SUNO, designed by filmmaker Max Osterweis and industry vet Erin Beatty, is one of the buzzier brands to emerge over the past year and a half. Launched as a way for Osterweis to utilize his collection of African textiles, the label has garnered an impressive following, from Vogue to Michelle Williams.
But for young brands, demand doesn't always mean dollars. Osterweis and Beatty chatted with me about how they're building SUNO without getting too big, too fast.
How did SUNO come to be? Max: The collection started with East African textiles that I had been collecting for years. I started the line because I wanted to start a business in Kenya at the end of 2007, beginning of 2008. For years I had been promising friends that I'd make dresses and skirts out of the fabrics, so I figured that this would be a good way to do that.
Erin: We were friends for about a year beforehand, and then Max had the idea and was looking for designers. That's kind of the way it happened. I thought it was a bit crazy at first, but he convinced me. Do you both have design backgrounds? Max: I went to film school and worked in the film industry--I never worked in fashion before I started this.
Erin: I went to UCLA, then Parsons. Then I designed for the Gap, then Generra, following around sort of a mentor.
So it must have been good experience working for bigger, established companies. Erin: Generra was a bit smaller than Gap--I kind of started big and went smaller and smaller. I don’t think I could have done SUNO without those experiences. Corporations have structure and in order to be successful, our structure and our processes are super important to us. You don't usually get to be super creative in a business, but we do.
Max: Erin and Nadia Bradshaw--our head of production and sourcing--trained at the Gap. So their experience working at the big corporation definitely helps to guide me as I’m making big decisions. They make me aware of things that I wouldn't be aware of otherwise.
Erin: You see the flaws that can occur in the big company. Little companies that get successful fast often grow too big too soon and just fall apart. There's just a cognizance--we're trying to improve the way we do things every day. Just following best practices.
You guys have had a ton of support from great media outlets since the beginning. But what would you say has been your big break? Max: We've had the support of Opening Ceremony from the beginning. I've known them for years, and when I presented the idea to them with our samples and they said they would carry the collection, they gave us the confidence to actually produce it. Our second big break was when Time sent a reporter out to Kenya with us for a week--It was a nice little boost because we weren't yet in stores.
Erin: The press has been great--since the showing in fall, it's been a total roller coaster.
What's been the craziest, ballsiest thing you've had to do to make the company work? Max: I actually don’t think we’ve had to do anything--the venture itself kind of the ballsy thing. Celebrities have been reaching out to us on their own. We’ve been lucky that way. We haven’t had to do any guerrilla advertising.
Erin: Well, Max thinks it's just normal--trekking through a market in a third world country. For me, it's pushing myself to get over things that would have scared me. One-of-a-kind, you just don't do that. To go and sort through every piece of fabric; it was overwhelming. But it worked.
You've had a decent amount of success already. What's the hardest thing that you're facing now? Max: Building the infrastructure and making sure we're primed for growth. We started in Nairobi with ten or twelve workers. We’ve had to grow at a manageable pace. We've been offered huge orders we wouldn’t have been able to deliver. So were working with a bigger factory, training new workers, so that we can actually fill those big orders.
Erin: Getting quality out of a country that doesn't have a garment industry. It allows us to explore a whole creative realm that people aren't exploring as much, but we also have to make clothes that sell.
Is there anyone that you guys look up to? Erin: I've got a family friend who's been giving me some guidance. They've been in the fashion industry for a long, long time, and I've asked them about how we should grow, who we should talk to. We're always talking to people we've met, getting different opinions.
Where will SUNO be in five years? Max: Hopefully we will have remodeled our office! We want a bigger team, a more seamless process. Expand into other categories--I'm dying to do mens--we should also be doing accessories by then.