How the “George-Effect” put kids swimwear brand Sunuva on the global fashion map

Kids swimwear brand Sunuva was founded by entrepreneurs Emily Cohen and Sabrina Naggar in 2008 after meeting on holiday and discovering by chance that their children knew each other from nursery. Having bonded over their mutual frustration at the lack of stylish and protective swimwear for children, they decided to launch their own brand. Sunuva specialises in UV protective swim- and holidaywear alongside an array of accessories and is not only stocked in some of the world’s best stores and resorts, but also boasts an impressive list of celebrity parents and kids, including the Beckhams, Madonna, Gwen Stefani, the Cowells and even Royalty, no less. However, it was when Prince George was spotted wearing a Sunuva outfit that catapulted the brand into another league altogether. FashionUnited chats to Cohen and Naggar about the “George-Effect”, how they continue to evolve and develop the brand and plans going forward.

How the “George-Effect” put kids swimwear brand Sunuva on the global fashion map

You met on holiday and recognised a gap in the market for stylish UV protective kids clothing – how did you turn the idea into reality?

Emily Cohen: We were on holiday and my son and one of Sabrina’s sons were chatting away - they were 2 1/2 years old at the time - and we realised that they actually knew each other from nursery, however Sabrina and I had actually never met. We were just having a laugh and sharing the same frustration about how dreadful our kids looked in these awful UV rash vests / surf outfits, and commented that it was such a shame that no one does nice swimwear for kids with that UV element. We sowed the seeds and started researching the concept, and a few months later set up the business.

Sabrina Naggar: It was a huge learning curve because neither of us had any experience or clue about manufacturing clothing. We had to learn about the technical aspects – UV materials are very technical – who makes it, where to find a factory who can make it for us etc. It was a lot to take in and organise.

Emily Cohen: That whole process took nearly a year. The biggest challenge initially was trying to convince a factory to work with you when you have no idea what you’re doing and you don’t have any quantities to give them. But actually our factories today are the same ones that we started the business with ten years ago. We’ve very much built our businesses together. And interestingly, we are now the biggest customer for both factories - we have one for cotton in India and one for swimwear in Tunisia - which is really nice and gratifying. We have helped each other to grow our businesses together over the years.

How the “George-Effect” put kids swimwear brand Sunuva on the global fashion map

Did you have a fashion background prior to launching Sunuva?

EC: I have always had entrepreneurial spirit in me, I guess, probably because I’m unemployable. Prior to launching Sunuva with Sabrina, I actually launched a cosmetics brand, Pout, which I sold to Victoria’s Secret, and I also ran a make-up line for Topshop. And before all that, I was in celebrity PR.

SN: My background is very different. I trained with PWC as chartered accountant, and also left to set up my own business. I had a costume jewellery business that supplied High Street stores, and then I stopped that to have my four kids in the space of four years. I then developed a property portfolio, which I was able to run around the needs of my family, and then, when my daughter was 18 months, I met Emily. I was rearing to go and looking at different opportunities.

How the “George-Effect” put kids swimwear brand Sunuva on the global fashion map

Do you look after different areas of the business?

EC: Obviously, in the beginning you’re guilty of handling every single aspect of the business yourself; we had no choice, it was just the two of us. Ten years on, we are an office of 17 people, so there is a very different dynamic. Therefore, Sabrina and I have defined roles, though creatively, we work together on all the designs, that’s very much a collaboration. The style of the products and the feel of the brand is very much our DNA, a reflection of the two of us. In addition, Sabrina looks after all the swimwear and production element, and I look after all the cottons, ready-to-wear and accessories production and development. Sabrina handles the finance stuff, I do things like photo shoots and marketing, that’s how we’ve split it.

How does Sunuva differ from other brands?

EC: There’s nobody who does what we do. We very much are positioning ourselves as a one-stop-shop for stylish holidaywear for kids, whether that’s swim, sun protection, going out for breakfast / lunch / dinner, on a yacht, in Ibiza, in the Caribbean. Basically, anything and everything that you might want to dress your kid in on a stylish holiday.

SN: We are real experts in kids. We test everything on our own kids, everything we do is very practical, from the size of our beach bags to backpacks, a lot of thought goes into it and is designed from a Mum’s perspective. We’re considered to be experts in lifestyle.

How the “George-Effect” put kids swimwear brand Sunuva on the global fashion map

How big is the collection each season and how has it evolved over the years?

