COVER STORY

How Sunnies Studios became a retail powerhouse

How does a small company built on sunglasses — and laconically named for its signature product — become a fashion and lifestyle empire? According to Sunnies Studios’s Martine Cajucom, Bea Soriano-Dee, and Georgina Wilson, it’s all a matter of how you see it.



Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The thing people always talk about when they talk about Sunnies Studios is the look.

The Look is integral in any retail or fashion business, but Sunnies, once only the little eyewear stall that could, has taken it to another level. Selling stylish sunglasses at affordable prices is one thing — and that’s a crowded marketplace, with everyone from H&M to i2i Sunglasses selling variations of the same thing — but Sunnies has worked The Look so hard, so shrewdly, so confidently that it has sublimated the product as the main event. When you think of Sunnies, you think of the look first and the product second.

It’s a look that you immediately grasp upon looking at the brand’s visuals, from the continuously changing packaging to the tightly curated Instagram account. Perfect Pantone colors. Crisp sans serifs. Pastel flat-lays. Natural light. Freewheeling film photography. Southern California. Palm trees. Anything feed-worthy.

In the early days, when product development hadn’t yet progressed enough to keep it truly competitive in terms of product, it was the promise of that look, of that SoCal lifestyle that allowed Sunnies to cut through the local retail marketplace and make itself heard on social media.

“We’ve always talked about how we’re focused on the perfect Pantones,” Sunnies’s creative director, Martine Cajucom, says. “The subtlety of the colors … [And then] there are playful elements, travel elements, moments.”

“There are people here who’ve lived here their whole life, but they now understand that aesthetic,” the company’s marketing director, Georgina Wilson, says. “Because they get it. And what we wanna do is give them a brand that gets them. You want those amazing things you see happening in LA or New York or whatever — we’re gonna do it here.”

Sunnies Studios Martine Cajucom, Bea Soriano-Dee, Eric Dee, and Georgina Wilson have proved a sharp, savvy, increasingly ambitious team. Photo by BJ PASCUAL

In a little less than three years, Sunnies has swiftly made itself the local retail brand to watch, with 38 branches that have expanded its reach all over the country, strong online retail partnerships that’s allowed it to deliver as far as Singapore, and a 240,000-strong Instagram following that’s already the third most followed retail brand locally, and with perhaps the most engaged following to boot. This year, it’s diversifying, with the arrival of Sunnies Specs (“prescription eyewear made simple,” its lookbook copy says) and the much-anticipated Sunnies Café, a food-and-beverage, brick-and-mortar testament to the Sunnies lifestyle.

Sunnies had some help getting there, of course. Wilson, the It girl of the early 2010s and still one of the country’s most in-demand endorsers, is one of the four partners behind the company, and her two-million strong Instagram following has certainly helped break and expand the brand to the public. The company’s operations director, Bea Soriano-Dee, also a member of the It girl troupe that held Manila’s fascination for a prolonged 15 minutes in the early 2010s, is no slouch, with a 195,000-strong Instagram following despite never really courting her public.

With Sunnies’s finance director, Eric Dee, (Soriano-Dee’s husband and business partner) and Cajucom (Wilson’s cousin) on board — both bringing their respective expertise and experience to the table — the Sunnies foursome have proved a sharp, savvy, and increasingly ambitious team. From a team of six, the company has grown to close to 200. And already it’s moved offices once, from a relatively small HQ near EDSA to its own pastel-colored warehouse in Libis, Quezon City, finally able to house most of its operations under one roof.

“If there’s fast growth, there’s also a fast ability to fail ‘cause you’re going so quickly,” Wilson says. “I think what I do a lot of the time is rein it in. ‘Is this the right thing?’” But she is quick to point out that Sunnies is on a well-paved path. “Sunnies is not alienating,” she explains. “Even though it is that cool, it’s not alienating, especially in very basic stuff like price point. For me, what’s really important is that Sunnies needs to be that affordable luxury — and it is with the prices — and it needs to be good, and it needs to be everywhere.”

Instagram bombshell

Of course, when you talk about the Sunnies look, you’re really talking about Martine Cajucom, the company’s creative director. When I get to the Sunnies Studios HQ in Quezon City, true to form, a crop-topped, high-slitted Cajucom is in the middle of what seems like a pretty serious meeting with Heim Interiors, the popular interior design firm they’re working with on one of the Sunnies Cafés. “I want to avoid anything too cliché,” she’s saying. “Mid-century-inspired but not obviously retro. I don’t want something to feel dated or like a knockoff or cartoonish — I want it to still be modern.”

