Vanguard by Shopify Studios is a weekly podcast that explores the human stories of entrepreneurship from unexpected corners of our current moment.
George Giaouris is the owner of Northbound Leather. While working in his family’s leather business, George saw an opportunity to support queer and kink-friendly customers who had a profound connection with leather, just like he did. Over the last 30 years, George turned the business into the premier destination for bespoke leather fashion and fetish wear.
Emma Fedderson and Anshuman Iddamsetty
Senior Supervising Producer
George: Some people look at it as armor—they put it on and they feel they’re ready to do battle.
George: I’ve always been attracted to leather, and therefore when I put it on, it tends to do more for me than just make me look a certain way.
George: I have a psychological shift, and I’m ready, you know, for whatever it is I’m about to tackle. I’m ready.
George: Hi, my name is George. I’m the proprietor of Northbound Leather.
George: North is for where we are, Canada. Bound for what you did with it. Leather for what it’s made from. That’s how we named it!
Anshuman (voice-over): This is Vanguard by Shopify Studios.
Anshuman (voice-over): It’s a podcast about how people from unexplored subcultures and unexpected communities make money today.
Anshuman (voice-over): I’m your host, Anshuman Iddamsetty.
Anshuman (voice-over): This is how George Giaouris describes Northbound Leather.
George: Well, primarily we see ourselves as a tailor shop, a bespoke shop for leather wear.
Anshuman (voice-over): And when people come to him with a request, he does his very best to realize their vision.
George: I have this one rule when you come into my shop, I tell my staff. I said, no one’s allowed to leave this place without a smile on their face.
George: If you’re coming in as a client or a customer or someone that’s just never been in the place before, and you’re intimidated by what you’ve heard about the place, like, just put people at ease and make everybody comfortable. It’s okay to be here. It’s okay to feel what you’re feeling. It’s okay to want what you want.
Anshuman (voice-over): Today on Vanguard, I speak with George Giarouis of Northbound Leather.
Anshuman: What’s your earliest memory of leather?
George: Ha. Yeah. You may not believe this, but likely the very first lung full of air I sucked in when I was born had leather scent in it, because I was born in a birthing clinic that was directly above my father’s shop.
Anshuman: No way.
George: Yeah. That was in a multilevel building, in Piraeus, which is the port town of Athens in Greece. And my father had his shop in the lower level, and the birthing clinic where my mother gave birth to me was two stories up. So, I’ve always known leather, since the beginning.
Anshuman: Let’s start with Greece. I assume that this is a family business.
George: It is a family business. And my dad came to the leather business, sort of roundabout. He studied metallurgy in college, and he became a metallurgical engineer and a merchant marine. So he had all that under his belt.
George: And then when my mother got pregnant, that basically was the end of his seafaring days. He had to stay home and raise a family. So he applied his knowledge to metallurgy, to doing plating and steel forming for people that at the time were making handbags and purses. They had those little clamshell openings. So he would provide these to the suppliers making the small leather goods. And he realized that all the money was not in what he was doing, but in actually the manufacturing of the leather goods. There was more profit to be made there, so he decided to branch out and make his own leather goods. And that’s where it began, making things like cigarette cases and change purses and women’s handbags and started selling gloves and belts, and on it went from there. And in 1967, there was a military takeover of the democratically elected government in Greece, and a lot of people had to leave the country. And that’s how we ended up here.
Anshuman (voice-over): Here being Toronto, Canada.
Anshuman (voice-over): George has become a pillar of the city’s leather community.
Anshuman: So, how long has Northbound been in operation?
George: Okay, well Northbound began as an entity in 1987, but we’ve been doing what we’re doing— my father’s company before Northbound, I created Northbound with my brother—well, since the ’60s we’ve been making whatever people have requested, but we actually, in the late ’70s, came to a point where we were getting so many requests for this stuff that I decided that, you know what?
George: We need to have a space that deals with just this, because the people in the front of the store were nervous about what was going on in the back of the store. And the people in the back of the store were kind of nervous about being seen buying what they were buying by the people in the front of the store, ’cause we were still selling, you know, daywear, streetwear, in the front of the shop.
George: And then, you know, the boudoir stuff was in the back. So I said, why don’t we take the boudoir stuff and give it its own space and its own place. So we opened up a 600-square-foot showroom behind a brown steel door on a back alley behind the shop that was Northbound Leather. And that’s where it began. And we had all the kink back there. Anything that could not be worn openly in the street at the time was available at Northbound.
