From: Melbourne, Australia
Education: Long-distance philosophy degree from University of Oxford
Profession: Chief washer of pants and president of The Laundry Company
Last book: Holy Bible and Pour Your Heart into It: How Starbucks Built A Company One Cup At A Time by Howard Schultz
Last film: The Italian Job
Gadget: The dehumidifier on my split air conditioner
What’s your first memory?
I didn’t speak a word of Spanish and I had a one-way ticket. I didn’t know anything about Buenos Aires, didn’t know anyone here and it was a complete sight unseen. A neighbour in London had an apartment on Godoy Cruz street so I rented that.
A few people had told me Buenos Aires was the most wonderful city and on my first night, I was hungry but I didn’t know how to say that, so I left the flat and decided to either choose left or right, and begin my new life.
In 2007, Godoy Cruz was a mess and I walked down it and it got worse. I got to Santa Fe and thought “this must be it where it all happens”. But after four blocks I had a panic attack, and thought: “What have I done? Where am I?”
Why did you start a new life?
I was working for an investment bank in London. I had a great job and worked with great people but at the time, the bank was being broken up and it became a weird environment to be in. And after six years, the weather was getting to me.
I had the idea that I wanted to live my authentic life and I saw that Buenos Aires would be a good place for me to take some time out to figure out what that authentic thing was. The deal I made with myself was go to this sunny, cheap place until I had that “ah-ha” moment. But when I got here — and it was never supposed to be a permanent thing — I was inspired to do things here.
How did you uncover that “ah-ha” moment?
The idea was to do a lot of yoga and meditation and soul searching but what I actually did was a lot of drinking and dancing, and getting about town. Which was great as I needed that, as my life had been structured for so long. I let my hair down for the first year and had a lot of fun and had a great time.
It then became less about being a tourist and more about knuckling down, which was a hard transition. It took a long time to move through that as relationships change, and how you interact changes. It was an interesting transition.
What was the hardest part of that?
I think the fact that people come and people go. For three, six months, a year. Where I sit right now, there’s only a handful of people I knew back then who are still here. You invest a lot of time and emotion into getting to know and love people, then they leave. Then in spring, more people arrive and new relationships begin.
But I also made Argentine friends, and would be invited to a barbecue or a private home and that has given me a sense of belonging.
What did you knuckle down to do?
I was inspired by a particular project, a private members’ club, and I really believed in it. The idea came to light at the start of 2008 and then the world crumbled and investors started to pull out. It fell apart but in hindsight, that was a blessing.
How did The Laundry Company originate?
I looked for something that people need which could help me rebuild my self-esteem which had taken a few knocks, having given up the private club. I changed my focus from “a big thing” to the smallest one I could start quickly and build up. It needed to be something that could weather the global crisis but I found something small has a lot more scope than I ever imagined.
Some friends and I threw some ideas out over an asado at the beach. I said I was sick of my clothes coming back ruined and literally a lightbulb went on. Going to the laundry is a horrible experience that everyone complains about, everyone! And I realized there wasn’t any one in that space, and not just from an environmental perspective. I saw a place in the market for a fun, accessible, ecologically friendly, laundry brand.
What have you learnt?
I realise the scale of what I had been trying to do was too ambitious. I discovered that Buenos Aires is a harsh bitch of a mistress and it’s not New York City where “you can achieve it if you conceive it”. I liken BA to being in a boxing-ring, where you duck and you weave, you keep moving and you see an opportunity and you swing to make a connection. And if you don’t, you keep trying. You have to be on your toes, with high adrenaline all the time in order to move through the mine field. Plus I’ve been doing all that in a language I learnt only when I got here, so it’s been a spectacular challenge.
After four years, are you on the offensive or defensive?
Some days you’re the statue. Some days you’re the pigeon. Most of the time, it’s a mixture. It doesn’t matter how established you are but somebody is always trying to take advantage you. As a foreigner, it can be an employee, a provider or a client, but everyone is trying to take a piece somehow so you have to be on the defensive.
I‘ve learnt an incredible amount and have trusted people around me. It’s got easier but every day is a challenge, no question about it.
