Interview with the female founder of the brand Sienna Alexander London!
Sienna launched her sunglasses line, Sienna Alexander London, this past July 2016. She is originally from Russia, but has travelled all over the world, observing how people live. I had the pleasure of speaking with her from London to learn more about her story. Enjoy!
Walk me through your career path.
I’m originally from Russia. At 19, I was studying finance at university. One summer, I decided to move to the US to Miami, FL. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life & was thinking about medical school. This changed completely and I decided to go to London to fashion school at Istituto Marangoni. I spent 3 years there and got a bachelors degree in fashion business. This is how my career started, when I realized I wanted to work with accessories, and specifically sunglasses. I like clothes, but it’s a difficult business with lots of competition. I went to New York after I graduated and worked at Gucci on ecommerce. After, I returned to London for some internships in wholesale, shoes & Linda Farrow. Once my internship ended, I decided it was time to launch my brand.
Was launching a company a lifelong dream of yours?
I knew since I was 15 that I wanted to have my own brand. I always liked sunglasses. I wear them all the time, even in the evening wearing light lenses. With every business you cannot just jump into it. You need to be prepared, know your market & work in the industry first in order to become knowledgeable of how things work. When you’re ready, you’re ready.
How did you choose the name & develop the logo for your brand?
When I moved to US, no one could pronounce my Russian name, Ksenia. Therefore, I picked a second name for myself, Sienna, which sounds similar. I was known as Sienna for about 10 years, so it was like my new life name. Alexander is grandfather’s name, and he is the one who raised me in Russia. Regarding the logo, I wanted to make it simple, not too complicated and very straightforward. We are based in London. That’s where my life is & where everything happens, so we added London to the logo & name.
What is the difference in Russia & the US?
You have to leave your hometown to experience the world. You will become a different person, and will develop your personality. I traveled a lot, all over the world. I love traveling, it’s who I am & I love to observe & learn from different cultures and people. When I came to the US at 19, I didn’t know anyone & didn’t speak any English. You have to integrate & observe how people are. I started to learn how to be American in order to survive in this country. Its helpful in the business also because I know the American market well. I know what they like, what their perception of the world is and how they like to shop.
London is a completely different world from the US. When I came here 7 years ago, I had a bit of an American accent and realized over here you have to pick up a British accent. I adopted to the new reality and started to learn how to be British. At the same time, you have to always be very honest with yourself & know who you are despite different accents & what you learn from other people. I figured out how to behave and integrate, while remembering to always be honest with yourself.
How did you find factories & materials to work with?
When we decided to launch, I always wanted to work with Italy because this is where the sunglasses industry came from. It began in the 1950s in the Province of Belluno which is in Northern Italy. Finding the factories is a very difficult process. Unfortunately, you cannot just Google and find. You have to travel there. I flew to Italy, and was knocking on factories doors in order to find the right supplier. As a new brand, at first they look at you in a strange way & ask who you are and where are you coming from. Then, step by step, I found a few factories that I was interested in, and I liked the quality & what they do. So we started to work together on the collection.
Regarding the materials, we use everything from Italy, 100%. We work with stainless steel & acetate, which is a natural plastic made from cotton & wood. They make it in Italy and blend different colors together. It comes in big pieces and you choose colors in order to start the collection. I have an amazing team that I work with here in London & Italy, so it’s a very international brand. Sunglasses is an interesting business. I’ve always thought it is easier to buy something and then to sell it compared to when you actually produce from scratch. There are so many difficult steps involved. But it’s also the most enjoyable job in the world.
In life, it’s most important to love your work otherwise you aren’t living. You would just be waking up in the morning and suffering everyday. This brand is like my baby. I am extremely involved in each step. It’s not just a pair of glasses to me. I know how it was produced, it was this acetate in the blocks before & then we cut it, next we discussed the technical parts which were then produced in Italy. It takes up to 5 months to produce a model, so it’s a long-term process.
We work with family-owned factories, which were inherited. For them it’s passion & a lifestyle, it’s not just we have this block & cut it and make a product. They actually love the products themselves, and feel it’s important to deliver exceptional quality goods. This is why I like working with Italy, and will never move my production anywhere else because I generally like their mentality & personality. It’s not all about business or money for them. It’s a process where we work together to make a creation.
What is your product development process?
When I start my design process, I already have a picture in my head of how I want to see it & what it should look like. I start drawing, & begin working with different shapes & customizing them. I use a special program for the designs. First, it’s a sketch on paper, then we make a technical drawing out of it, using millimeters of height & width of the frame. Then, I take the designs & go to Italy, where we discuss the technical part. We produce a sample, which is the first step of production called a prototype. We agree on the fitting; it’s important to determine who you want to sell to. Each culture has a different type of face. If we are targeting Asia for example, we need to make specific fitting on the nose & eyes. You can create whatever you want in your head, but you must know who your target market is, who will want to buy it, and you must adopt it to them. I want to make something beautiful, of quality, at an affordable price, but most of all I want to make it wearable. I want them to wear it every single day.
How long does it take to go from concept to shelf?
It can be up to a year.
How did the partnership with Vision Aid Overseas come about, and why was this important to you?
