Unique Design Milano: A Niche Eyewear Brand to Know
MILAN — As an industry dominated by large groups that generate the bulk of their revenues from licensing deals inked with notable luxury brands, eyewear has left little space for independent players.
Those that did succeed have had to play by a different rulebook to keep up with the competition.
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One such case is Unique Design Milano, or UDM, a real start-up case study established by Stefano Romanelli and Mattia Colleoni during the pair’s academic years.
Stemming from a university assignment centered on Made in Italy whereby Romanelli was tasked with developing an eyewear brand, UDM has turned into a 700,000-euro business in the span of five years, including the pandemic-scuppered 2020 and 2021. It has won over some celebrities, including Arian Moayed, Jessica Chastain, Dree Hemingway, Hilaria Baldwin and Zac Posen.
“We are real outsiders. Most often independent [eyewear] brands are launched by people already part of this world or connected to it, because it’s very hard to get into it,” explained Romanelli, founder and chief executive officer. “Eyewear looks like a wide network, but it isn’t.”
UDM’s creative director and cofounder Mattia Colleoni, a graduate in economics and management, had previously had a gig in fashion having launched a ready-to-wear brand of his own that has now been discontinued. He jumped onboard lending his creative ethos to the eyewear project.
After setting the foundations for UDM to hit the market — sourcing, design, manufacturing and all — the pair officially commenced business in 2018 with just two styles a year but soon began inking deals with trusted manufacturing and commercial partners. As UDM was readying an international push in communication, marketing and distribution at the onset of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“The year 2020 was extremely hard for us. After two years of work, we had to start over, almost from scratch,” Romanelli said.
UDM has had a penchant for chunky acetate frames since its inception, perhaps to the detriment of their business at the start when lighter designs were all the rage. But the focus became a distinctive element and a boon when those styles started trending in 2021 and UDM had already built a dedicated pipeline.
“Our direct competitors could hardly keep up with the pace of demand because manufacturers had long-lead production time, which helped us grow brand awareness in 2021 across different markets,” Romanelli said.
Since last year, UDM frames have been largely manufactured in Japan, known as one of the premium international eyewear hubs, which “gives us confidence in terms of quality and ability to change product designs, features and details very swiftly,” Colleoni explained.
Some production remains in Italy, but Romanelli claimed the “Made in” label has little relevance in eyewear.
“Our research is geared not necessarily at [manufacturing] in certain places but rather on finding the best producers,” Colleoni said. “Our goal is to provide our clients with the highest-quality products for our target price, that’s what triggers us to find the best partners,” he added.
UDM is now approaching new markets to further build brand awareness as it’s on track to hit its first million euros in annual sales this year.
As part of this push, the brand teamed with Pietro Nolita, a famous dining spot in in the eponymous Manhattan neighborhood, launching affordable Barbiecore, pink sunglasses. This is part of Space, a brand platform geared toward developing collaborative and unexpected projects, not necessarily linked to eyewear, as was the case with the first drop, a timepiece.
Evenly distributed in Europe, except for Germany, and in North America, including Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, with about 450 retailers, the brand only has small footprints elsewhere, especially in Turkey, Morocco and Israel.
The slow-paced organic growth results from manufacturing constraints, among other factors, the pair said. Unlike many brands established during the pandemic years that have embraced the direct-to-consumer business model, overlooking wholesale, UDM took the opposite path and has yet to push their e-commerce in a big way. It was launched in 2020 but currently serves mainly as a window into the brand’s world.
“Most of the times customers want to try eyewear on and that’s one limit, in addition to pricing which can be a barrier to purchase, unless they’re returning clients,” Romanelli said.
The collection comprises sunglasses and prescription frames retailing between 200 and 300 euros. In five years’ time, the pair has the ambition to hit sales between 5 million and 10 million euros and potentially venture into brick-and-mortar retail.
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