Picture this: The year is 2013. Raf Simons, Yohji Yamamoto and Margiela are on top of the fashion chain. Streetwear has been brewing for quite some time now and is about to explode into the mainstream, but not quite yet. Most retailers in London only stock the top dogs, whereas emerging designers are left without a platform.
Then comes along Stavros Karelis and his entourage. They witnessed the creativity coming out of London and its acclaimed art and fashion institutions through their clubbing ventures and general mutual collections. That’s when Stavros had an idea: what if emerging designers and established designers were brought together in one room void of fashion’s archaic hierarchy? Well, 10 years later, Stavros and his team have become leaders in the fashion retail field with SoHo’s (and as of last year Shanghai too) Machine-A. In celebration of the iconic store, we caught up with Stavros and talked about the beginnings of Machine-A, the power of its community and discovering Kiko Kostadinov and Grace Wales Bonner during their early days at CSM.
Hey Stavros! I want to congratulate you on Machine-A’s 10 year anniversary. Is this where you imagined you would be 10 years ago when creating the concept store?
Not at all. Actually, I never thought about the future that far ahead. When Machine-A was created, it was made out of very much love and excitement and passion. We’re a collective of people that we felt that this is something that is missing, or we can do some things a bit differently from what was already on the retail landscape at that point in London. But we didn’t think that far. We didn’t know what to expect out of it. It wasn’t a genius marketing plan, or a very far down the line process. It was really made out of love and support to create a space, which was quite a lot about young talent, emerging talent, and also to be working with some of the really established designers and brands that I have a huge respect for. This is how Machine-A was created. I never thought that it would evolve in the way that they did in the last 10 years.
Since we are celebrating Machine-A’s 10 years, I figured we could go through some key moments in the company’s history. So let’s start at the very beginning. What motivated you to start a store which supported emerging designers?
We’re going back to a period of time in 2012/2013, when I would interact, whether that was while clubbing on the dance floor, or with a group of friends, and I would see all these really incredible students about to graduate with beautiful collections of beautiful clothes that they were wearing. We are very grateful, honoured and privileged to live in a city where these incredible universities exist. So the pool of talent is actually so huge and vast.
The discussion was always “where can you buy it” and the answer was always the same. There is nowhere to buy those collections of those brands and designers. I realised that actually there is something there to be done. That’s how I started thinking in my head how we can create a space which can showcase so much incredible talent that exists and still exists to this day in London. I think it was my interaction with those creative people in London and we all started thinking in the same way pretty much. There was a lack in the landscape at that point of stores supporting young talent with of course, some notable exceptions. So we said let’s do it and see how it goes.
Since the start, clothing has been represented in a genderless manner – there is no dedicated ‘menswear’ or ‘womenswear’ section. Why is that important to you?
It was very organic. It wasn’t a decision to make a statement. It was coming from a place where that’s how people shop. All the people around me, including me, shop that way. When we first launched Machine-A there were two things we did differently from the rest of the retailers. It was what you are pointing out, that we never divided the space between menswear and womenswear. Iit was a very much of a gender fluid way of merchandising the store. Secondly, it was mixing on the same rail students and emerging designers sitting next to really big brands like Margiela, Raf Simons, etc. All this happened because I wanted to represent the way that people actually shop. So for me, it was very natural to go down that road. I didn’t realise how people would react to this. When we first did it, even though the customer really was enjoying it, the more traditional business side of brands, that we were interacting with, couldn’t understand it sometimes. Now I think it’s way more integrated, but it created a very distinctive way of seeing what Machine-A is about. Now, everyone respects and appreciates what we did 10 years ago and what we’re still doing to this day.
I’m guessing that a lot of students that you were wanting to represent also design in a genderless manner. So it would be even more complicated to fit them into a category when that isn’t fit to how they were designing originally.
You’re absolutely on point with this. When I talk about our community, I don’t divide it between the customer, the audience, the designer, and us and whoever else is involved. We all are a community. So you’re absolutely right. When we were starting 10 years ago, it was the beginning of the explosion of the whole streetwear scene. It was a lot of sportswear, streetwear, which no one really cared about gender. They would design in a completely different manner, regardless of the gender.
In 2015, you sat with the British Fashion Council NEWGEN committee discovering some of London’s most exciting emerging talent. What was that experience like?
I didn’t believe that I was invited to sit in the committee. I have to say that Sarah Mower, the chairman of the committee NEWGEN, for menswear and womenswear, I don’t think that the way that the BFC or London Fashion Week functions, wouldn’t have existed if it wasn’t for her. From a very early stage, Sarah would visit Machine-A and realise what we’re doing. We were doing the Graduate Project, and Sarah was a very early supporter of this idea. She loved the idea that we’re picking up so many young designers and giving them a platform to be able to explore the commercial side of a brand and eventually make money for the brands. That’s the only way that they could survive and carry on with their own brands.
