INTERVIEW: The Rise and Rise of House of Sunny
We spoke to founder Sunny Williams to find out more about the UK label’s ongoing success.
The lily-pad motif, the three perfectly shaped cut-outs on the back, and the stretchy, ever-forgiving silhouette. Yes, it’s the House of Sunny Hockney dress, arguably one of the most desirable dresses of the 21st century. The single silhouette has transcended colorways, seasons and countries, as the brand continues to be one of Gen Z’s most-loved wardrobe staples.
Founded in 2011 by Sunny Williams with humble Hackney beginnings, House of Sunny has since been worn by the likes of Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and honestly, anyone who can get their hands on it — and it’s for good reason. With a true focus on quality over quantity, the brand has adopted a slower yet still laser-focused approach to everyday fashion, opting for tunnel vision over trends and keeping consumer feedback at the heart of everything that they do.
A tailor in his past life, Williams believes that the key to the brand’s ongoing triumph is simple: “Despite having lots of successes, thousands of followers and people wearing the brand, we’re still doing the same thing,” he tells Hypebae. “We’re minimalists at heart. We want to really carefully make just enough and that formula was there in the beginning, and it’s still here now,” Williams adds, explaining that a responsible approach to design is the core of the brand, with minimizing waste and creating long-lasting pieces its core aims.
We caught up with Williams to find out more about the beauty behind the brand, how it copes with fast-fashion lookalikes and how it intends to build community through its new coffee shop.
Scroll down to read the full interview below.
How did the brand come about?
I wanted to make clothes when I was really, really young. I have no idea why, or where it came from, it just organically happened. As I kind of got out of college I went from studying art to a fashion college. I did some work experience and I learned how to make suits and that kind of sparked my interest in subcultures. I was looking into how Elvis wore a suit and how The Beatles did, looking at the specific fits and collars and I couldn’t believe how hard it was to make a suit. I realized that if I could make a suit, then I could turn my hand to ready-to-wear pretty quickly, too, so the faster pace was actually the attraction at first. I didn’t really want to go in and grow other brands though, I knew I wanted to start making something myself.
Why do you think that House of Sunny has become so successful over the years?
Despite having lots of successes, thousands of followers and people wearing the brand, we’re still doing the same thing. There’s no difference from day one to now. We’re making clothes and letting people come and enjoy them and we’re learning about them, constantly getting closer and closer to our community. We’re really direct-to-consumer in that sense. For us, it’s really nice when someone comes in and tells us, “Oh, I’m obsessed with this colour,” because the design team and I are like, “We know. You told us that six months ago. That’s why we made it.”
That’s probably the reason why the brand is the way it is because instead of having that investment and a massive show and then going straight into trying to compete [with other brands], we’re much more head down and focused on our products and making them wearable and unique. Being humble with our approach is very much a part of the journey, too. It’s a bit like when you see the high streets of London changing. Five years ago, those high streets were very, very quiet but now there’s an amazing butcher and a nice fruit and veg shop and there’s a lot of love and care that goes into that. Once people do learn [about these places], the communities start to think, “I don’t want to buy my clothes from these big brands, but instead from the guys around the corner, who make them out back. These guys are lovely, they care about what they do and I actually want to invest in it.” I think there’s a change in that sort of sense.
We’ve grown carefully, and taken the time to become a team of people that are just really, really mad and caring which shows in the end product. It’s like a family product that’s made for an extended family.
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How does House of Sunny consider the dangers of overconsumption within its design process?
When we got quite deep into making clothes, we realized that we didn’t want to go down the traditional route, where buyers buy more and you end up with loads of product SKUs, because then you’ve got loads of deadstock, and your brand has to look at other ways of selling and then it all kind of becomes a bit of a panic, trying to sell something you should never have made in the first place.
We’re minimalists at heart. We want to really carefully make just enough and that formula was there in the beginning, and it’s still here now. Our whole team want to make sure that every jacket gets sold, that every jumper goes to a good home and hopefully we won’t move forward with anything new until they’re all gone. Even if you see us repetitively showing the same look, it’s because we’ve made it and it’s on this planet. It had to be washed with a huge amount of water, it had to be put on a ship for four months.
