MILAN — The valuable lesson Veronica Varetta learned in 2020 is to always trust her gut.
Prioritizing instinct over long-term, rational planning took the entrepreneur behind the Italian demi-fine jewelry brand Lil Milan a long way even amid a pandemic, as Varetta used the challenging times to take her label to the next level.
The digital-native company she launched in 2017 and that has won followers ever since has debuted a physical outpost, adjusted its business structure and is ready to launch a new line at a higher price point.
Hidden behind the wooden doors of an elegant Milanese palazzo in Via Donizetti, which is a 10-minute walk from the city’s Golden Triangle but less exposed to local and tourist shopping traffic, Lil House is the brand’s showroom-cum-store concept that opened this week.
“We didn’t want a predictable window on the street, but something more familiar. A welcoming environment, more similar to a home rather than the usual jewelry stores that can appear too exclusive to access,” said Varetta, echoing the label’s main mission of enabling younger consumers to approach gold jewelry.
To wit, the label’s unfussy aesthetics, price points and solid storytelling quickly resonated with a large community — or “sisterhood,” as Varetta described it — including women aged 20 to 25 finishing their studies and wanting to indulge in self-gifting, as well as customers aged 35 to 50 looking for everyday and simpler alternatives to their luxury pieces.
Manufactured in factories in the Italian golden districts of Valenza and Vicenza, the Lil Milan line encompasses gold chains, delicate ear cuffs, small hoops and extra-fine rings made in 9- or 18-karat gold at prices ranging from 60 euros to 550 euros.
Inside the new Lil House store, the full collection is showcased in a customized furniture display designed by Varetta that dominates the space, which is rendered in shades of pink and spans over two floors.
The integration of a computer screen invites visitors to interact with the brand’s digital platform and leverage omnichannel functionalities. It also features a phone charging station, providing a quick battery boost for customers juggling between the selfie-friendly corners in the space. These include club-like elements such as neon lights and a mirror repeating “random statements that came to my mind,” Varetta said.
The same approach but a change of color marks the narrow, gray stairway leading to the basement, which is dubbed the “Boys Tears Club” in honor of the namesake best-selling choker lined with drop motifs. Conceived as a darker, convivial space, the basement will host events, small gatherings and workshops once social-distancing rules are relaxed.
The opening of Lil House reinforces the direction the brand has taken since the summer, when Varetta decided to almost nix wholesale distribution. The wholesale channel used to generate 30 percent of total company sales, which are expected to hit the 1-million-euro mark this year.
“Right after the first lockdown in Italy, we went through the numbers, analyzed our performance in the different channels and, reluctantly, we had to take this step. We just kept the partnership with two online retailers, which are Yoox and Luisa Via Roma,” Varetta said.
Since the move the firm has committed to boosting its online presence, planning investments in digital activities that could strengthen brand awareness abroad, specifically in France, the U.K., Germany and Saudi Arabia.
While the European markets already account for most purchases made on online, Varetta believes there’s potential in Saudi Arabia as well. She recalled being impressed by the high number of Arab customers purchasing the brand when it opened a temporary store in the Sardinian luxury resort of Porto Cervo two years ago.
But the entrepreneur will soon have more expensive tastes covered, too. Targeting a higher price point, Lil Milan will debut a line bejeweled with conflict-free diamonds and sapphires that will comprise 11 items encompassing rings, bracelets, pendants and ear cuffs. With prices ranging from 500 euros to 2,500 euros, the collection will be available at Lil House next week and at the online store in January.
In sync with her ethos, Varetta said she “wanted to make diamonds accessible to young women and offer them a version of precious stones that they can really use 24/7, without waiting for a special occasion.” Echoing this purpose, a digital campaign showing the pieces worn during ordinary moments and activities will accompany the launch.
For Varetta, a complete direct-to-consumer approach meant regaining full control not only over the product and its distribution but also over the visual and communication assets.
“To be honest, today everything is all about what you build around the brand and not the product, as you can’t invent that much newness in jewelry product-wise….Our product can be easily copied but there’s so much more on the human level and in terms of presentation, so the difference is made in the service that you offer. The most important thing is that each of our customers feels at ease not only with the product but also the way it’s sold. We have to move between Amazon for the speed and high jewelry for the quality of service,” Varetta said.
An established e-commerce site and logistics system gave Lil Milan an advantage compared to competitors during the lockdown and contributed to its booming sales, many of which were to returning customers. To better support the demand, the company expanded the methods of payment available on the platform and launched the “jewelry hotline” video-call service, connecting consumers and sales assistants for consultations about sizes, styling tips and information on the label.
“We had great feedback, we are under the impression that people wanted to talk directly human-to-human even more during the confinement. They wanted to erase the cold barrier of digital platforms,” Varetta said about the tool, which complemented existing services offered via WhatsApp and online chat.
“Transparency in communication is key, every single channel must be used to answer clients’ doubts and we invested even more in this direction during the lockdown. Customers’ trust is the number one priority,” said the founder, highlighting that the brand reputation is mainly built by word-of-mouth.
Social media activations added to Lil Milan’s momentum and strengthened engagement with its 66,000 followers on Instagram. Albeit fun, pink-hued contents are baits for Millennials’ double-taps, the company used the platform also to promote its charity initiatives, revealing a give-back approach and ethical side of the business that is gaining increasing relevance in the eyes of consumers.
In particular, during the lockdown the brand donated part of proceeds from its online sales to the Policlinico di Milano hospital and released a breasts-shaped pendant to support the Cerchi D’Acqua nonprofit center offering psychological and legal support to women victims of violence.
Other initiatives included a bike delivery service to cut its carbon footprint and partnerships supporting local businesses. For the most recent one, the company teamed with a local chocolate company to develop gold leaf-embellished sweet treats to gift to customers with every online purchase made starting this week. “So now there’s an edible Lil, too,” Varetta said with a smile.