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Sunnei SS24 27
Photography Christina Fragkou

10s across the board? Why Sunnei begged to be judged this season

The Italian label’s founders Loris Messina and Simone Rizzo discuss their runway show’s latest take on audience participation, the business of fashion week, and Milan right now

Judging is an instinct,” a voice cuts through softly throbbing synths at Sunnei’s Milan Fashion Week show. “Do it,” the slow, British montone commands. “You’re already giving a score to this look in your mind. Just express it.” Everyone’s a critic, sure – but halfway through the cyclical machine whir of Fashion Month, the Italian brand slid a stick into the industry’s gears.

Attendees at Sunnei’s show were given paddle boards with numbers ranging from one to ten, and instructed to judge each look as it came down the runway. It was fun, and a bit biting. As in previous season’s, Loris Messina and Simone Rizzo’s shows involve audience participation – models emerged from the audience to everyone’s surprise in SS23, and trustfalled and crowdsurfed in AW23. For SS24, the fashion panopticon was subverted into the spectacle; the crisis of fashion criticism and dearth of personal taste the sticking points.

Think about how many people would like to be in your shoes.”

Sunnei is the opportunity to not hate fashion. Ancora! Having an opinion is natural, just release it. Follow your gut. Don’t overthink. Just judge.”

"Honestly, we have so many ideas in our pockets. It's more about making our guests a part of the scenes from our minds," says Rizzo, speaking the day after the show from his home in Milan. "For Sunnei, not everything is around the collection, its development, or even the clothes themselves – it is more about creating an experience. We hate over-conceptualising. People are always like, ‘you're so smart, so arty, all these things!’ But Loris and I's approach is simple. We follow ideas and make them reality.”

“It's difficult to find something easy to understand, but that also delivers a big critique and moment of social commentary,” he adds. “We don't want to be political – it's never been our thing. We want to create something that is beautiful, positive, makes you think, but first, makes you smile. We're very confident and we find pride in not taking ourselves too seriously.” TBT to those glass-blown dildos.

People often tell them they get a bit scared before entering a Sunnei show. A model could propel themselves from the seat beside you, or a sprinting to slo-mo runway moment might feel like a jet lag-triggered trip. “We want to encourage guests to feel,” says Messina. “There is so much emphasis in this business on reactions – positive reactions. What is most important to us is to bring people into our conversation.”

It’s a taut 30-look collection, where Rizzo and Messina can say a lot, concisely, and ask even more. Silhouettes move from the form-fitting to oversized, with cut-out second skin tops, layered columns of denim and silk, and dresses over wide-leg trousers. Japanese knits are sheer, and fabrics go from the rigid to the diaphanous. Pixelated prints and cracked hand-dyed pieces provide some texture, and the signature Sunnei candy stripes appear. Colours move from minty green to mercury red, highlighter pink, pale yellow and seafoam blue. 

Accessories are as playful as ever: big, bolshy messenger bags slung low to knock the knees, and braided leather and rubber attachments trail behind. The 'Cuore di Pietra' – a stone heart pierced with an arrow – is a recurring motif. Does one need a Cuore di Pietra to weather the fashion world's judgements?

“There is so much emphasis in this business on reactions – positive reactions. What is most important to us is to bring people into our conversation” - Loris Messina

“With every season, we focus on what we have done and try to elevate it,” says Messina. “It is an introspective process. Self exporting. Silhouettes are an innovation of what we like to do – extremes of our vision.”

“Something Simone and I really have is an ability to make something that people can say, 'oh, that's so Sunnei'. Be it clothes, images, music.”

“We aren't the kind of creative directors who will be like 'oh Loris! Look at these pictures of my time abroad, these fabrics I found out there’,” says Rizzo. “It’s 100 per cent of our imagination.”

Rather than designing for a particular muse, Rizzo and Messina find inspiration in Milanese daily life, the Sunnei stores’ workers, friends and the digital world. One look even features the face of Giorgio, from the Sunnei team, printed onto a silk shirt. “Our muse is the digital disruption,” says Rizzo. “It is how we consume culture on TikTok and how we do so in real life on the streets, at dinner parties, exhibitions, in exchanges with friends who are artists, producers, gallerists, DJs.”

The SS24 show notes point to the industry’s breakneck speed, its lofty and contradicting expectations: “You are expected to unveil something completely different from what you’ve done before, but exaggerating is not good either; people want the comfort of familiarity.” 

It could seem provocative to have a show asking such questions in Milan, home of the megabrands and historical fashion houses, as well as this season’s biggest talking points. Sunnei is a funhouse mirror – an outsized, irreverent take on fashion’s reality, where businesses are built and broken in the pews of public opinion, and the tastes and the values of the few dominate. The Sunnei temperature check for Milan right now, it seems from our conversation, is pretty tepid.

“We're excited because Milano is our city,” says Rizzo.

“Yes, but are we excited about what's happening?” Messina counters. They both laugh and sigh, share eye rolls.

“Our codes and references are far from the ideas people have of Milano” - Simone Rizzo

“Well…” begins Rizzo. “We would love to see new – I mean, really new – things happening in Milano. At the moment, big brands have total control of the full calendar during fashion week. There are some new talents, and sometimes we support them, but I don't know... we're more excited about the art galleries that are opening, the festivals, more than what's happening during fashion week.”

“We do fashion week because it's part of the business,” says Messina. “It’s not a focus. It's not like we want to be outsiders – that's not the aim. But what we do is immediately interesting, and different. I don't know... I feel like it's a little bit boring here, but maybe it's just the moment that is boring. It's hard to say I'm inspired by the moment.” 

“Our codes and references are far from the ideas people have of Milano,” says Rizzo. “Sunnei could be in Milano, but it can also be on Mars.” Rizzo shouts out Milanese brand Lessico Familiare – a small, zero waste brand making unique, full-of-flair pieces from recycled fabrics. “They do not give a fuck about the business, or being recognisable. They just spread their ideas in Milano. They're doing a great job.”

It is difficult, they both agree, for both emerging brands clamouring to strike through ever-moving goalposts, and bigger brands to emote new, exciting visions. “We look around and it’s… okay. Everything is… okay!” says Rizzo.

While the show is a “beautiful part” of the job, the focus remains firmly on building the business. “We are not designers as much as we are entrepreneurs,” says Rizzo. “We are not just the creative minds; we are on strategies, suppliers, business development.” 

As a duo, it’s a “four-hand operation”, but both Messina and Rizzo have naturally focused and developed in different aspects. Messina is more involved in the design and production, while Rizzo helms communication, commercial opportunities, and content creation. The radio station, lifestyle products and store spaces that house brand events have been a marked success. “Sunnei is a cultural platform, with a lot of ingredients,” Rizzo says. 

Messina and Rizzo also dropped Sunnei’s capsule collection last week, featuring graphic shirts with cheeky slogans and memes gleaned from their community and across its history: “J'ADOREREI SUNNEI”, screams one. “I HATE FASHION”, another. How much, out of ten?