WASHINGTON — The story of how Iraklis Karabassis became Benetton Group’s vehicle for growth in the U.S. began with a sharp detour from a geology career in his native Greece.
 
Karabassis, chief executive officer of The IK Retail Group, now owns 97 of the 114 Benetton stores in the U.S. through licensing agreements, selling the Italian brand’s hip sportswear. He plans to open at least 10 more next year. A new addition to Karabassis’ roster is one of Benetton’s trendy Sisley formats in New York at Fifth Avenue and 48th Street, which opened this summer and is his 10th store in that city. Next year, he plans to add at least three more Manhattan sites, including another Sisley in the historic Flatiron building. He recently leased the corner spot after spending seven years sizing up the location.
 
By all accounts, Karabassis has been deliberate about building his chain, which he started in Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s, a city he still considers the hottest retail market in the U.S. By early next year, he will have 16 Benetton stores clustered in or near the nation’s capital. In the midst of building IK Retail Group, which has 1,500 employees across 32 states, eastern Canada, Bermuda and the Bahamas, Karabassis also opened one of Washington’s perennially hot restaurants, Cafe Milano, a regular haunt for political, social and Embassy Row cognoscenti. However, he bowed out of Milano’s daily operations awhile back.
 
“I consider myself to be a retailer,” said Karabassis, in a recent interview at his row-house offices in Washington’s scenic Georgetown shopping district, a neighborhood he still finds magical after moving there 21 years ago to help Benetton in its march into the American market. Two blocks away is Karabassis’ Benetton flagship and top-performing store at the corner of Georgetown’s M Street and Wisconsin Avenue intersection.
 
Karabassis is a retail insider, so much so that Washington Mayor Tony Williams, who takes pride in a years-long campaign to increase retail investment, only recently heard about him, said Herb Miller, chairman of Western Development Corp. The occasion was Karabassis signing a lease last month for a 10,000-square-foot, three-story combination Benetton and Sisley store in the city’s Chinatown, which will anchor a downtown retail and apartment project called Gallery Place, one of Miller’s developments.
 
“He’s the largest apparel retailer in Washington...but he’s very quiet. Iraklis is really an understated guy,” said Miller, who has known Karabassis for 21 years. Miller pegs the merchant’s success, in part, to fierce real estate acumen and a “a dedicated group of employees who stick by him.”