Interview: Stavros Karelis

by Stavros Karelis .

I approached the curation of the exhibition knowing we cannot hide or go around the fact that it is a fashion fair. Essentially you are entering a building where people are going to do sales, they are going to approach brands and talk about prices, quantities and so forth... I want to remind everyone that there is a creative process behind every person and every designer and every brand.

Lara Johnson-Wheeler: Stavros, it is the final day of the Copenhagen International Fashion Fair! How are you feeling? 

Stavros Karelis: I feel satisfied, I feel relaxed now because it was a lot. And I didn’t realize how much we were taking on at the beginning. It was interesting, Heikki [Salonen, designer for MM6] came to me and he said 'You are very brave.' And I said, 'Why are you saying that I am brave?' And he said, 'This is so big and so good, but did you even think that things could have gone so wrong?' And you know, at that point, it actually hit me that, because there are so many people involved, so many installations -

LJW: Things could have gone wrong!

SK: Yeah! Things could have gone wrong because of the importance of the people that are involved but also because of the sheer scale of things! So I am very very grateful.

LJW: But nothing went wrong, it was a flawless exercise. What do you think you’ve got out of the curation?

SK: I learned a lot from it, which is the most important thing. A lot of people were commenting that it might be London-centric in the beginning, and I had to think about that. Being located in Copenhagen, I had to interact with Danish people and a different audience. So it has been about how you work with lots of different teams of people. 

LJW: You invited 1Granary, with their new initiative VOID. Representatives from i-D held a zine-making booth. Virgil Abloh, Max Lamb and Sami Janjer were present, with their take on the "DIY CHAIR". SHOWstudio brought their Fashion Illustration Gallery, MM6 made an interactive installation, as did Oakley by Samuel Ross, and finally ALYX. What is the common thread that unites all of these different designers, brands, galleries?

SK: I approached the curation of the exhibition knowing we cannot hide or go around the fact that it is a fashion fair. Essentially you are entering a building where people are going to do sales, they are going to approach brands and talk about prices, quantities and so forth. So to me the idea was – ok, you enter this space, the only way you can walk is through the installations, and in a period of time where there is a lot of discussion about value, brand value, people’s value and the commercial aspect of it, I want to remind everyone that there is a creative process behind every person and every designer and every brand. Before you start asking about prices or try and do the best payment terms and conditions, I wanted the viewer to ask the question – what is the inspiration behind this collection? What do you want to do in five years time? Where did you start from? It is a reminder to everyone that it is not just about products. And in the installations, actually, there weren’t any products. It wasn’t focused on clothes and that was essential for me.

LJW: I have known you for a few years now, as a buyer and the founder of MACHINE-A, and you have been on many of our panel discussions, discussing fashion from a commercial perspective. But it is never solely the practicalities of fashion that interest you. Why do you think that you maintain the romance in what you do?

SK: Because I wouldn’t be able to carry on doing what I am doing long term if I only see numbers. I cannot only see one or the other. This is how my mind works. If I saw only numbers, then it becomes almost like an algorithm, it becomes almost like an Excel document that if you put the right numbers in and the data, you have the answers there. But then you miss the soul, the spirit, you miss the reason why you are doing the whole thing. Let’s face it – running a retail store, I can have my five top brands and then I can put all the money there and I don’t need to do anything else. The shop will carry on working, but that is not why I created MACHINE-A and why MACHINE-A exists at the moment. It is because we need that type of spirit, that type of character, taste, and style. It is not just my style and taste, I see people around me. The people I work with, people like you, people at SHOWstudio, the MACHINE-A team. We always exchange ideas.

LJW: I am interested in this idea of the cult of community. For a number of young designers - Telfar, Eckhaus Latta, Cottweiler - the community around them is key. And this seems vital to the essence of MACHINE-A. Why do you think that works so well?

SK: Oh my god, I have no idea, to be honest. I never thought lets do a store that is going to be cool! It happened that as we were discussing things, all of a sudden we did something that was easily understood, that young people could connect to. That connection is sometimes missing from other places. I had this conversation yesterday with Kristian and he said to me, just by walking down Brewer Street, and looking at MACHINE-A, you would never understand what goes on inside – there are many different aspects. It is a huge web around different relations, of different people. And I think this is the special thing.

LJW: Were you thinking about the concept of ‘cool’ when you were approaching the idea of curating a fashion fair in Copenhagen? 

SK: My idea of being cool is to be yourself. That is always what I thought of it, it is not about you have to dress the way I dress, or you have to like the designers or brands that I like. And I was saying this to Virgil [Abloh] yesterday as well because his brand - you might like it or you might not be that into it - but what is important is that he found a way to speak to millions of people. He has a message to communicate. And with CIFF, I thought that it is cool because it’s different. I have been to other fashion fairs and I have walked into different booths and I have talked to designers. And my experience so far has been very dry and very corporate and very commercial. They are packed in little spaces, you can’t see anything of a brand. I was very positively surprised here in Copenhagen because I visited as a guest buyer first last August and I saw that they are very generous with space, the ideas behind each brand. And they give them enough creative freedom to show a bit of their world.

LJW: There has been talk about generosity here, particularly about being generous to young designers. MACHINE-A has always supported the work of young designers and there are a number of graduate designers that have come to CIFF as part of your curation. Can you tell me about that?

SK: There is a really big debate about how sustainable businesses are for these young designers - not even how sustainable it is, but how do you begin? Where do you start? So, before the graduate shows, I see some of the collections and give the designers feedback. So when this opportunity came, I said to Kristian, I have never seen any graduates before, at a fashion fair, it is kind of putting a little kitty in the arena and saying go for it. If you want to have a young brand, if you want to build your brand, you have to realize what is out there. What buyers are going to ask you, what is the process behind it, what it means to be at a fashion fair. Do you have line sheets? Do you have lookbooks, prices, do you know your payments terms and conditions, washing instructions? There are so many details. And I sat with them and we had one to one meetings in the office with all of them and I was giving them logistical advice. And then, they can take everything that they learned here, go back to London and make their own informed decisions. 

LJW: I want to end by asking you the question that I began asking each curator in our video interviews her at CIFF. I asked them – what are you bringing to CIFF. And I want to pose that to you - not about this event, but next time in August. What are you bringing to CIFF?

SK: I think that this edition – we tested the water. I think the next one I would like to create a bit of a disruption, in a good way. Not in terms of size – I don’t want to go necessarily bigger. I liked so much the interaction with people, so I think that is going to be something a lot more evident in the next one and do something even cooler if I can say.

LJW: You can. So, until August – thank you, Stavros!