Retail Oracle: Iraklis Karabassis on the Future of Retail and Georgetown’s Retail Future

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Iraklis and Yasmine Karabassis at Sette Osteria | Erin Schaff

On a sunny, spring afternoon, Iraklis Karabassis sits in his office at 3238 Prospect Street. Light floods in through an open window. Faint, soothing sounds of a cocktail shaker emanate from Peacock Café across the street. Fittingly, the fashion-focused Karabassis is well dressed, polished-yet-effortless in dark jeans and a striped button-down. His outward sophistication reflects the sharp mind and business savvy for which he is known.

“Georgetown has stolen my heart,” said the former owner of the Benetton at Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, among many other Benetton stores, including the first-ever U.S. store in the former White Flint Mall.

Karabassis has traveled the United States and the globe extensively as head of IK Retail Group, a premier fashion retailer. But it’s his place in Georgetown that he returns to time after time.
“Thirty-two years after being here, don’t ask me why, but I love Georgetown,” he said of its village-like atmosphere. “I still find this uniqueness and mystique. If you live it, then you get it.”
Although his fondness for Georgetown is undeniable, Karabassis has concerns for its future.

On any walk down M Street, residents and visitors alike can witness the burgeoning presence of large mono-brands, such as H&M and Forever 21. For Karabassis, this raises the question of whether Georgetown is at risk of losing its homegrown charm and entrepreneurial spirit.

“We lost our momentum,” he said of Georgetown. “We became old and not innovative anymore.” He attributes this to the restrictions of the neighborhood, including high rents, limited parking and the difficulty in attaining a liquor license, all of which detract people from investing in local businesses.

“Everything starts, and ends, with the level of the investment,” he said, saying that Georgetown needs to attract the attention of innovative minds again and bring novelty back to the neighborhood. “We have to raise the bar.”

With their massive production, the mono-brands and their large, glitzy stores are certainly putting pressure on the market, while displacing more and more of the small boutiques run by creative, self-driven individuals. These small boutiques are what Karabassis believes keep the market interesting.

The neighborhood’s high rents may be one reason for this shift, but it’s also the fault of the consumer, he said. Many people today are looking for fast, disposable fashion — that is, stylish, trendy clothes at low prices. It’s about quickness of production and affordable price points — at the cost of creative quality and attention to detail. But, “the customer likes it, and we have to respect that,” says Karabassis.
Furthermore, the age of e-commerce has revolutionized the shopping experience, making it more convenient than ever for people to purchase their favorite clothes and accessories. Brick-and-mortar shops are suffering because educated, fashion-forward customers know they can shop their favorite brands online at a range of competitive price points, he said.

Even in the malls, Karabassis claims that the fashion factor has faded considerably, replaced by shops filled with teenager clothing, ice cream, cosmetics and Starbucks coffee. “Today, buying clothes is the last thing you think of when you go to the mall,” he said.

He recalled how the mall on M Street, Shops at Georgetown Park, was once “the jewel of Georgetown.” Now, lamentably, he added, it’s been “converted into big boxes.”

As president and CEO of IK Retail Group, Karabassis focuses on international brand management and development in the American marketplace. Over the past three decades, he has grown an impressive, far-reaching business with roots in Georgetown. Yet his familial roots reach far eastward.

Karabassis was born in the picturesque port city of Volos, Greece. After studying and majoring in geology in Italy, he moved to Paris for post-graduate work, where he became involved with the clothing brand United Colors of Benetton. It was there that he was tasked with bringing the brand to the United States.

By 2008, Karabassis had opened more than 100 Benetton stores in the U.S. and Canada. In March 2008, before the last recession, he sold his Benetton operation to the Benetton Group in Italy — an example of both his lifelong relationship with luck, and his ability to grab an opportunity when it presents itself.

Over the years, Karabassis also expanded the luxury Italian brand MaxMara, adding a number of American stores to its portfolio before selling his stake in May 2008.