I went Kenya & Tanzania in Africa, where I saw how people live. Most people don’t think about the necessity part of our lives, for example, vision. Everything starts with vision. If one wants to get prescription glasses, they can call the doctor tomorrow and get some. People suffer a lot in Africa, and can’t get an education because they cannot see. While I was there, I observed these horrible conditions, which changed my perception of life a lot & I wanted to help. In order to help on a large level, you need to be a part of something big like United Nations. But at least if I can help a few kids or even 100 people, it makes a huge difference.
When we started the brand, I signed an agreement with Vision Aid Oversees right away. This is a UK based organization. They work with 5 countries in Africa in the poorest regions & supply free optical frames, which they bring from the UK. They also bring doctors for eye checks to give prescriptions in order to boost education for kids. We donate money from every sale to them. It makes a difference, and I think it’s very important not to look at business just as a business, but it’s important to give back as well.
What is your distribution plan?
We sell online on our website. We have our glasses in stores in London, Moscow, Athens & California. At the moment, we are in the process of negotiation with more international distributors. Now we are working with a French agent, and are looking for more agents to work with. It’s important to us to grow on Instagram & on our website.
How did your Instashop page come about? It’s genius!
This is our concept. It’s the people who wear it & see the world through my sunglasses that are my inspiration. They take pictures showcasing where & how they wear them and what their lifestyle is.
How do you determine pricing?
First, I looked at competitors, to see how much similar product is sold for. We wanted to make it more affordable on the market. If you study the sunglasses industry, it’s actually really shady. 80% of the market is owned by huge monopolistic companies, which create whatever price they want since there is no middle man or distributors involved. They have their own shops and factories. This product that they are selling for $300 doesn’t cost that much to produce. Most of them are outsourced in China because capacity & speed of factories in Italy cannot accommodate such large orders & supplies. They don’t hide that it’s made in China, but unfortunately, you’re going to pay a high price. When we looked at it, I knew I didn’t want to fool my clients and I think our price is really competitive. You get very good quality, craftsmanship and beautiful designs at an affordable price.
How did you choose the names for each style?
The whole collection is inspired by London. Each style is named after an iconic area post code there. When I was making the designs, I wanted to combine the atmosphere and style of each area. For example, the Mayfair model is a cat eye, because it’s a classy area and the people who live there dress in a specific style. Whereas the Notting Hill area is a completely different.
What skills are necessary to start & grow a company?
First, everything starts with your mind. It’s a very psychological thing & scary for everyone who starts a business. You have to control the mind and be super self-confident. You have to know your product, believe in your product & dreams, then your dreams will believe in you. The major skill is to be able to fight for your dreams no matter what. Even if 100 doors are closed in front of you, finally, one will open. You’ll get lots of no’s and people will tell you it won’t work out. I was always a fighter since an early age due to moving to new countries.
I had to be strong, which is how I picked up the skills that I then brought to my business. I’m going to do what I think is right and I believe in what I’m doing and know that it will work out. I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly, but we sold 80% of the collection in two months, so we had to immediately re-order as soon as possible to be ready for the holidays. There will always be competitors & someone that is better than you. At the end of the day, it’s you who are doing this & you have to believe in yourself and in your product.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
You make mistakes. One cannot avoid this, but after each mistake you need to analyze what was done wrong, & you have to work on yourself. Sometimes it’s hard to accept as a person that you were wrong since we all have an ego. But it’s important as a business owner to understand your weak parts in order to work on it & to make it the strongest part of you.
How often do you travel, and what do you do while you’re there?
I travel constantly. I recently went to Paris on business for an optical trade show and stayed for 1 week. While there, we worked 12 hours a day. I try to combine leisure with business and I see agents, go to stores to show my collection, etc. If it’s travel for leisure, I observe how people are in these countries, what they wear, what they like, especially what kind of sunglasses they wear & what kind of colors they like in order to adopt my collection to these specific regions. I’m always observing & learning from everyone.
What advice would you give a young entrepreneur?
You have to do very strong research before you start a business & enter the industry. Research is imperative. You don’t want to end up in a few months with rival competitors and not know what you’re doing. You have to have a clear business plan, and need to know long term objectives. Where do you see yourself; where do you want to be? 10 years is really long-term, so let’s start wth 2 years. It’s very important to do the financial analysis, when do you break even and how much do you need to sell. Also, you need to understand the right price. It’s difficult to do this straightaway, so you have to test your market for a bit to see what clients are willing to pay in order to know which strategy is best. You need to be able to adjust. You can’t think, this is my point of view, and this is what I’m going to do. Instead, you need to observe & change. If you believe in something, don’t give up. If it won’t work out in a year, you never know if in 5 or 10 years you’ll make it.
Where is Sienna Alexander London headed?
For our long-term objective, we would like to grow our online store and get into more stores all over the world. Our 2-3 year objectives would be to open our own stores and expand the product range. I want to expand to beach accessories for the future. For now, I want to establish myself as a brand.
What will 3D printing and technology mean to the brand?
The industry & technology are moving very fast. 3D printing is the future in the sunglasses industry. We will use acetate for 3D printing material. They do print sunglasses already, but currently it’s cheap plastic and they haven’t adopted a machine for acetate. However, the technology is going to move forward. One can get a 3D printer at home, get the design of the sunglasses, pick a color and print them out. I think this is the future. However, craftsmanship is still very important. Companies have to be able to adopt to technology, otherwise they’ll be out of the market.
Any upcoming product launches in the works?
Working right now on new models and are in the process of designing it, so it’s just in the first step. We will launch for Summer 2017.