The discussion moves along. “We want to make the bathroom something special,” she says in a sweet, little-girl voice you don’t really expect coming from a dusky, pint-sized Instagram bombshell (or “Instahoe,” as she lovingly calls herself). “For the first branch, we really kind of sourced everything — I mean, who knew I was a sourcer?” It’s important to note that there are four people from Heim at this meeting and only Cajucom from Sunnies.

Later, eating quinoa and sinigang on a desk overrun with Pantone swatches and a copy of Lena Dunham’s “Not That Kind of Girl” (“I give this to our writers, like, this is the writing voice”), she talks about her time before Sunnies as creative manager at American Apparel, the U.S. brand famous for thrift shop-looking basics and provocative ads.

Sunnies Studios "Sunnies is not alienating," Georgina Wilson says. "For me what's really important is that Sunnies needs to be that affordable luxury — and it is with the prices — and it needs to be good, and it needs to everywhere." Photo by BJ PASCUAL

“American Apparel is such an unusual company to work for,” says Cajucom, who, pre-Sunnies, lived in California. “Like, the creative team is so small. Truthfully, when I started, we were three … I did so much when I worked there, and it kind of really equipped me for a spectrum of different kinds of job identities. Because we conceptualized marketing campaigns, web ads, print ads, billboards, touched upon everything. I worked so closely with the creative director and the CEO at the time and just kind of understanding how these things work.” (One of the highlights of Cajucom’s American Apparel life? She designed a cropped turtleneck top inspired by Britney Spears’ “Sometimes” music video “because I really wanted a top like that.”)

Foreshadowing her current status as Manila’s reigning queen of Instagram, the brand initially sought her out as an early digital influencer on Lookbook, a site where millennials in the mid-to-late 2000s uploaded their pre-Instagram OOTDs. “For some reason, I was on it very early on,” she says. “I posted minimal looks, but I guess at the time they were pretty impactful. And so they invited me to go to their HQ and kind of just gave me freebies … They offered me a job on the spot because they liked all the things I was saying.”

Growing up in California obviously informs the visual identity Cajucom has molded for Sunnies. But it’s the experience in a brand like American Apparel that eventually helped her translate that life experience into a real brand, and keep that brand identity together through different product lines and changing Pantone colors. “It’s intuitive,” she says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, this is where I grew up.’ Nothing like that. Nothing pretentious or flowery about it, literally.”

Of course, the downside to a visual identity that cool and confident is a misinterpretation of price point. “It’s sort of a thing we go back and forth with, because initially people thought that the sunglasses were too expensive,” she says. “That the branding is too elevated.” Shot by the LA-based Filipino photographer Emman Montalvan, modeled by Wilson, and styled and art-directed by Cajucom, the Sunnies ads are one of the brand’s strongest assets, now instantly recognizable and often copied. They’ve since adopted the practice of bannering the low prices on high-end-looking ads similar to Uniqlo and H&M.

“Sunnies was started just by mood board,” Cajucom explains. “We mood-boarded things that we liked — music, pop-culture references, design references, furniture references. And we built a brand on top of that … What are things that we like, what are colors we like, what are places we like? That’s why we have these style icons. That’s why we have mood boards everywhere. Literally, that’s how Sunnies started.”

Working at American Apparel also helped prepare Cajucom for her job as a boss, managing people and making sure they hit their targets at the same time. “I really empathize with them,” she says. “It’s a lot of one-on-one. It’s more of evaluating each person, giving them tasks that strengthen what they do, and also what they bring best to the team.”

Sunnies - Martine Cajucom "It's intuitive," Martine Cajucom says about the Sunnies Studios look. "It wasn't like, 'Oh, this is where I grew up.' Nothing like that. Nothing pretentious or flowery about it, literally." Photo by BJ PASCUAL

At one point, the creative team under Cajucom included Melissa Gatchalian, a talented, emerging blogger with a following of her own; Tina Ong, a cult-favorite style star with extensive retail experience under her belt; and Tin Dabbay, a whiz kid creative who has contributed to Dazed magazine. The Sunnies foursome is proud of how formidable their team is, and continuously make sure to allow them to grow within the company but also grow as individuals outside it.

“For me, one of the reasons I wasn’t as happy with my job [in American Apparel] even if I loved the nature of the work was the real lack of vacations,” Cajucom says. “We went without vacations for so long, and it bred so much resentment … [In Sunnies], we’re pretty flexible. We encourage them to travel. When they go abroad, we’re happy.”

