Pop-cultural folklore paints a scathing picture of the fashion industry. But a playground of stone-faced tyrants wielding It-bags and bad attitudes, it is not. Living proof that fashion can be a force for good, Stavros Karelis has ditched this cliché, orchestrating an international community that begins with his London-born boutique Machine-A.
A stronghold for both rising stars and established designers, the store on Brewer Street celebrates its 10th year this spring after weathering countless setbacks, lockdowns and Brexit. At spitting distance from Soho’s seedier corners, the shop earned its acclaim for positioning young city natives and graduates alongside collections by the likes of Rick Owens and Comme des Garçons Homme Plus in an approach partly informed by Karelis’s personal style.
“I always work based on my instinct,” says Karelis, who is just as likely to be spotted inspecting Casey Cadwallader’s latest Mugler offering as he is at a London College of Fashion or Westminster University show. “I think my sense of dressing and the way that I like to combine things and brands, it’s down to a distinctive way that I want to be.” Of course, sartorial differences between Machine-A’s store buy and Karelis’s wardrobe exist, but intuition largely prevails. Sitting on the board for the British Fashion Council’s NewGen scholarship scheme, he balances commercial nous with an innate ability to recognise talent in its infancy. Where he’s concerned, representing a brand in its truest form, rather than stockpiling cash-cow pieces, is the best buying practice.
Whatever you do, though, don’t call it the Midas touch. Karelis’s modus operandi relies on honest relationships that spawn into lifelong friendships, as evidenced in his early adoption of Matthew Williams’s 1017 Alyx 9SM, Glenn Martens’ Y/Project and London darling Martine Rose. “I believe that one day Martine is going to be leading a huge, huge…” Karelis pauses. “[She] is going to be one of those designers in the status of Raf [Simons], basically.”
By creating a cool-to-be-kind vibe, Karelis has overseen Machine-A’s development from a niche store into a de facto empire. With a physical outpost in Shanghai launched last year, a major e-commerce platform and financial backing from the independent fashion accelerator Tomorrow London, his business looks healthier than ever, a testament to his risk-taking. Naysayers might call it luck, but his attunement to new markets and patience is the key here. From as early as 2016, Machine-A’s largest source of income has been Chinese consumers coveting experimental designs that your average department store would cut from their edit.
Now, the Cretan businessman spends his first three waking hours dedicated to strategy, buying and PR for Machine-A’s East Asian outpost. This is long before he starts his first meeting with the architects behind a new London expansion of the boutique. While a working day shorter than 12 hours is a rarity in his schedule, Karelis – a self-confessed mummy’s boy – leads a peaceful life with two bonny canines, a gym membership and a chic pad near Barbican. How does he do it? “I’m a very good sleeper,” he says with a laugh. “I think that’s what saves me.”
Rewind to the Noughties, when Karelis first came to London as a law school student, and the sparks of his enterprise emerge. Sure, he was here to earn a degree in political science and then a Masters in international law (and, kudos, he did), but his true calling came to life at campy club nights like The Cock, Nag Nag Nag and Boombox, all era-defining haunts popular with fashion’s glitterati and celebs alike. “I used to go out from Wednesday until Sunday,” Karelis says. Mesmerised by the parading displays of style these spaces attracted, he experienced an awakening. “I remember looking and [thinking], wow, it’s a completely new world here.” Rubbing arms with fledgling Central Saint Martins and Royal College of Art students, he would enquire about their designs, but was often disappointed to discover that no one was stocking them. “The first idea came into my head to create a space [for these] types of designers,” he says, beaming.
Fast-forward a few years and, despite the pitfalls common to any entrepreneur starting a business from scratch, Karelis was running a lucrative shop. Back home, however, his parents weren’t buying it. For them, fashion was a mere phase that he would, God willing, grow out of before securing a job at, say, the European Union HQ in Brussels. Of course, his pipe dream won over, but after his first Greek interview and growing attention, their views slowly changed. “Now, they’re like my biggest supporters. But it took a bit of time,” he laughs.
