to know we stock them.”

As well as seeking out new names, Karelis mentors designers, graduates and students, offering careful critique and valuable advice. The day before our interview, he was at the Royal College of Art (RCA) working with its students on their graduate collections.

“The first time I met Stavros, I found him direct and fair, passionate and driven,” says Zowie Broach, head of fashion at the RCA. “He is extremely generous with his knowledge. He offers that sense of community that builds a place in fashion history that is exciting. He is sharp, no-nonsense and, of course, ambitious.”

Karelis also works closely with the British Fashion Council’s (BFC) New Gen designer support scheme – he is the only buyer to sit on both the menswear and womenswear selection committees.

“I brought Stavros onto the New Gen committee because I very quickly realised that he is someone who goes above and beyond any narrow categorisation as a buyer,” explains the New Gen committee chair Sarah Mower, who is also the chief critic for Vogue and the BFC’s ambassador for emerging talent. “He is one of the very few people who really does converse with the new generation of people who are fanatical about fashion and is connected with them in a personal way – the way in which so many giant companies with their algorithms absolutely dream of achieving. He’s basically an enthusiast and a natural philanthropist,” she says.

“I see that as his talent even above the commercial success he may have, or the exceptional culture he’s engendered from that tiny store. I always want to see who Stavros has discovered and to hear his diagnosis of where designers are in their business, and how they may be helped.”

For Karelis, this expectation can weigh heavily: “People look at Machine-A to see what’s new. That question follows me everywhere. I have people calling me – brands, designers, and press. ‘What’s new, what’s the latest?’ It’s great to know people look to us for that, but it’s a pressure. Am I going to always get it right? That’s the challenge.”

However, encapsulating his business-minded, entrepreneurial focus and passion, he adds: “I just have this thing inside me that I have to perform and I have to be good at what I do. I just want to do the best for everyone.”

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