The Poulakises are a strong family of over-achievers led by a fearless father who created Harrolds, an internationally renowned fashion destination bursting with the best labels, writes Alison Veness. Styled by Philippa Moroney. Photographed by Duncan Kil
The Poulakises are the family behind internationally renowned fashion destination Harrolds.
“IF YOU DON’T GROW YOU DIE, SO TAKE RISKS AND DON’T BE AFRAID”
The Poulakis family works together, plays together and sticks together. They are an indomitable forwardthinking force, and each one of them has the same goal: excellence and newness. They thrive on good ideas, and appreciate elegance, cutting-edge style and top-notch luxury. They have built small worlds within their Harrolds universe and the business is now recognised as the luxury department store in Australia.
One of the principal achievements of the business has been earning the trust of designers such as Tom Ford. Harrolds now proudly has the exclusive partnership with Tom Ford in Australia and the Tom Ford stores within Harrolds (with one stand-alone) are all lush glamour, intimate, wall-to-wall padlocked dynamite heels and impeccable men’s tuxedos.
Harrolds opened in Melbourne in 1985 and for 30 years specialised in the best menswear before womenswear was added to the mix in 2015.
The four members of the Poulakis family involved in the business – John, his wife Mary, and their sons Alexander, 33, and his younger brother Ross, 28 (their sister Melina, 13, is still too young to have a role in the business) – are unanimous in saying John is the boss.
“He’s unique. I’ve learnt everything from him: dedication, always looking to the future, letting the business evolve and not standing still,” says Alexander, who started selling Brioni suits to Harrolds’s high-value customers when he was just 15.
Ross says that from his father he gained “business wit, negotiating skills and to hold my own in any situation and not to work in the business but to work on the business”.
Alexander adds: “He has also taught us to be innovative. If you don’t grow you die, so take risks and don’t be afraid.”
In the past five years, both Alexander and Ross have become directors in the family enterprise, helping Harrolds make the important step into womenswear. Says John: “It’s been courageous and high-risk, but is paying off and it’s rewarding and taking us to another level.
“The boys were never told they had to come into the business; it’s been an organic journey,” he reveals. “I’m amazed by their resilience and commitment. I’m really pleased to see those traits and their flair for business. Everyone does what they need to do without me on their toes all the time. They have room to do what they need to do. They need to make mistakes and that’s the time they really learn. In fact, I step back when they make mistakes: I let it happen.”
John says he learnt on the job: “When I started off as an 18-year-old lad with my first store I made mistakes, I had no-one to teach me. I come from standard stock. I had to survive and I was never scared; I had nothing to lose. I had youth and so I ploughed myself into it and by age 20, I had four stores. Not a bad effort … I have no fear. To me it’s not about money: it’s been about achieving.”
In his 30 years of retail achievement it is the current moment that stands out. “It’s really come to a climax [with] a world-recognised brand called Harrolds, acknowledged by our peers,” he says.
John cites his wife Mary’s great ability to “keep it together and see the light at the end of the tunnel and build on that”.
Mary in turn acknowledges their sons’ strengths. “I feel very blessed to have two very smart, talented and creative young men to take what John started to another level and carve out their own chapter of the business,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity for them. I don’t think we could have done this with just John and me. Certainly having a family focus has kept us really grounded in that growth; you need the minds, the manpower to make it all come together. Some days it’s near impossible to work together – it’s hard to draw the line between personal and professional. You have to be a good gatekeeper of emotions when you work as a team. John and I are a double act, but he is the risk-taker, a very deep thinker: I’m more analytical. But it’s his vision that’s really got us to this point.”
The empire has grown from Melbourne to include both a menswear and a womenswear store at Westfield Sydney, and most recently an impressive showcase in the newly renovated AMP jewel in the crown, Pacific Fair, on the Gold Coast.
Harrolds stocks some of the best international labels to be found in Australia. The line-up currently includes more than 70 names, from Vetements, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent, Victoria Beckham and Balmain to the beloved Comme des Garçons.
Importantly, they have championed local labels too, getting behind Strateas.Carlucci and Song for the Mute, while always looking to add more.
Ross, who in addition to being a director is general manager, works closely with Rob Ferris, head buyer for men’s and womenswear. He says that Harrolds finally managed to secure Manolo Blahnik recently. “It’s a nice coup for us: we’ve been working on securing them for three years,” says Ross. Manolo Blahnik will sit alongside Gianvito Rossi, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and the rest. “It will really attract a new customer, for sure,” he adds.
Ross has also forged a great relationship with Vetements, the red-hot Paris-based label that has become a best-seller at Harrolds. “I can talk to Guram [Gvasalia], Demna’s brother, for four or five hours,” he says. “He is Vetements’s CEO and runs the business side. When I go to the showroom we talk about fashion and what we are both going through, bouncing ideas off each other.”
For Mary, meeting Tom Ford was a dream. “We are honoured and proud to work with him and have this exclusive partnership, and to have his gorgeous designs in store,” she says. “To be part of his world and his journey is something I would never have imagined. His vision is unchanged, it’s about the form of a woman and the beauty of women and making clothes that make women feel more beautiful, more sexy, more empowered. When you put on a Tom Ford garment your whole world changes. You’re transformed. If I could wear Tom Ford every day I would. It’s definitely my favourite brand.”
The biggest challenge for Mary in the past 18 months has been juggling work, home and family, and particularly making time for her youngest, Melina. Her secret to getting women to connect to the Harrolds success is “making it inclusive, aspirational yet accessible and original”.
The department store is good at nailing the fashion moment. Ross predicts the next big thing will be brands out of LA: “Like Mike Amiri, which is very street, a mix somewhere between Balmain and Vetements. It’s really cool. Amiri’s inspiration is 80s rock’n’roll. It’s all shotgun-pellet-distressed pieces that he literally shoots out in the desert.” Needless to say, Harrolds will stock it.
Ross reveals that the most surprising bestseller has been Fear of God. “It’s the hottest thing right now; it didn’t last more than two weeks on the shop floor,” he says with a laugh.
The family all agree that once the redevelopment of the store at 101 Collins Street in Melbourne is finished later this month, it will be time to consolidate and maintain John’s vision of striving to keep the business growing.
And then there is another Poulakis generation to think about, with John and Mary’s daughter Melina. He knows his children will be the business custodians for the next 20 years. “The creativity of the business is now coming from them,” he says. “They have me just doing shop fits now!”
John wears a Brioni suit. Tom Ford shirt and accessories. Artioli belt. His own watch. Mary wears her own dress, worn as a top. Tom Ford skirt. Her own necklace. Bulgari earrings. All items other than Bulgari jewellery from Harrolds. Alexander wears a Pal Zileri suit. Ross wears a Harrolds private-label suit. Tom Ford tie, pocket square and cufflinks. All items from Harrolds.