Sabrina Naggar and Emily Cohen were introduced by their children on holiday 11 years ago and found they shared a frustration at the lack of stylish, UV-protective swim and beachwear for kids. After a few months of meetings when they returned to the UK, they decided to launch Sunuva.
Having branched into the teens and adult market and established a global distribution base of some of the world’s most prestigious retailers and resorts (along with an A-list fanbase), the brand is now 10 years old. They talk to us about their journey and what their ambitions are for the next ten years.
Happy 10th birthday! Can we take you right back to the beginning and ask how you two met and what your backgrounds were before you went into business together?
Sabrina: Thank you – I can’t believe it’s been ten years! We were introduced on holiday by our kids who recognised each other at nursery. As working mums, we have never had time for the school gate chat, so we had never previously met. At the time I was juggling my four kids with a costume jewellery business that supplied the high street and prior to that I had trained as a chartered accountant with PWC. Although I knew it wasn’t my life career choice it gave me a solid commercial foundation.
Emily: I guess it’s fair to say it was our two year old sons Ethan and Joshi by recognising each other in the pool, actually were the ones to introduce us to each other. We soon realised living locally to each other that we had a few friends and acquaintances in common. Prior to Sunuva I had been lucky to have had quite a big success with my previous business. In 2000 I had set up with two friends Pout, a very fun and very British cosmetics company. It was a very fun brand to have developed and in 2007 we sold it to Victoria’s Secret. I was then approached by Philip Green to design and create a colour cosmetic brand for Topshop. Prior to Pout I had various celebrity PR roles.
What was it that triggered the lightbulb moment for you to create Sunuva?
Sabrina: At the time we met, sun safety awareness was growing thanks to government campaigns and our kids were already wearing rash vests, but finding anything remotely stylish was impossible. We chatted about general sun safety on that holiday, but the seed to develop a business to fill the market gap was really planted a couple of months later as we continued the conversation back in London.
Emily: My son at the time was two years and my daughter was new born. I was frustrated that my son was running around in a very unstylish and pretty ugly rash vest but at the time I had bought all I could find on offer. Sabrina and I got chatting over our mutual frustration of both kids swimwear and especially swimwear with UV protection. Everything on offer seemed to be very functional and not very fashionable. So the seed was planted and over the next few months Sabrina and I met and developed the idea.
When you got home from that holiday, how did you go about starting up the business (e.g. finding designs, fabric, manufacturing, funding)?
Sabrina: We spent a few months having meetings in the café at Clifton Nurseries to discuss our ideas (which was an incredibly inspirational space!) and then when we decided to ‘take the leap’ and set up a company, we set up office in my home.
The learning curve was huge! As neither of us had worked with garments before, finding factories who were willing to invest time and effort in us was probably one of the hardest things. We used freelance designers to draw up our garment style and print ideas for us and spent time researching the fabrics by visiting international trades shows.
Having both had successful businesses before, we were able to self-fund initially but after two years, as the business grew, we needed to raise money, which we did in the form of equity.
Emily: It was a process which organically developed over about a year. It began with us meeting and researching a couple of times a week, into us setting up a more official office within Sabrina’s house. Most of the idea development was research. Really beginning to understand the market place, who was doing what and how.
What did your first collection look like and where was it sold?
Sabrina: It was a very small and tight collection. We had three prints that we coloured in different ways for girls and boys. We originally intended to sell online only, but we soon realised that it wasn’t as simple as we thought and we had 3,100 units of stock that had arrived in June, which was very late in the season! A couple of friends very kindly offered to host a launch party for us which was an eye-opening experience as we shifted £10,000 worth of product in a few hours. There was clearly a need for our product in the market, and a few days later we were contacted by the buyer from Harrods who had heard about the frenzy at our launch evening and asked us to come in. It was all a bit surreal as they even helped us set our prices as we had not previously anticipated wholesale. Today, we are still their top-selling kids swimwear and beachwear brand and we continue to have a very strong relationship.
Emily: [The first private sale] was a massive hit for us. We literally sold £10,000 worth of stock in two hours; mothers were going nuts for it saying that they’d been wanting to find something like Sunuva for ages. We knew then we were onto something. One of the women at the event was friendly with the kidswear buyer of Harrods. She called us and we went in to meet her. She loved the collection and as if by magic that was our first account. Today ten years on Harrods remains our biggest UK account and we have really grown the business with them over the years.
Can you please tell us a bit about the functionality of the garments and the fabrics in your collections?
Sabrina: We spent a long time researching our swimwear fabrics and the UV protection comes from the knit. We do not add chemicals to our rash vests to give added protection, which other companies do. We also make sure that they have good recoverability i.e. they don’t sag after wearing them for a while. We source our beachwear fabrics in India where they make wonderful light-weight cottons, perfect for hot balmy climates.
Emily: We use the very best in UV protected swimwear fabrics. They are Italian fabrics which have been specially developed to block out 98% of the sun’s UV rays. Our cotton garments are lightweight Indian cotton to create breezy and comfortable beach wear for kids.
How you describe the Sunuva signature design?
Sabrina: Sunuva is boho-chic at its best, full of bright colours, pompoms and tassels. Even our more neutral palettes will have a touch of neon to give them a Sunuva twist! All our prints are designed exclusively by us in-house, you will not find our prints elsewhere. Quality is extremely important to us and all our designs are tried and tested on kids.
Emily: Sunuva is super chic, fun, bright and fashionable, well-designed swimwear and beachwear for kids which parents love to use and kids love to wear. We are known for our playful and original prints and our attention to details. You will nearly always find a pompon, a tassel, gorgeous embroidery, or a splash of neon on our garments
You began with children and have moved into teens and now adults, can you tell us a bit about how you have expanded the collection and why?