As a brand, you want to be experimental and want to try something new, but you have the pressure of wondering if it’s right commercially. For us, we grew up on Instagram, and that really helped us to build our community and have that direct-to-consumer effect. I’m in the store with the customers and I’m chatting with them about what they’re into, what shoes they’re wearing and what’s their favorite color. I think it’s just about an overall sense of care which people then resonate with subconsciously. It just comes through.
When we think of House of Sunny, three distinctive styles come to mind: the Hockney dress, the Day Tripper cardigan and the Take a Trip bomber jacket. What can you tell us about the design process for those pieces, why are they still so popular?
With the Hockney dress, it got to the point where if we didn’t allow our consumer to get one [in the last drop], we were spending every waking moment talking about it. Usually, we do such small, sustainable drops to keep things special, but we did make a lot of those dresses. We don’t actually remember how many we first made, it was probably around 50-100 maximum, but we’d get thousands of voice memos from people screaming about them. I’m sure every brand has a hero product like that and for us, we like to have a hero product in every drop, that’s kind of our goal.
The dress was inspired by David Hockney and I wondered if anyone had ever done a lily pad as a textile. The focus was on the lily pads, but also that approach to an artisan, crafted silhouette translated into a dress that fits all shapes and sizes. We wanted to make a superstar piece for every day, and the Hockney had a maximum effect in that sense. Then we started seeing Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid wearing them and it was like “Okay, this dress is really popular now.” It’s an amazing feeling and it’s nice to get that trademark, but it does go against the force of what we actually stand for.
The Day Tripper came about because House of Sunny is all about positive energy. We forecasted that there was going to be a similarity between now and the ’70s and the Margaret Thatcher era, and we wanted to create a smiling sort of alternative look. I’ll be honest, I was a bit scared when we drew up this [current] collection with the safety pins and the barbed wire, but now we’re in a recession and we’re seeing our consumer get a little more punk with the way they’re wearing things, but we’re definitely adding the color to it and the positive energy still.
The Take a Trip bomber was actually inspired by my grandad’s bomber jacket from the 1980s. It was a Marks and Spencer jacket that was made in Malta that he never wore, and when he passed away I got this jacket and it was like “wow.” As a tailor from the past, cuts were key for me and I knew that this bomber needed just a few changes to get to a universal pattern that fits boys and girls and has that kind of versatility.
‘Take a Trip’ as the slogan obviously has a lot of references to drug paraphernalia, but actually, it’s not referencing that at all. I wanted to highlight the idea of just losing yourself in the sense of you actually going somewhere, just getting out, especially after lockdown and it just became really popular.
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How does House of Sunny work towards minimizing waste?
For us, one of the most important parts of selling online is making sure that returns aren’t an issue. We make everything quite oversized and relaxed, in the DMs our community team is always saying “it’s going to fit either way,” so there’s no stress in that aspect. We just launched a pleated pant and there’s a slight bit of elastic in the back to give the wearer that ability for it to fit easier, there are drawstrings in there, just small functional details that mean the products are probably more sustainable because they’re less likely to get returned.
In the way I approach life, I have to think about something for ages before I invest in it. For example, I don’t just go shopping, pick seven things up and see if I wear them, I have to really think about it. Similarly, with House of Sunny, if there’s a sample that didn’t fit, and it had to be shipped from a factory in Turkey to here, and somebody’s worked on that, and the product is suitable to be worn and be in somebody’s home, then we should probably put it on a trading platform and get someone to buy it or see if there’s anyone who wants it from the team.