George: We started getting the offbeat requests. They became so frequent that we started stocking certain things. We weren’t just waiting for them to make the request. We would premeditate that we’re going to sell this many of these leather jockstraps, leather G-strings. Let’s make a dozen of them and put them in a box right here on a shelf. When people come in, here you go, there it is.
George: I mean, my dad had a rule. He would only ask one question when people would come into the store. When something quirky or off-color, if you will, was being requested, his question was, “Is it legal?”
Anshuman (voice-over): George has done just about everything you can do with leather. His clients include architects and radio personalities. Some of the biggest names in music—Madonna, Iron Maiden, Lady Gaga.
Anshuman (voice-over): But Northbound doesn’t just cater to celebrities.
Anshuman: As a fat person myself, the idea of inclusive sizing is super important to me. So if I wanted to get into leather, am I suddenly excluded from this community?
George: No! You are one of—probably the majority of my clientele are people that are not off-the-rack, if you will. And I think part of the reason why we’re popular is because, like I said, you can’t leave my place without a smile on your face.
George: Right now I’m making leather kilts for a pair of gentleman that, uh, want to wear matching kilts. Now both these boys are, let’s say, north of 60.
George: And north of 60 on the waistline, too.
George: So the kilts have to be raked in such a way where the front is lower ’cause they want to wear it under the belly, not over it. And we have to make sure that it’s level as they’re standing...
Anshuman: Of course.
George: ...At the hem. So there’s a lot of, you know, tilting of waistlines, and we just take measurements. This is you, this is what you want. You want a jacket, you want a pair of pants, you want a harness, whatever it is that you’re after. I’ll just make it fit and look good.
Anshuman (voice-over): Northbound also holds a special place in Toronto’s history.
Anshuman (voice-over): In the early ’80s, the city was cracking down on establishments that served gay customers. At the time, Northbound was one of the few businesses to publicly support the gay community.
Anshuman: What is your relationship with queerness?
George: I basically, although I’m a straight male in my father’s shops, we always had gay managers and gay staff, the creative people were all gay. So to me, it’s just people I knew. And I started going to the clubs—the best dance music—cause I liked to dance, of course. So that’s my relationship. I just, you know, this is how I grew up.
Anshuman: But it seems to me, just looking back at this moment, that there weren’t many establishments willing to be allies to the gay community. And Northbound seemed like one of the rare places that doubled down.
Anshuman: Why was that decision made, and why did that matter to you?
George: Mattered to me because these are my people, these are my friends, these are my customers, this is what puts food on my table and a roof over my head. And I don’t like the way they’re being treated. So I’m going to make a stand with them. And I would march in the Pride parades, the very first ones that happened up and down Church street before the spectacle that they became later. And we were part of it when they needed support, we were there to lend it. I like the sort of 10% rule. Like some people, they say the church you should give 10% of all you are in back to the church or your temple or whatever it is that you believe in. Well, I believe in my people. This was roughly the same time that AIDS reared its ugly head, and I would say 40% to 50% of my clients died in a span of a few short years.
George: It was crazy. There were fund-raisers, there were memorials, there were too many funerals, and all of this had to be dealt with. So, you know, who else? What businesses were there at the time? There were the bars, there were a few restaurants, a few clubs, and the places that dress them to be as they wished to be. You know, people that dealt with crossdressers and then people that dealt with the darker side of their, what was perceived to be the darker side of the sexuality. That’s us. We just happen to be at ground zero when the bomb hit. And when a bomb goes off, what do you do? You roll up your sleeves and you help the wounded. That’s what we did.
Anshuman (voice-over): Northbound has done a lot to build a sense of community. It’s at the heart of their business model.
Anshuman: To talk about, sort of, the parties and the, um, nightlife scene: Northbound is also involved in various leather-related events. Could you talk me through your thinking around that?
George: When we had a shop on Yonge Street in the ’70s, word got out that this place will make whatever you want. And they would come in and it would be asked for and it would be provided. And it was never really questioned. And they told two friends, and they told two friends and so on and so on, and it got to the point where people were coming in and saying, “Hey, we’ve got all this fantastic gear from you that we could only wear in the bedroom.” You know, “I’ve got thousands of dollars’ worth of stuff that I can’t leave the house with. Is there any party that you know of? Are there any places where we can go? Do you know of any?” And we started doing fashion shows where everyone was welcome, and you could wear your gear.
