As Ariella celebrates five decades in business, chief executive Achilleas Constantinou explains why it has been a go-to label for party dresses since the Swinging Sixties.
Ariella chief executive Achilleas Constantinou
Established in London’s fashion epicentre Carnaby Street, in its 1960s heyday, Ariella has passed the test of time and is now looking to the future with renewed vigour, under the direction of its enigmatic co-founder, Achilleas Constantinou.
“It all started in 1966, the year England won the World Cup, when Carnaby Street was just beginning to take shape as the birthplace of revolutionary fashion,” Constantinou tells Drapers.
“I was still at school and my older brother, Aristos, was making eveningwear for the couturier Mattli, but it was all pretty fuddy-duddy stuff. My father was a master tailor and had a workshop at 45 Carnaby Street, which he let Aristos use.
I suggested he started making clothes for the kinds of girls I was hanging around with – all the long-haired hippy girls. At the time I had long curly hair like Mick Jagger, snakeskin heeled boots, snakeskin belt, tasselled shirts – the works.”
Achilleas – or “AC”, as he is known – and his friends helped paint 45 Carnaby Street in bright colours and Aristos, who was a graduate of London College of Fashion, started designing more contemporary dresses that embodied the spirit of the time. In its first week of trading, the store took £300 – not bad, when the average week’s wage was £20.
“My brother and I looked at each other and thought, ‘This is great’,” AC remembers.
The pair opened a second store – called Blooshp – on nearby Newburgh Street and when AC finished university in 1971, he decided to join forces with his brother and changed the name to Ariella.
Aristos and Achilleas Constantinou
“Our first wholesale customer was Rita Specterman, who had a store on the King’s Road called Just Looking,” he says. “She wanted half a dozen dresses to sell in her shop, and asked for the best price. I didn’t know what a wholesale price was and was indignant, saying that we charge everyone the same price – £4 per dress – and said it would take about a week. I offered her two dozen in two weeks if she wanted, and she paid for them all up front. She carried on buying from us for 25 years until she died and by then she was ordering 2,000 units per colour.”
Ariella archive imagery
Expansion was the name of the game for Ariella, AC explains.
“In the early 1970s, there was a store at 267 Oxford Street that was run by Harvey Soning of Guardian Properties. We had a small concession in the back and we were taking some money, but I could see there was a bigger opportunity, so at 22 years old, I went to see him to ask if we could expand.
“He said there was no more space, but I offered £10,000 a year rent for the window space, which was about 2 yards by 4 yards. We put in a mezzanine floor that you could barely stand up in and it became so successful, we were taking £10,000 a week. It was that kind of crazy, young, romantic entrepreneurship. The whole history of my career in fashion has been underlined by just wanting to have fun.”
Ariella’s velvet trouser suit in 1972
By the end of the 1970s, the business had expanded to 11 stores in prime locations in London, Lausanne in Switzerland, and Chicago and Washington DC in the US. It also had a thriving wholesale business supplying retailers such as Jane Norman, DH Evans and John Lewis.
But in 1985, Aristos was tragically killed and Achilleas was “knocked sideways”, and decided to shut down the retail division to focus on wholesale.
He continued to grow the wholesale business, winning prestigious accolades such as the Queen’s Award for Export over the intervening years, as well as becoming one of the founding members of the British Fashion Council.
AC also made a lasting contribution to the fashion industry through his work establishing the British Fashion Design Protection Association to protect copyright for fashion designs, as well as sitting on the boards of organisations including Skillfast UK, Graduate Fashion Week and the UK Fashion and Textiles Association.
“It took me many years to summon up the appetite to return to retail, but we have lots of young people in the business, so there was a real energy and drive to do more. All four of my children work in the business in some way or other and it is a really fun, exciting place to be.”
Ariella opened its first Ariella London store in 30 years at Brent Cross Shopping Centre in north-west London in April last year and now has another store at Bluewater in Kent. Its concessions are expanding – there are nine in House of Fraser stores, and one each in Beales in Bournemouth and de Gruchy in Jersey. It also sells through its own website and on the House of Fraser and Debenhams sites.
Today, Ariella’s wholesale customers include House of Fraser, Debenhams, Phase Eight, Coast and Jacques Vert Group, as well as C&A throughout Europe. It is also stocked in El Corte Inglés in Spain and Portugal, and French department store chain Galeries Lafayette. In May this year, the company relaunched its wholesale business for independent retailers with a capsule collection of 40 styles priced from £19 for a jersey wrap dress to £85 for a full-length, sequinned version.
“I think the reason we have been so successful is that we have exclusive product with our identity, look and styling, and we have always been able to remain contemporary with our own glamorous DNA,” says AC.
“I describe Ariella as a fashion machine – our greatest strength is our design studios in Highgate [north London], where we have an incredible cloth library and an archive of more than 4,000 dresses.
“We are a bespoke manufacturer of cocktail and eveningwear for multiple retailers, working with customers’ design teams to understand their demands. No two collections are the same.”
But AC is not resting on his laurels – Ariella will be officially marking its landmark anniversary next year with a fashion show during London Fashion Week to showcase its five decades of style.