As much as it’s about using recycled fabric and organic cotton, it’s also about the people who own the company and their approach to what they want to make and how they want to make it. There are certain steps that we put in place throughout the process and one of them is to just make things carefully. In terms of actual sustainability, we’re always using recycled, we’re not cutting on the buyers, we’re not screen printing placement prints, and we do slow shipping, which is so tedious. It’s very slow, but it’s so important. We’re so transparent with what we do, we’re not ever trying to say that we’re the cleanest brand in the world, but we’re always thinking “Okay, how do we do this process? What can we do to not make waste along the way and ultimately not create products that no one wants?”
There are so many brands that don’t think about that process, who make so many products and have very little direct consumer data, and then they spend most of the season on sale. For us, it’s like “Hey, here’s a collection. Anyone dig it?” and if not, no worries, we won’t produce it. Pre-order has so many difficulties, but if I was one of the only 100 people that got this really awesome piece that I patiently waited for, I’d be really happy about that.
As a result of the pre-order model, House of Sunny has struggled with fast fashion brands copying its designs. How have you dealt with that?
It’s just a challenging one because of social media now. I’m amazed at how people fake our product and manufacture it, to the point where they overpower it and we have to leave it alone. We’ve had to put verified tags on all our products and you can now photograph the QR code and it takes you to the site because we had so many people saying that they’d bought things that didn’t have the logo on it but they got it from Amazon or some trading platform.
We’re learning that it’s much safer to drop a collection that’s in stock and really focus on promoting that. And we’ve learned that you have to just be very, very careful with how you display your new collections because they can go so viral, or they can be seen by the wrong people. Ultimately, we want to push our qualities further, we want to find people that can support us and teach us how we can elevate in the right way.
That’s the positive of having your own store now, right? As an online brand, you didn’t really have the opportunity to meet your consumer in real life. How has that changed now?
I think that’s the best thing about it. The thing that’s a killer is that there are now so many brands competing for the attention brand of the younger consumer. It’s difficult, the fact that people maybe don’t have time for you, so when they discover you they can be presumptuous or not really understand the brand.
Our price point is fairly entry-level, but that doesn’t mean that we’re a fast fashion brand. That’s the number one misconception for us because we could easily put an extra zero on our price tags, we do sit alongside brands who are putting extra profits on their products and we’re in the same factory, but we care about our consumers. They’re our community.
This store is everything to us, and we want to scale it in the future. Right now, there’s no destination for our customer to come and have a coffee and sit on a nice sofa, and talk to us. I want them to do that here. It’s a chance for us to tell people about who we are, meet the team and hang out with us and just be able to build a bit more of a lifestyle behind the products.
If we could then do that in Paris, in Amsterdam and in Brooklyn, that’d be amazing. We definitely see that this is scalable and I’d love to see it work out, because if this can work here then we’ll be in a position where we can do it in other places. Within the world of social media now, the key thing for me is entertainment. It’s like we have a king and queen ethos, where the product is the king but every king needs a queen. For us, the queen is the entertainment aspect, the story, it’s the thing that goes with it.
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Finally, what are your goals and your plans for the future of the brand?
I just want to keep building a really amazing team who are really focused and passionate. Scaling is incredibly hard and especially with a recession, with Brexit and rising costs, you’re putting out fires daily. As a brand, we’re learning how to grow a thick skin and my goals for the future would be for us to just build through these problems and continuously move forward with positivity.
There are so many indie brands that have become bigger success stories, that have grown and scaled and shown that they have got a wonderful formula. I think what comes next is not so much what’s important to us, it’s more about telling a story and showing a journey. If we do build it in that sense, then I think we can go on to do so much more than fashion. I personally love mid-century modern houses, I’d love to do a house flip in a House of Sunny way, a sneaker collaboration, things that are just a little off-piste. Sometimes there are designs that come out of the team that are worth so much more or could go so much further, so I’d love to see a collaboration with a high-end brand in a show like Dior did with ERL. The brand took that superstar piece that was humble and covered it in silver and gold because it was Dior. I would love to work with someone like that, I’d love to work with Sean Wotherspoon. At the same time, we’d love to collaborate with similar, small indie brands like ours to create exclusive runs. Some of the best collaborations I’ve ever seen are the smallest ones.