As these two major sales went through, Karabassis made IK Retail Group the center of his business. He became increasingly focused on consulting for European retailers in the United States, representing different brands while helping to boost sales, control costs and strategically increase exposure nationwide.

“America is very difficult for Europeans to succeed,” said Karabassis with a trace of his Greek accent. “It’s very competitive, and everyone wants to be here.” The entrepreneur, who speaks four languages — Greek, French, Italian and English — is smart and sought after. He has built his career on proven results. If one is looking to enter the U.S. market, he is the man to call.

Karabassis helps clients of all backgrounds looking to penetrate the American market, and he is selective because he can be. With three decades of industry experience and expertise, he has created a reputation among Europe’s fashion community, gaining their trust by proving he’s adept at scouting trends, finding smart locations and making strong contacts that will help them succeed.

With the help of his team at IK Retail Group, including his wife and vice president of retail, Yasmine Karabassis, he is able to select clients with strong potential who need help entering or expanding in the United States. The team strategizes with clients on short- and long-term goals while managing myriad logistics: branding, personnel, store design, marketing, accounting and advertising, plus warehousing and distribution. It’s a complete package.

From 2008 to today, IK Retail Group’s portfolio has been filled with unique brands, from Piazza Sempione to K16, Leghilà, Freddy, Andrew’s Ties and Billionaire Italian Couture. The latter label, the work of two talented businessmen named Angelo Galasso and Flavio Briatore, features handmade, luxury menswear. Though not for everyone, everything in the brand is meticulously made, the aesthetic of which is a mix of Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Tom Ford, according to Karabassis.

Most recently, Karabassis partnered with Kiko Milano, an Italian cosmetics company expanding aggressively here in the U.S. The Greek entrepreneur has been tasked with finding all of their new locations and properly guiding the brand in America; for 2015 alone, Kiko Milano is set to open 30 new stores, totaling 150 by 2017, including one in Tysons Corner.

Though IK Retail Group works mostly through partnerships, it also owns retail concepts outright. One of these is called Emporium DNA, a multi-branded fashion retailer for men and women that has been a successful tool for market testing, with both domestic and international brands. It has three store locations: the Yale University campus in New Haven, the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas and 1666 Connecticut Ave. NW, near Dupont Circle.

In a career that has seen much success, two of the entrepreneur’s greatest accomplishments came with the development of the Collection at Chevy Chase and the Miami-based project, 1111 Lincoln Road. The Chevy Chase endeavor was one of the premier luxury retail developments in the nation, and Karabassis had a central role, as both a consultant, and in developing and leasing out the shops. In Florida, Karabassis worked with the internationally renowned Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron to transform and reimagine a mixed-use development project adjacent to the Lincoln Road Mall in Miami. “It was one of the most exciting moments for me,” Karabassis said of the job. “It’s really one of the top projects in America.”

Another arena in which Karabassis’s entrepreneurial spirit can still be strongly felt and seen is the restaurant industry.

In November 1992, he and Franco Nuschese opened Café Milano on Prospect Street. The celebrity-frequented Italian restaurant is one of the most famous in Washington — to see and be seen.
While Karabassis sold his share of Café Milano to Nuschese in 2012, he continues to flavor D.C.’s fast-growing culinary scene with Sette Osteria, his Italian restaurant located at 1666 Connecticut Ave. NW.

This April, Karabassis opened the second Sette restaurant — the former Café M, at 1634 14th St. NW — under the same name, but with a slightly different look. At a recent tasting dinner at the new location, guests dined on a sampling of creative dishes: creamy burrata with tricolor tomatoes, homemade pastas like spinach gnocchi with gorgonzola cream sauce, a saffron risotto with juicy beef short ribs and homemade tiramisu — bellissima!

In Italian, Sette translates to the number seven, which is often regarded as the world’s lucky number. Perhaps Karabassis can attribute a small bit of luck and timing to his success, but it’s the methodical, strategic approach to his work that drives his good fortune. His commitment to unique, expressive brands has never wavered, and he’s proven his success in a time of change.

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