Sabrina: It’s all down to our customers and our kids! As the brand has grown, so have our kids and we recognise they are looking for something a bit more fashion forward. We have tried to find the compromise between what young teens want to wear and what their parents want to see them in!
Similarly, our customers have often asked us for adults, so we have listened and created a capsule women’s beachwear collection and matching father/son shorts.
Emily: I think the teen collection really came about as our kids have grown up with us and the brand. We have a much clearer understanding of what 9-14 year olds want to wear and how to wear it. This is a tricky market and young teens are very fashion conscious really wanting something a bit cooler, older and different to their younger siblings. Between us we have six kids so we really get to try and test all our products before we develop them. The women’s and men’s are very small capsule collections. Really offering a fun ‘mini me’ look which a lot of parents really enjoy.
Tell us about your team, how many are in the team and what are the key roles in your business?
Sabrina: We are 17 people in the office supported by a number of freelancers who are divided into different teams – design and production, e-commerce, wholesale and finance.
Emily: Mostly women with one lovely guy Jo (poor thing surrounded by all these females). Our team is really great. Each role is as important as the next but obviously in different ways. We have a wholesale team of three, an e-comms and social media team of three, production and print design of four, merchandising, general shipping and fulfilment, finance, customer service and most importantly our fabulous MD who keeps it all in check
You have found a high-profile following, counting clients from royalty to Hollywood A-listers, how did that come about and what are the most effective methods for promoting your brand generally?
Emily: The celebrity following has been a very organic process for us. Many A-listers have found us themselves either through the very high end resorts we sell to or just from generally our distribution which has been very profile based over the years. Sunuva can be found in cool and chic resorts, boutiques and department stores throughout the world.
Victoria Beckham first found us when Harper was one and has stayed a loyal customer ever since. Simon Cowell, often papped in Barbados, is another loyal customer for his son Eric. There are a number of celebrities who post photos of their kids on holiday wearing Sunuva and this has a very positive knock-on effect with brand building These include Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Gwen Stefani, the Rooneys, Holly Willoughby, James Corden and many more.
Prince George being dressed head to toe in Sunuva for his third birthday official photos was a real game changer for Sunuva. The international exposure was incredible and the influence this had on our sales was tremendous. We had no idea that the Prince has been given Sunuva to wear and remain eternally grateful to The Duchess of Cambridge for her choice and [being] so supportive a small British brand.
Let’s talk about distribution, you have your own website but are also sold in resorts and multibrand retailers globally, how did you go about building that base?
Sabrina: Through a lot of hard graft! We grew wholesale over the years through a mix of trade-shows and cold-calling. It used to be Emily and I, but now we have a fantastic wholesale team who have great relationships with all our existing customers and who are still significantly growing our client base each year.
Similarly, our e-commerce team has been in place for a couple of years now and there has been a significant transformation. They have put a lot of work into growing our online sales through digital marketing through all channels which has worked very well for us.
Emily: Our distribution is an extremely important piece of our business model. Choosing and identifying high profile and commercial stores is one of the most challenging areas of the business which probably takes the longest to develop. Growing the distribution with our retail partners is key but doesn’t happen over night.
Now ten years in we have resorts, boutiques and department stores all over the world, including Selfridges, Harrods, Harvey Nicols, Barneys, Le Bon Marche, the One & Only resorts, Ritz Carlton, Sandy Lane, Necker Island and many more. We have a full time team of three fabulous wholesale ladies who do a great job.
Does having a global distribution like that help with your collection being a seasonal product?
Sabrina: Absolutely. Seasonality used to be a bigger problem for us but it has definitely been counteracted by internationalisation of both wholesale and e-commerce. It has also been negated by the fact that travel has become a lot easier and cheaper over the past ten years so people take sunny holidays at all times of the year
Emily: Seasonality doesn’t really affect us very much as our customers are mainly people who will be going on holiday three to four times a year. Winter sun, Easter holidays, October half term etc. More and more stores now have a demand from their customers to sell swimwear all year round
Have you ever considered a move into retail yourself?
Sabrina: We have often talked about it! One of the biggest problems for online stores is that you can’t touch and feel the garments and we would love to be able to show the full collection in our own store to give the full Sunuva experience. Having said that, this would not be the right time for us to go into retail in terms of the state of the high street and people’s online shopping habits. It makes more sense for us to stay focused on e-commerce and we consider our online site to be our flagship store.
Emily: Having had a retail store with Pout which I loved, yes it’s something we talk about. The industry however has changed so drastically over the last ten years and honestly we would rather invest the energy and investment into our website which is performing very well and growing 100% year on year. More and more people I know rely on online for the vast majority of their shopping.
Now that you have reached the 10-year landmark, do you look back and think you have achieved what you set out to?
Sabrina: We very rarely look back, but sometimes we do have one of those moments when we think ‘wow, who would have thought?!’ We are definitely more forward thinking and constantly talk about what we still need to achieve rather than what we have achieved. Having said that, thinking about it as I answer your question, it has been quite a journey and to have got this far and still be enjoying it is an achievement in itself!
Emily: I think we have achieved a lot more than we originally set out to do. Ten years is quite a long time especially when juggling business and family. We are really proud of our business and very much enjoying the journey
What about the next 10 years, what do they hold for Sunuva?
Sabrina: We haven’t even scratched the tip of the iceberg! There is so much to do and we need to focus on continuing to be the best that we can be and the experts in kids holidaywear.
Emily: Watch this space… as long as we continue to enjoy what we do and feel stimulated by the creative process then hopefully the sky is the limit.