Alfred George Kouris OAM…
Philanthropist, Patriot, Community Leader, Visionary, Educator, Playwright,
Journalist, Author, Businessman, Builder and Retailer.
From the 2013 biography written by Clancy Tucker,
journalist, author and human rights activist
Alfred Kouris was born in July 1927 at Halepa, in the Chania district of Crete, Greece. His father, Paul Kouris, was born in the island of Kefalonia, Greece in 1900 and worked for the National Bank of Greece in Chania. Paul’s father was a High Court Judge. Paul in Chania met Antigone – the daughter of the local magistrate, George Polioudakis from Sphakia – fell in love and decided to get married in 1922. They stayed in Crete until 1932. Then Alfred’s father was posted by the National Bank to Peloponisos, and finally in 1938 Paul and Antigone Kouris moved to Athens. Alfred (called Alfredos in Greek), had a sister Thalia, (a famous actress in the ’40s in the Greek Drama Theatre) who was also born in Chania in 1924 and a younger brother, George, who was born in Agios Nikolaos of Crete in 1932. Alfred finished his secondary education in Athens and Political Sciences in ‘Panteio University’, completed his two years national service in the Greek army and fell in love and married on the 6th of January 1954 to Efthymia loannidou, who was born in Athens.
In April 1955 their son Paul was born in Athens. Although Alfred was well educated, he could not get a job in the Navy and/or the Greek Foreign Office and decided to start a shirt manufacturing business with his wife under the name of ‘FAVORY SHIRTS’. Needless to say, the competition was so hard that in February 1956, Alfred and Efthymia (Mitsi) decided to immigrate to Australia and departed on the vessel ‘KYREINIA’.
On the 16th of March 1956 they arrived in Melbourne and two days later they started working at the famous ‘Pelaco’ factory in Richmond, cutting and making shirts. Within six months they bought their own brand new house in Glenroy, their own car, a little Morris Minor, and started their own business: ‘The Hellas Professional Training School for Clothing Machinists’ on the corner of Elizabeth St. & Lonsdale St. in a three-storey old city building, where the Myer Emporium is today located.
In 1958 they moved the Hellas School to 343 Elizabeth St. (corner of Latrobe St.), started another business under the name ‘Primo Clothing Pty Ltd’ and did very well.
In 1960 they brought Alfred’s mother from overseas and in 1961, his brother, George Kouris, with his wife Helen and one year old son, Paul from Greece and made him equal partner in ‘Primo Clothing’, making jerkins, waist-coats and casual wear. During that period his two daughters were born; Harriet in 1962 and Antigone in 1964. The business grew rapidly until 1964 when the economy started to go down and manufacturing was no longer profitable.
Alfred and George decided at this stage to start a retailing business. They rented a shop at 246 Swanston St. Melbourne, next to Stanley Young (Giannopoulos) in 1964, giving their new venture the name ‘ALFREDO’S MENSWEAR Pty Ltd’. By 1967 the retailing business was doing very well and by 1969 had opened 5 more stores.
That is how Alfred started his colourful career spanning five decades, making an extraordinary contribution to the Victorian community, fully understanding what it is like to come from a distant land and make Australia home.
Soon he became a Greek Community Leader, well known businessman, politician, journalist and publisher. He not only lived the life of the migrant, but delved into its psyche, extolled its virtues, and worked diligently to generate acceptance. Along the way, he sparked reforms that have re-shaped the way Victorians go about their daily lives. Inspired by his Greek upbringing, Alfred Kouris gave Melbourne ‘Late-Night Shopping’ with his campaign in the 1969-1970, as founder and
Chairman of the ‘Make Melbourne Brighter Committee’, revolutionising retail business, in the process of which, he was arrested and fined!
Besides business, he has been a great mover and shaker within the Greek community and Australian community in general, founding the Academy of Modern Greek and the Chair of Modern Greek at Melbourne University.
In the early 1980s, Alfred pushed for the end of archaic drinking laws with his same ‘Make Melbourne Brighter Committee’, which was re-organised by him with new young members, lawyers, journalists, shopkeepers and others with vision.
Alfred Kouris, as a Publisher and Editor of ‘NEOS PYRSOS’, the ‘New Torch Greek Newspaper’ and the ‘Omoyeneia’ Greek Magazine, from July, 1985 until April, 1993, worked hard to introduce Greek Migrants in particular, and all migrants in general, to stand in Local, State and Federal Government elections with the catch cry of a ‘FAIR GO’ for migrants. To set an example, he himself stood as an independent candidate in Victoria in the Senate Elections in 1970, in the Melbourne City Council Elections in 1972,1973 and 1974, and in the State Elections in 1976 as the Endorsed Liberal Candidate in Brunswick.
Alfred’s views on prejudice, regularly made headlines, and he was involved in many complex political, social and religious issues that the community at large faced, discussed and resolved. He was respected for his leadership, vision and determination to find a solution best for all.