Business-changing issues spring up and you have to deal with them. It’s high adrenaline, and lots of defensive posturing and energy goes into keeping a business running.
What’s been the hardest lesson?
That there’s no ability to take control. Some days I have all the energy in the universe to take my business to the next level, but I have to accept I can’t do that here. I have to do the best I can with what there is and then hope the rest takes care of itself. Not having that control, for someone who is obsessed with details, means I really struggle.
Are you looking to expand?
I’m opening a store in New York later this year. You can’t compare how easy it has been to do business there than it is here. From registering the company and the brand to finding a space and getting a lease, it has been a more systematic process. It’s even worked out cheaper. By contrast, doing business here is nothing short of a feverish nightmare. Buenos Aires is business boot camp.
Isn’t calling Argentina environmentally friendly an oxymoron?
You’d be surprised. There is a big movement here. It’s new and it’s surprisingly full of energy. Green entrepreneurs get together regularly and I’ve watched that event grow.
What’s your most Argentine trait?
I use puteadas and I’ve got a whole list — the lady who works with me laughs as people never expect it to come out of my mouth. I also yell a lot which comes from my Greek roots so I’ve found an outlet for my ethnicity here!
Name a lost-in-translation moment.
I’m a bit of a horseman and I was at the Club Hípico when I saw a friend. He invited me to sit down with him and a bunch of well-to-do women with big sunglasses and news-reader hair dos who were all very fabulous. I was wearing shorts and ferociously scratching the inside of my leg. My friend asked what was wrong, and what I wanted to say was that I had a rash or roncha grande entre mis piernas but ended up saying concha. The ladies, the show-jumping set, looked at me over their sunglasses, saying “qué” so I thought I’d repeat it louder, and slower.
And a crazy taxi ride.
One guy gets you to write down your contact details and he has boxes of info about every single passenger. He believes everyone has something to offer somebody else and so he tries to connect people. He loves it and he shows you all his press clippings. He was pretty crazy as he didn’t let me relax for two seconds. Another one only spoke to me in song while pretending to be a foreigner.
Although recycling has a definite underground feel to it, what with cartoneros salvaging cardboard and plastic bottles every evening before the official refuse collectors move in, the concept is clear: recycling does exist in Argentina, even it isn’t in the most conventional sense.
Although Buenos Aires City government has unveiled kilometres of cycle lanes and encourages people to hire bikes for free, politicians have been backwards in forward thinking with respect to recycling.
Residents simply aren’t educated or encouraged to use different bins at home to separate waste materials, or to even undertake recycling their rubbish themselves. Bottle banks for different coloured glass on the street, for example, are akin to the government and its relationship with inflation — they don’t exist.
Is it any wonder? Mayor Mauricio Macri’s most recent green initiative was to sign an agreement to recycle 10 tons of used batteries — in November 2010.
Setting up an ecologically aware company was very much part of Phillipe Christodoulou’s overall goal in The Laundry Company’s business plan. It’s not just about using environmentally friendly products or providing a cotton bag for reuse to first-time customers, he says.
“We have an environmental initiative and as part of that, we plant trees to offset the impact of our carbon use in the cities we operate in. Although we calculate it in a fairly crude way, we do so as often and plant wherever we can. It’s a global initiative and people are donating trees to us. They plant trees in our name and then send us a photo which I put up on our website.”
Launderettes, in particular, have a negative impact on the environment so the idea is that each tree, over the course of its lifetime, will neutralize one ton of carbon emissions.
Christodoulou says: “I’m about to plant another 100 trees in Entre Ríos and that is the most important thing we do to be environmentally friendly.”
As he says, the green movement is moving quickly. One non-profit group run by expats and Argentines is Ambientate which aims to promote environmental awareness with educational talks and film cycles.
Meanwhile, EHMA, an association which has been “declared of interest” by the nation’s culture secretariat, organizes more practical workshops such as how to start an organic urban garden or build with recycled materials.
Although it takes a small seed to become a carbon-busting tree in Entre Ríos, thinking green in Buenos Aires is happening, step by step.
Photo by Mariano Fuchila. First published in the Buenos Aires Herald on June 26, 2011.