For Damon Velakoulis, leather has long been in his blood.
“I’ve been coming into the business since I was quite young, and since then, I’ve always been involved in some way or other,” he tells SmartCompany.
Velakoulis is the grandson of Evan Skliros, founder of the eponymous Evans Leather Repair, founded in 1956 and a mainstay of Melbourne’s historical Royal Arcade.
Skliros, a migrant from Greece, was working at another shoe factory at the time, but wanted to be a “free man” and run his own business, Velakoulis says. This led him to starting Evans, initially as a shoemaking and bagmaking business.
“Over time, as manufacturing in Melbourne slowed down, the business became more of a repair and restoration business. It turned into more specialty, more complex work,” Velakoulis says.
Evans hit its heyday in the 80s and 90s, but after the turn of the millennium, the business began to decline. Skliros grew older, and more out of touch with what customers wanted, and the business languished as a result.
“It was a changing market. No-one really needed a repair business when shoes and bags were so cheap and disposable. Repairing things just wasn’t economical,” Velakoulis says.
In 2012, Velakoulis stepped in to help his grandfather revitalise the business. The then 20-year-old began to suggest ways to help transition the business for a new generation of retail, but not without some opposition.
“We’d sit at a table and I’d suggest ideas to him, and he’d immediately criticise them,” Velakoulis laughs.
“But eventually, I’d convince him to make a change, even if it was just a small one here and there.”
Thanks to his involvement, Evans fortunes turned around. The business underwent a full redesign, with a new logo and website, along with setting up previously non-existent customer support channels. Velakoulis describes it as moving the business into the 21st century, but without “losing its DNA”.
“It’s still in a lot of ways the exact same business, but the systems are a bit different and the marketing’s a bit different,” he says.
While Evans will still repair your boots or fix a broken buckle on your handbag, the store has shifted its focus into the world of luxury leathergoods.
Not only is this more lucrative, but it’s easier to market in the Instagram generation, Velakoulis explains.
“People can’t really relate to a random leather bag being repaired, but if we post a photo of an antique Gucci bag in the shop on social media, it’s a point of interest and relatability,” he says.
“For us, it’s a lot about riding those trends and piggybacking on other brands to help us reach more customers.”
The move has paid off for Evans, with the business recovering from its loss-making downturn to steadily growing 10% year-on-year for the past four years — growth Velakoulis directly attributes to the digital re-invention of the business.
But not everything about Evans can be modernised. While the shop is owned by Velakoulis’ family, changes to the storefront or the Arcade itself have to be agreed on by its board, which is formed by the 30-odd store owners who line the historic walkway.
“There’s probably 20 or 30 shareholders, and they all have to agree on changes. It’s very old-school,” he says.
Velakoulis’ mother, Jenny, sits on the board, and she also manages the day-to-day operations at Evans. The family has toyed with the idea of packaging up the business and selling it, but the business’ sentimental value has won out each time.
“It would be very easy to sell the business and rent out the shops, but we’re very emotionally attached to the business and the Arcade,” Velakoulis says.
“Evans offers something nowhere else in Melbourne does.”
Powered by nostalgia
While Australians’ desire for high-quality leathergoods has been on the decline for decades, Velakoulis thinks Evans is a timeless business, and one which will always be able to keep up with shifting fashion trends.
“People will always need things repaired — it can’t be automated, and it can’t be shifted offshore,” he says.
“Even vegan leather can be repaired now.”
The business has also been helped along by partnerships with the local arms of luxury retailers, who refer customers needing repairs to Evans rather than sending them overseas for re-servicing.
Asked if the business would still be around in 10 years, Velakoulis remains optimistic, though admits it depends on what his mother wants to do.
“In the short term, I want to keep showing people what we do through photos, and keep building the customer experience and the community for Evans,” he says.
“This kind of thing isn’t around anymore. It’s a piece of nostalgia from the past people can relate to.”
A long legacy
Skliros passed away earlier this year, and while now 27-year-old Velakoulis is currently finishing a dentistry course, he says his grandfather’s passing has made it even harder to let go of Evans.
“He was my business partner for such a long time before he passed away. From coming into the shop from such a young age, seeing it at different stages, it makes it very hard to let go.
“He was such a huge factor in the things I’ve done in my life.
“This is all about him.”