George: So basically it became a symbiotic thing where the shop would do a fashion show, quote unquote. People would come up and enjoy the show, dance, drink, cruise, do whatever, and go home and then say, “When’s the next one? ’Cause I want to get something new to wear to the next one!” And so that’s basically how it began. We started doing these events to give our clients a place to wear the stuff they were buying from us.
Anshuman: And then you created this amazing feedback loop.
George: Yeah. And word got out and people started coming in from surrounding communities. You gotta remember, this is before the internet. This was in the ’80s. If someone was coming in from out of town, some people would come from other cities, and they’d go back home wearing something that they bought from us. And then their friends would come, and we started developing a scene, and it became interconnected with scenes in other cities. And it was pretty good.
Anshuman: So, in thinking about your business, it seems like things have gone pretty great. Was there ever a period where you thought your business might go under?
George: What happens when a subculture is noticed by the mainstream is they put out something that everybody covets and finds really attractive. Next thing you know, the knockoff artists arrive.
Anshuman: Ah, I see.
George: And fast fashion takes over.
George: And the offshore mills start pumping it out. And when that happens, it’s why should I go and buy this from you, Northbound Leather? And it’s like, well, I’m sorry, but I’m not paying 12 cents an hour labor. I’m making it here, and we’re paying living wages to Canadians who live and work here. And the stuff that we sell in our store is made right above the store!
Anshuman: Oh, wow.
George: But there was a point when the market for the imagery of what we do became fashionable and then the market was flooded with knockoffs and copies and look-alikes. And at that point, we struggled. We really did struggle to stay afloat. As a matter of fact, I shrunk my operation down to a third of what it was before that hit. And so we had to exhale, right size, and now we’re growing again.
Anshuman: How do you stay resilient through all of this? Because it seems like there’s so much uncertainty.
George: It was like a perfect storm for me, because at the same time, we lost our son who was being a very—he wanted to take over the family business, and I was passing the baton to him and then the baton dropped. I mean, I hit the bottle hard, and I went into a depression and I became a hermit and I didn’t even leave the house. I planted a garden, and that was what I was eating. What came out of the garden and that was it.
George: What I realized is that all these people that I’d been seeing as my own, and supporting the causes of, and even when business was down, I would, for instance, you know, put a mortgage on my house to keep it floating because I figured I’m only one house and there’s 18 of us or 24 of us, depending on the year, the season. That’s a lot of households. That’s a lot of roofs, that’s a lot of mouths to feed, and just because I’m weak and ready to throw in the towel, what about all these other people?
George: So I have to keep the place going. So initially, it was out of concern for my staff, but then it turned out that not just my staff, but my clients were concerned about me and they, kind of, were patient with me, waited for me to stop losing my mind. And eventually I came to my senses and realized that, Hey, I have two other children. I have a family. I can’t be sitting here wallowing in self-pity and pain because everybodys in pain. People stepped in and kept things going without me. So I had a place to return to.
Anshuman: Mhm. (affirmative)
George: The whole thing didn’t collapse.
Anshuman: Looking back at everythingNorthbound has accomplished, you’ve accomplished, and everything you’ve been to so many customers, how do you feel about your, I guess, contribution?
George: It makes me smile. It makes me smile because I’ve heard a lot of people come to me and say, you know, “Thank God for this shop. If it wasn’t for this shop, I would have been an outsider all my life.” “I found a community.” “We got married because of you.” I’ve heard that umpteen times. I’ve also heard “We got divorced because of you” a few times, but that’s okay. I mean, you can’t have it one way all the time. I just like the amount of joy people derive from what I do. I really like that it’s something that I can do for them, that I can provide this thing they crave, be it a party or a piece of clothing, a pair of pants. It doesn’t really matter. It’s like, I can do this for them when they come to me looking for it, and that’s what keeps me doing it.
Anshuman (voice-over): George Giaouris is the owner of Northbound Leather.
Anshuman: Do you think someone, anyone could start a leather business today? From scratch, like new?
George: Just whatever you do, do it well. You’ll get noticed.
Listen to more episodes of Vanguard by Shopify Studios, a weekly podcast that explores the human stories of entrepreneurship from unexpected corners of our current moment.