Loris Messina and Simone Rizzo of Sunnei.

MILAN — A game with no prize, played for the mere sake of entertainment is the concept Loris Messina and Simone Rizzo conceived to present Sunnei‘s new iteration of the Canvas project — but it could also be a fitting metaphor for the spirit of the designers in launching their brand in 2014.

Since the beginning, the creative duo wanted to play on their own terms, experimenting both with collections and distribution strategies as well as focusing on digital communication, which gained the brand a cult following.

The peak of their approach, the Canvas project, was introduced last year amid the pandemic, at a time when every company was rethinking commercial strategies, including scaling back their wholesale footprints.

A forerunner in Milan, Sunnei grasped wholesalers’ increasing need for customization and supported its partners, enabling them to build their own selections. Available at a dedicated VR-enhanced platform, Canvas offers select retailers the chance to customize genderless carryover pieces including ready-to-wear and accessories. Buyers can intervene on design aspects of each item (changing length of sleeves, fabrics, colors, dyeing and stitches) to differentiate their assortment from competitors, while foregoing physical sample production enables the brand to cut costs and improve its sustainable practice. A win-win situation.

For fall 2021, the Canvas collection will double the possible product references, reaching almost 3,000 different options (including apparel for dogs for the first time) and also involve end consumers. If the dynamic presentation of avatars dancing to the 1990s Latin pop hit “Macarena” released last year mostly involved buyers, through the video-game format to be unveiled on Sunday all users will be able to interact with the 10 avatars and choose the look of their characters. Buyers will still be able to make their own selections at the dedicated Canvas digital platform.

“We wanted to take the concept of video-gaming to the extreme and enable also our community and customers to play with customization,” said Rizzo, adding that the game with no commercial or competitive purposes will nod to 1990s aesthetics.

“The Canvas project has been the most important one we ever launched in terms of media resonance, maybe because we beat to the punch many others,” Rizzo said. “At the beginning some buyers were shocked but in the last six months digitalization took over and now everyone is getting used to seeing collections virtually and placing orders on online platforms. For sure this time they will be even more prepared to it.

“At the end of the day, it’s an elaborate, highly experimental process intended to offer a more commercial product,” he continued, underscoring that the collection hinges on basic silhouettes and accessories that are often bestselling categories for retailers. The full-rounded collaborations with stores also extend to customized packaging, window concepts and launch events for each unit.

Rizzo said the brand would like to gradually increase the number of wholesalers involved in the project, which currently include LuisaViaRoma, Modes, Printemps, Ssense, LN-CC, Assemble by Réel and Biffi, among others.

The designer defined the concept as “super virtual at first but mega local at the end, as aimed to enable stores to sell locally.” He revealed that the project will increasingly represent the complete wholesale offer of the brand as “we realized that it makes much more sense doing special initiatives for this channel and have a diversified product assortment compared to the one of our retail network.”

Without disclosing annual sales figures, the company claimed to have seen a 30 percent increase both in wholesale and retail revenues in 2020, mostly boosted by the performance of its own e-commerce. In particular, the domestic and Chinese market “grew exponentially,” followed by sustained demand from South Korea and Japan, along with the rest of Europe and the U.S.

“It was an organic growth as we had zero marketing investments. Accessories like bags, footwear and jewelry boomed and, in general, we decided to forego any discount in 2020 to preserve the perceived value of the brand,” Rizzo said. He also acknowledged that the consolidated expertise and efficiency online and digital communication played in the label’s favor, with social media channels accounting for 70 percent of the traffic registered on e-commerce. “We’ve had the online store for five years and all the activities, including customer-care and logistics, are handled in-house, which helped to make everything go smoothly even with the restrictions.”

Yet the designers are ready to let go of some of these responsibilities following Vanguards Group’s acquisition of a majority stake in Sunnei in September. The fund, whose portfolio also includes Nanushka, Aeron and the fashion commerce software solution Skala, invested 6 million euros in the company in a deal that marked a pivotal moment for the designers, empowering them to scale the size of the brand.

“I know it might sound off, but 2020 has been really a crazy year and a far better one than 2019 for us. It’s like we lived 10 years altogether, it was extremely complicated but really good,” Rizzo said. “We needed the fund, it gives us structure and access to another standard. We were a bunch of kids and now we’re a little bit bigger, it’s a beautiful thing. But in terms of freedom and creative choices, nothing changes except that we have more opportunities now. “

Firstly, the restructuring came with new hires in fields formerly handled by the designers themselves, including financial and administrative ones. The in-house team doubled over the last three months, and currently counts 21 employees.

To accommodate the staff, the Palazzina Sunnei headquarters unveiled last summer will be expanded in the first half of 2021 to include new offices and a showroom.

A conference room at Palazzina Sunnei.

A conference room at Palazzina Sunnei.  Courtesy of Sunnei

In terms of distribution, while on the wholesale front the designers will focus on inking partnership with key players in the U.S. and the Far East to “finally stretch the physical presence that we were lacking,” most of their energies will be channeled in a big direct-to-consumer push leveraging the retail footprint and further enhancing the online store.

A new flagship in Milan is to be opened this year, while the existing Sunnei outpost in Via Vela — located in an area little exposed to shopping traffic but that represented the brand’s first offices and commercial space — will be retooled as a multipurpose location, hosting events, social gatherings and art installations. Additional pop-up stores and shopsin-shop are also in the pipeline and expected to roll out depending on the evolution of the COVID-19 crisis.

Product-wise, the multidisciplinary approach the designers have a penchant for will inform the expansion to lifestyle categories, while the launch of a beachwear range is also in the works.

“I have a feeling this year will be even more dynamic and fun for us,” Rizzo concluded.

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