He was President of the ‘Greek Orthodox Community of Mentone & District’ from 1962-1989, a foundation member of HACCI in 1984 and Vice-President in 1990-1992, and Vice-President of the ‘Victorian Federation of Greek Communities in 1987-1989, and Member of the ‘Festival Antipodes Executive Committee’ in 1988-89.
He was also a member of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria from 1958, and elected member of the Executive Committee of the said Community from 1991-1992.
His understanding of the migrant experience is encapsulated in the title of his book published in 1998 based on his life: “MIGRANT: The Blessing..and Misfortune…of Loving Two Countries!” It honours the millions who left their homeland and settled in not only Australia, but around the world. It highlights their challenges, joys and sorrows, but importantly, the remarkable contribution they have made to the growth and change of their adoptive countries. It is a remarkable coverage of Greeks in Melbourne, Australia, especially the life and times of Alfred Kouris.
Alfred has received numerous honours for his endeavours promoting community harmony, including the Patriarch’s Gold Cross presented to him by Archbishop Iezekiel in recognition for services to the Orthodox Church, and Life Membership of La Trobe University’s National Centre for Hellenic Studies and Research, where he was allocated a room to display his very valuable archive materials. He was also elected Life Governor of ‘FRONTIDA CARE Inc.’
As the founder of Alfredo’s Menswear, he saw a niche for late night trading and launched a campaign to have opening hours extended to 9 pm. “I wanted to bring Melbourne alive and I knew late-night trading would help do that,” he said. “I couldn’t understand why the city should die every evening.”
By defying the State Government and opening his six menswear stores past 5.30 pm, he was arrested and fined $8,000. One week later, the law was changed and stores could now be open until 9pm. He was honoured by receiving Victoria’s Award for Excellence in Multicultural Affairs. “I always felt that I had to prove myself worthy of being considered a first -class citizen in Australia,” said Mr. Kouris.
“I started to say to migrants that we should prove ourselves by doing something good for our new country.”
Alfred received an Order of Australia medal on the 12th of June 2006 from the Governor of Victoria, His Excellency John Landy at Government House …
“For service to the community through contributions to the business sector, raising public awareness of the issues facing migrants, and to the Greek community.”
In January 2014, Alfred and his wife, Mitsi, children and five grandchildren, celebrated not only 60 years of marriage, but of being a fine example of a young couple coming to Australia with little more than a suitcase of dreams and making a wonderful success of the migrant experience.
Extract from the book The history of Greeks in Australia by Josef Vondra
He was of medium build. His clasp of hand was firm and his words of welcome bright, humorous and totally engaging. But when he talked about his life and philosophies his words were full of strength, intensity and passion.’
He studied political science and economics in Athens.
Arriving in Australia in 1955 worked for a while in the clothing industry (his shop was around the corner from Sam Papasavas’ law firm in Swanston Street. It was a small shop, one of several Kouris had in the inner city area).
Soon after, he opened the Hellas Machinist Training School because he realised Greek girls coming from the country could only operate very primitive sewing machines, not the powerful machines found in a modern Australian factory. The school was successful and Alfredos Kouris branched into the manufacture of clothing and finally into retailing. At one time with his brother George, he had more than six shops in the city of Melbourne. Always highly motivated in terms of a community conscience, he became involved in a number of charities, Boy Scouts, Lions, Greek church and welfare work.
‘As a human being” he said, ‘my job is not only to make money but to give a little back to the community’.
In 1971 he noticed that people in his shops during lunch-hour seemed particularly rushed. Trading hours in Melbourne at the time finished at 5.30 on the dot; people who worked had to do their shopping and other personal business during their lunch hour. ‘I realised then that we shop-keepers were not offering the right sort of service. It’s not good for me or the customer to do business when one of us has a sandwich in his hand’. He approached other traders in the city area and though they were sympathetic, they were against it, especially the large department stores who immediately saw difficulties of a larger payroll and administrative problems. But Alfredos Kouris was determined. He collected more than 10,000 signatures on a petition for late night shopping and he got the support of another firm-minded ethnic community leader, Shanghai-born David Wang, a Melbourne City Councillor and president of the ‘Make Melbourne Brighter’ citizens committee. The two were now ready to take on the Government as well as the large retailers.
One night in November 1971, Alfredos Kouris, with the active support of his staff and other retailers in the inner city, kept his shops open after 5.30. To quote his words: ‘Melbourne was lit up like a Christmas tree. Many shops remained open too when they saw I was serious.’ Inspectors charged him with a breach of the law in the stark lights of television news units, the burr of cameras and a shop full of journalists. But business continued and later, Alfredos Kouris, his staff and friends celebrated at a restaurant, Ultimately the defiance cost him a total of $6,000 in fines, solicitor’s fees and expenses. Not long after this episode, the Victorian Parliament brought in new laws relating to late-night shopping, laws which brightened up the atmosphere of the city and suburbs at night and have made it a way of life for people to do the major part of the week’s shopping on Thursday and Friday nights.
Paul Kouris remembers his father, a beacon of the Greek Australian community, and shares his insight on the man and his legacy
Middle photos courtesy of Josef Vondra (from the book the History of Greeks in Australia)