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

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The Poulakises are the fam­ily be­hind in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned fash­ion des­ti­na­tion Har­rolds.


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.

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