EC: We do three collections a year, we basically have a resort or cruise range, which launches in time for winter sun, then we have our main spring/summer collection, which is launched in February, and then we’ve just started a much smaller high-summer splash, which goes out in May. Every year we try something new, so for example, in the last year and a half we have launched a teen collection, which is aimed at 9 to 15-year olds; we have also launched a baby collection, which incorporates specific baby prints, baby garments, baby shapes, etc. We’ve massively grown and extended our accessories category, too. We’re always looking for novelty and innovation. In addition, we have just started doing Mini-me ranges, so a very small collection of coordinating kaftans and dresses for Mums and daughters and swim shorts for fathers and sons.We really try and keep it new and fresh and try things that are relevant, and if they work, then we basically increase that category.

How the “George-Effect” put kids swimwear brand Sunuva on the global fashion map

You’re 11 years into your business – what have been the biggest challenges and milestones?

EC: To do what we’ve done you need balls of steel. Because it is just a rollercoaster. You can have some of these unbelievable things happen, like the Royal Family stick Prince George in one of your outfits and all of a sudden you’re in the global arena like you just can’t imagine, but three months later you’re strapped for cash because cashflow is always an issue for a small business. It’s navigating new situations all the time. And just when you think things are looking good and rosy, something happens. It’s not for the faint hearted. It’s an enormous sacrifice when you decide to set up your own business, and even though Sabrina and I are now ten years on, we have a great team, the company is profitable, and all of that, you’re never out of the woods, you’re always going to need to reinvent yourself,or come up with the next best thing because there’s always someone snapping at your heels.

SN: And it’s incredibly stressful when you’ve got young kids as well, managing your family and managing the pressure of your business – it’s a lot to take on. But we love it, that’s our DNA, that’s the way we function.

EC: Over the last two years we have totally transformed our web business, this has been a big milestone, because the first six or seven years were purely wholesale driven. Another big milestone was the “Prince George Effect”, that was unbelievable, I can’t even begin to explain how transformational that actually was and how people actually respond to an endorsement like this.

SN: When we hired our MD, Bunty Stokes three years ago, that was also a massive milestone. It was a very big hire and a very important role for us to fill. Bunty has brought years of experience at the likes of Mulberry, TK Maxx and Brand Alley to the table; she is extremely commercial and extremely gifted at managing and running a team. She’s brought more structure and processes to the business at a crucial point in our development and allowed Emily and I to focus more on the creative side, rather than being bogged down with the operational considerations and day to day running of the company.

How the “George-Effect” put kids swimwear brand Sunuva on the global fashion map

What is your focus in terms of distribution and growth?

EC: E-commerce and wholesale are our two main anchors in terms of distribution, but we’re also planning a few pop-ups in the summer as a retail experience, but we’re just at discussion stage at the moment. We currently have over 400 wholesale accounts across the world. We have all the big department stores, whether that’s Harrods, Selfridges, Le Bon Marche, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman and all the international stores, but then we also have a very big resort-based wholesale business; we work with the One & Only, the Riz Carltons, Necker Island, Sandy Lane and so on, which is also a very important aspect. And then we’ve got some really fantastic online accounts like Childrensalon, Melijoe, Farfetch - the ‘Net-a-porters for kids’, basically.

SN: We still have huge potential for growth, even just looking at the resort business, there are so many resorts around the world, so we want to focus on growing both sides. However, we want to become a digital-first business, so e-commerce is a massive priority for us. But obviously we don’t want that to be at the expense of wholesale, so we have to keep that going and grow it as well.

EC: We haven’t really even tipped the iceberg on wholesale. There are so many countries around the world. That said, it’s much better to be in fewer countries and have a bigger market share within than spread yourself too thin. The US is a very important market for us and one that is getting the most attention and investment at the moment. We also do very well in the Middle East and Northern Europe - Germany is a massive market for us. So we’d rather just grow and develop that before jumping at the next country.

How the “George-Effect” put kids swimwear brand Sunuva on the global fashion map

What is your future outlook for the business?

SN: For us, personally, we’re actually in our most solid position we’ve ever been. Our cashflow concerns are because we’re growing and we have to consider how we are going to fund that growth, but we are in a very good place - touch wood. We’ve been very careful in the way we have grown operationally and made sure that we have solid foundations.

EC: You read articles and interviews with business people and entrepreneurs, and it all sounds warm and fluffy, but the reality is, it’s been really hard work to get to where we got to. It’s been very challenging, we’ve made sacrifices along the way. Luckily, we both love what we do, but it’s a tough journey, which is why I say you need balls of steel, because there will always be ups and downs when you run your own business. Someone said to us it takes ten years to grow a brand – well, we really feel that. It took ten years, but we’re in a great place now. But the journey continues.

Photos courtesy of the brand


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