The oil that spreads the fire

By the time Georgina Wilson arrives at the office, there’s already a pre-prod meeting in line for her — a cover shoot for Preview magazine — with another pre-prod meeting for a Samsung shoot on one of the chat groups on her phone.

Famously particular, sometimes deemed difficult, Wilson long ago gave up on playing cordial at work just to keep the peace. “I’m at a place right now, where I’m managing myself,” she says. “It suits who I am. I am running me as a brand like a company. So Sunnies is like an extension, and I think of it in the same way, too.” And so, she takes great pains to understand what will go on at something as major as a magazine cover, to make sure that all parties are happy with the results.

Managing that brand — the Georgina Wilson™ brand — is what has helped her take on the marketing position at Sunnies. She’s still, after all, the most followed Filipino who doesn’t appear on TV and movies on Instagram, a status she achieved largely through prime endorsements, strategic magazine covers, an understanding of self-marketing, and a canny way with social media.

“At the peak of my career, I’d have, like, 20 endorsements,” Wilson says. “But now, I’d be happy with five amazing ones, and that’s all I want.”

There will always be a misconception that Wilson is more of a figurehead than an actual working partner at Sunnies — perhaps the result of a long trend of celebrity products branded with celebrity names but run by other people. While she admits that she’s only in the office “when I’m in town, as many [days] as I can,” Wilson brings her own specific skill set to the table, working hand in hand with Cajucom in articulating the brand values and aesthetic in marketing terms — in business terms.

At one point during my interview with Cajucom, who tends to answer questions in personal stories or lists of things she likes, Wilson interjected to help her condense her creative philosophies in quotable quotes, in more sellable terms. In other words, if Cajucom is the creative spark, Wilson is the oil that spreads the fire, with finance head Eric Dee and operations head Bea Soriano-Dee making sure the fire is contained enough so they don’t burn out.

Sunnies Studios - Georgina Wilson "I'm at a place right now, where I'm managing myself," Georgina Wilson says. "I am running me as a brand like a company. So Sunnies is like an extension, and I think of it in the same way too." Photo by BJ PASCUAL

“I’m technically the marketing director, but Martine and I kind of handle that whole department — anything communication, anything creative,” Wilson says. “So it’s very collaborative. I usually let a lot of the team do the traditional marketing stuff, like the traditional spend, all that stuff, and we have so many new projects, and a lot of what I do is making sure that the brand integrity stays … I’m so notorious for midnight decisions where [I think], ‘Oh, we have the wrong logo. We have to change it.’ Let’s say I’m the wild card, all the rest are super normal.”

Growing up in the public eye, the Georgina Wilson we know has continuously evolved through the years — from muse to ingenue to cover girl to power player to entrepreneur. “I thought that 30 would be crazy, and being married was like, ‘Holy hell, that’s over the hill,’” she says. “Like you’re old as fuck. But now that it’s happening, I feel at peace. I’m so happy, and just like, whatever you gave me, I wouldn’t go back to those years.”

She adds: “A question that somebody asked me recently is, ‘As you continue to grow up and like, say you’re 40, does Sunnies [get older]?’ I don’t think that’s how it’s gonna work. The brand has to evolve, but not age. And sadly we will, but that will be the challenge. Sunnies will have a life of its own.”

A long way from Charlie

In the early 2010s, when she found herself in a group of friends deemed the generation’s “It Girls,” the then-model Bea Soriano quietly retreated and co-founded a retail brand called Charlie in 2011, with Eric Dee, her entrepreneur boyfriend.

“Charlie was a fashion apparel [brand],” Bea Soriano-Dee explains. “We sold everything. It was just Eric and I, and maybe two other people who are still with us now. It was crazy. We were working from 6 a.m. till, like, 2. a.m. every day.”

Sunnies Studios - Bea Soriano "I think it's part of the lifestyle right now where you can't expect everyone to be in the office," Bea Soriano says. "You have to be mobile. You have to work wherever you are." Photo by BJ PASCUAL

Eventually, in selling everything, you realize that some products tend to sell better than others. “And that’s how we came to know that Sunnies was doing really well,” Soriano-Dee says. “We had everything — we had sunglasses, we had shoes, we had bags. Everything.”