The rise of Karelis shows no signs of slowing down. In late 2022, he participated in Vogue Greece’s Change Makers event as a guest panellist, chaired by his dear friend and mentor Sarah Mower. “I owe a lot to Sarah, because she gave the first review of Machine-A in 2013 on our first Graduate Project,” he says, referring to the boutique’s annual initiative, which guides fresh grads creatively and financially through their first retail experience. With a backlog of success stories, including Bianca Saunders, Kiko Kostadinov and Grace Wales Bonner, the programme is a consistent validation of Karelis’s eye. Naturally, a lot of people wonder what he looks for in a designer, and the answer is refreshingly clear. Forget your typical marketing deck, the Karelis criteria are black and white. “I want to see someone who is focused. They know exactly what they want to do, they know exactly what that brand will stand for and the main design idea, it’s not all over the place,” he says. Of course, what might appear as a coherent fashion proposition to one pundit could be complete codswallop to another. Perhaps the Karelis knack cannot be taught. One thing is for sure: if you bowl into his office with a spreadsheet and a host of claims that you can hit audiences X, Y and Z, he won’t want in. He leads with his gut.
This honest cogency works both ways. One of the first brands in Machine-A’s stable was the dearly departed Raf Simons label, a key component in Karelis’s masterplan to elevate other companies. Flashback to his first Raf Simons showroom visit where, visibly shaking, Karelis was tasked by CEO Bianca Quets Luzi to pick out a hypothetical buy. Luckily, he passed the test. “She came out and said, ‘You have the brand; you can buy as much as you want.’ She didn’t ask me for minimums. She didn’t ask me for anything,” he says. His gift had paid off. In the years following, Simons himself would drop by the store and, impressed, began following Machine-A’s progression. From then, a friendship between him and Karelis blossomed, culminating recently in a pivotal fashion moment. Namely, Raf Simons’ first ever UK show, a catwalk-cum-rave at electronic super club Printworks last autumn. He invited more than 250 fashion students to watch alongside editors and hardcore Raf fans as the finale unfolded.
But curveball: despite Simons and Karelis talking about the blockbuster production for a year, he was none the wiser about the designer’s impending farewell from his namesake label. Simons did, however, message Karelis when the press announcement aired and the two talked.
Ever the optimist, Karelis does not think this is the end of Raf Simons as we know it, hinting at ongoing collaborations, planned projects already in the works and the man’s insatiably curious mind and taste for fine art. Most significantly, Karelis points to Simons’ co-creative directorship at Prada as the new fountain to sate thirsty Raf fanboys, himself included. Unlike the Holy Grail-trawling obsessives, though, Karelis won’t be locking his coveted Simons collection behind hidden vaults to collect dust; he’ll be wearing his pieces for the foreseeable. “I’m not one of those people [that are] like, ‘Don’t touch my Raf’,” he jokes, citing the song “RAF” by hip-hop collective A$AP Mob. For him, clothes are to be enjoyed: a canvas for emotions and memories. Indeed, among hallowed pieces he owns from Simons’ collaborations, including with the Robert Mapplethorpe estate, and shows inspired by David Lynch and cult German film Christiane F., Karelis’s collection forms a scattered chronology of his life’s milestones, including his first encounter with Simons.
Despite eschewing the label of “collector”, Karelis was renowned for stocking hard-to-copy Simons pieces. In fact, in 2013, when the store opened, A$AP Rocky popped in for this exact reason. Over time, many members of A$AP Mob – Nast, Ferg and Rocky included – coalesced around Machine-A in a growing circle that also namechecked Skepta and other members of grime collective Boy Better Know, as well as Supreme’s creative director Tremaine Emory. “Skepta, the first time, he was a customer. He came in Machine-A to shop, years and years ago,” Karelis recalls. “And we would be always in touch. Whenever they would come, I would be on the shop floor.”
Head into Machine-A, even now, and you’re likely to meet Karelis, a man whose charm and gentle, pattering voice welcomes all into a flourishing hotbed of fashion fans, creators, musicians and those willing to ditch safe dressing and trust their guts regardless. It’s a community he built accidentally, but one he cherishes. “I keep saying it, but I’m very grateful. I know how blessed I am to have these great people around that believe what Machine-A is about and see an honesty in what we do and want to be part of it,” says Karelis. Notably, he uses the word “grateful” 18 times during our interview. For Stavros Karelis and his super store, the gratitude is all ours.
Taken from Issue 57 of 10 Men – NEW, DAILY, UNIFORM – out now. Order your copy here.
STAVROS KARELIS: TASTE MAKER
Photographer JOSHUA TARN
Fashion Editor and Talent STAVROS KARELIS
Text JOE BOBOWICZ
Photographer’s assistant JOE WILES
Fashion assistant GEORGIA EDWARDS
Production ZAC APOSTOLOU