So sitting in the committee, and having a small part of the selection process was, of course, a huge honour for me. Machine-A was always considered an outsider to the establishment. We were the new kid on the block. To be recognised in a way where our point of view has something to offer was great to see. But also sitting in this committee, I learned so much more about the designers and about the side of their businesses and what they are dealing with. Another big part of this committee is not only the ones that are awarded but also what goes behind the scenes. Every person that participates in this committee can offer their assistance to the designers in the way that they might need. It was so valuable for me to do this with a lot of designers because you create these really beautiful close relationships that last forever. I’m really appreciative and grateful for this.
As you mentioned, every year you run a Graduate Project, where young graduating designers are selected, notably Cameron Williams of NUBA in 2021, to be represented in your store. What do you look for in graduate’s collections when picking the winners?
This is always the most difficult question for me to answer because it’s not something specific. I mean, there are some objective criteria that of course I’m very interested in to know. It also involves asserting every single decision, to be honest, it’s part of the risk process, because you are deciding to back someone up and you don’t know how this is going to go. So for me, a very important objective is to know that this person actually wants to create their own brand. They’re there for the long term and they are ready to enter a world which is very difficult and very challenging in many ways.This is the objective part.
The subjective part is always an instinct, I cannot describe it differently. There’s so many talents out there, you know, but I need to think about what it would mean for Machine-A, and how it would work in my own world and the world that we have created for all these years. Because when I choose somebody, they also choose me in some ways. The benefits go both ways and the relationship goes both ways. I want to offer an environment that is right for the designer that I’m choosing.
I also look for something that I haven’t seen before. To give you an example, one of the first Graduate Projects we did was with Kiko Kostadinov and Grace Wales Bonner. Kiko and Grace at that point were still on the BA course [at Central Saint Martin’s], not even MA. So we’re talking about a while ago, at a very early stage. As soon as I saw both of them actually, I was like “I need to work with you”. It was like this urge that you feel because you see something that is so new and so fresh and so unique. They already knew the world that they were designing for: they came out with from casting to music, and the clothes, of course. You knew that they already had that in their minds. For me that is the most reassuring way to start working with someone.
2020 obviously affected retail stores greatly, with the pandemic forcing shops to close. How did you cope through this change?
In the beginning, we were very scared and very confused, because you didn’t know what was happening and how this was going to evolve. No one has ever experienced anything like this before, which meant that no one had any answers to give you. So everything as a process became a sort of survival. My job has a specific challenge, which is to make decisions for the future. As the buying director, I’m buying for six months ahead. That was the most complicated thing to do during the pandemic. First of all, I couldn’t see any physically, I couldn’t see any designers and brands and collections. I had to do my whole job on a digital format. But the most difficult part is how could I buy for six months ahead when I didn’t know what was going on in the next week or two.
The most beautiful thing happened though, and was when I realised what we have built as a community over the years. What I mean by that is that when, especially the first lockdown, I was like “we are done, I don’t think we’re going to be able to survive this”. And then all of a sudden, all these credible and loyal customers were the ones who wanted to buy from digital channels, from WhatsApp, from Instagram, from everywhere. They were like “we’re here, we want to do this, we support you”.Then I realised, oh, wow, all these people didn’t disappear. They’re there. There were way more from what I ever could possibly imagine. That gave me so much inner strength to go through all this, me and my team, of course.
In 2021, you teamed up with the Institute of Digital Fashion to create a virtual concept store in line with London Fashion Week. Do you think Machine-A or retail in general could become fully digital in the future?
I think we need both. When the team from IoDF approached me they said “we want to do this project with you, what do you think?” and I was like “yeah, I’m 100% up for it. Let’s do it”. It was a great way for me to understand the power of a digital platform and what it can offer you. If there was one benefit out of the whole pandemic, it was that every single business, even the ones that were very reluctant to get into the digital aspect of things, got into it, and they experimented in many ways. Machine-A is a combination of everything. The retail aspect is very important to me because it’s a place of physical interaction. People meet, people hang out, people talk. Although, our community expands and extends way further than whoever can make it down to SoHo. In that sense, [digital shopping] offers us a much wider way of connecting with people worldwide.
Looking ahead into the next 10 years, what are you wishing for Machine-A? Any specific designers you want to get a hold of? Any other countries or cities you want to implement the store in?
Yes to all of this. We just opened in Shanghai which is something really beautiful for me to see and experience because we’ve grown in a very organic way. I would love to see Machine-A developing in different countries. What I would say is that 10 years ago when we first started, we took a risk and agreed that we were going to work with emerging designers and young designers, and we’re going to focus on design skills and creativity. Now 10 years down the line, we’re still here. I feel as a company, and as a brand, we are stronger than ever. Moving ahead to the next 10 years, I think that I am much more passionate than ever about this idea. This is the heart and the soul of Machine-A and this will never change. If anything, I would love to work with so many more young talents worldwide, and be able to create a global platform, where actually the focus is on that. Because I think this is the most beautiful part of our industry.
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