In mid-2013, they started working with Wilson on marketing and then eventually Cajucom on creatives. Sunnies began to bloom. “From there, we’re like, you know how in Australia they call it ‘sunnies’?” Soriano-Dee recalls. “So we said, ‘We should call it Sunnies by Charlie.’ And so it stuck.” Sunnies by Charlie officially launched in September 2013.

By February 2014, Sunnies was doing well enough that Eric and Bea saw the opportunity in letting Charlie go and focusing on Sunnies. “We were like, ‘You know, Sunnies is bigger than Charlie,’” Soriano-Dee says. “It doesn’t make sense to call something ‘by Charlie’ when everyone knows it as Sunnies.” She adds: “I think it took about a year that was descriptive of what Sunnies is. So Sunnies Studios is an umbrella company of all the concepts we’re putting.”

“I wouldn’t say that Charlie was a successful business, but in a way, it is because it led me to Sunnies,” she says. “I think it’s really merging the two skill sets — Eric and I, what we’re really good at, the two of us, is business concepts. Martine and George are really good at marketing and creatives. So it’s their branding skills and our business concepts.”

This year, with Sunnies launching Specs and then the Café, the Dees — they got married in January 2015 — are a long way from Charlie. “Sunnies Studios is more of a lifestyle brand,” Soriano-Dee says. “Having a restaurant is the epitome of what lifestyle is all about. It just builds the brand, it solidifies it. It helps that Eric is into food. Everyone’s trying to build restaurants now, and it’s so hard. If you don’t know anything about operations, don’t go into it. The opportunity of having Eric’s family in the operations background, and Sunnies in the marketing and branding, I think that’s the perfect marriage of Sunnies Café.”

The Dees are the more quiet half of the Sunnies foursome, but it’s in keeping their head down, doing consistent work, and managing the backbone of the company that the indelible Sunnies look and savvy social-media marketing are able to flourish. “We have very, very different schedules, so we don’t see each other a lot,” Soriano-Dee explains. “So we make do with emails, with WhatsApp. But we make sure to meet at least once a month. I think it’s part of the lifestyle right now where you can’t expect everyone to be in the office. You have to be mobile. You have to work wherever you are. You can’t be confined in an office.”

Of course, the company’s expansion isn’t the only thing the Dees have to adjust to. They recently became parents to Braeden, now a year old. And with Sunnies and a son, they’ve seen their priorities shift dramatically. “When you guys ask me how I balance work with being a mom, I’m still trying to figure it out,” she admits. “We get here, and then we meet with all the key people — you can’t naman micromanage with a business that’s growing. So we hire well … And then we get home. On a good day, Braeden’s still awake.”

Sunnies Studios - Martine Cajucom, Bea Soriano, Georgina Wilson "Sunnies was started just by mood board," Martine Cajucom says. "We mood-boarded things that we liked — music, pop culture references, design references, furniture references. And we built a brand on top of that." Photo by BJ PASCUAL

Thirsty and hungry

Through a potent antidote of social-media influence, a specific aesthetic, and the business backbone to keep everything intact, Sunnies has gone from strength to strength, ably discarding an early perception of weak product and making disciples out of skeptics through savvy business moves.

“We’re constantly swatting things out of the way. Whenever people ask me what’s it like to be an entrepreneur, I say, be prepared that every problem is yours,” Cajucom says. “When you’re an employee, when you’re at home, you don’t think about work. But for us, you think about work all day. You think about work if you’re at a bar getting drunk. You’re thinking, ‘How do I make this happen?’”

“I think that as a team, we’re quite thirsty and just hungry,” Wilson says. “Achieving one thing is just not enough. You keep on moving and moving and growing and growing.”

In three years, the Sunnies four have managed to grow the brand from a small apparel brand’s product line to a full-fledged retail juggernaut. Is it too soon to talk about world domination? They sure don’t think so.

“Our primary focus now is to open the café,” Cajucom says. “But my vision that I think we all share is to really take it internationally. I think the U.S. could really love Sunnies. And that’s what we really wanna do … Obviously, we want to expand more. We have dreams of opening Sunnies hotels. Truthfully, with the café, that was a dream last year. We talked about it and here, it’s happening.”

“Globalization is the most overused word, but it’s true,” Wilson says. “With social media, that’s when globalization really happens. And letting people be part of that — that’s what Sunnies Café is. And that’s why we find it such an exciting brand extension for Sunnies. Not the natural route for a frickin’ sunglasses brand, but we don’t think of ourselves as just a sunglasses brand.”

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Photographed by BJ Pascual

Makeup by Mayesa delos Santos

Hair by Anton Papa