Sunday Riley: the woman behind the beauty brand

Sunday Riley: the woman behind the beauty brand

Entrepreneur Sunday Riley discusses skincare, Florence and the power of intuition.

Thu 19 Jan 2023 3:36 PM

“It’s my Neanderthal genes!” quips Sunday Riley, as she arrives a few minutes late for our interview in the foyer of The Place Firenze. A blast of sunshine on a dull winter’s day, the Texas-born founder of the namesake skincare brand, a household name in the US and now rapidly taking Europe by storm, is still navigating her way around Florence’s meandering streets. But what brought the entrepreneur here in the first place?

Sunday Riley
Sunday Riley (left) with The Florentine‘s Helen Farrell at The Place Firenze. Ph. Valeria Raniolo

“I have the same question for the universe,” answers Sunday. “If you had told me ten years ago that I’d be living here in Florence, I would have said sure because I’m open to anything, but I wouldn’t have expected it. It just wasn’t in my plans. Like everyone in 2020, I lost my mind a bit. I only had an American passport, so I couldn’t really travel anywhere outside of the States. It was a weird thing for me. I’m a traveller by nature. I ended up buying a farm, unseen, about an hour outside of Florence. One day, I was sitting next to a friend of mine, both of us on our computers, and she was looking at houses in Spain. She said, I’m not going to buy one, but I like to shop for them. And I said, That sounds like fun. Let’s do it. Then I saw the Italy button, so I clicked on it and I saw this farm. I was like, Wow! I downloaded the brochure before looking at five other ones. In the end, I asked my friend to tell me which she thought I’d like the most: Option one is for you! One of my requirements in this ‘fictitious’ property-buying game was that it had to be within an hour of a major city and this one was within an hour of Florence. I reached out to the real estate company, but the guy told me that there was an American woman who was clear that she was going to buy it: she’d already visited the property. I asked him what had stopped her from putting in an offer and he replied, Restrictions and lockdown; she wants to visit it one more time. I decided to put in an offer. He was shocked because I hadn’t even seen the property. But I knew it was right.” 

Now the entrepreneur divides her time between Houston, where her business and family are based, and Florence, while the farm undergoes extensive renovation work. Powered by science, balanced by botanicals is the tagline for Sunday Riley’s beauty products. As we chat, it becomes increasingly clear that Sunday has an innate blend of analysis and instinct. “I try to lead my life based on intuition, while also using a lot of logic in my work. I don’t have a ten-year guide. When it came to buying the farm, I was at a point where something had to change in my life. If it sucks, I can sell it, I thought. The offer was accepted, but it takes forever to buy something here, but then all of a sudden in April, it came through. I was the owner. Oh yay, but oh no! I couldn’t even visit because I still didn’t have the right to come to Italy. I was finally able to come out a few months later in the summer and I loved it, but it’s under renovation. I was staying in hotels and started coming here every two to three weeks. In the end, I got an apartment and started to meet people and make great friends here…To me, it feels like there’s a part of my future but also a part of my past in Florence. It’s like when you meet someone for the first time and it’s like you’ve known them your whole life, like you were intertwined all along. That’s how I feel about Florence.” 

Relaxedly sipping her morning coffee, I pick the international skincare expert’s brains about ways to combat the winter. (Sunday’s also a member of the North American Society of Cosmetic Chemists.) “The cold dehydrates and compromises the moisture barrier of your skin,” Sunday explains; she clearly loves talking about the science of skincare.

Sunday Riley at The Place Firenze. Ph. Valeria Raniolo

“When that happens, you typically have more transepidermal water loss. You end up with this rough exterior: it’s almost dry from the inside and it can actually itch on your body as well. In the winter, I always recommend exfoliators, something like Good Genes [ed. Sunday Riley’s award-winning glycolic acid-based serum]. You don’t want to use exfoliating beads if you can avoid them because they can be too much if your skin’s already irritated. Exfoliate the dry skin away and then use ceramides, which are critical for the moisture barrier. As we age, our ceramide production radically slows down. If you think of babies, they have this plump juicy skin with all the hyaluronic acid and ceramides. You can press on a baby’s skin and it will spring back. Then you press on your own skin and you wonder why it’s not bouncing back and sagging in a weird way. Replenishing your skin with these things that the weather reduces, but that also reduces with time and age, is really important.” 

This is the second time Riley and I have met. After speaking at a promotional event aimed at Florence’s expat women organized by Sofia Medina, Sunday Riley’s Senior PR & Communications Manager for Italy, the founder’s energy moved me so much that I uncharacteristically fangirled the entrepreneur afterwards in the hotel lobby. It’s an impressive success story based on hard work and science-based formulations. Established in 2009, Sunday Riley was one of the earliest indie skincare brands to focus on self-love through green technology. From practically having nothing, Sunday scored a game-changing order from Barneys New York and moved heaven and earth to deliver. “We launched during the holidays and it was challenging. I hired the most outgoing salespeople and we walked around, grabbing everyone we saw to tell them about the brand. In the end, we made sales and ended up getting a cult following.”

From C.E.O. (a brightening serum, which I’m currently trialling with Luna sleeping night oil and am already seeing a clearer reflection in the mirror) to U.F.O. (a clarifying acne treatment oil), the product line feels fun, refreshing yet reliable. The power of positivity is in full force. 

“Any brand takes on the personality of the founder or the people that run it. I’m a yes person. I believe in saying yes to opportunities. Taking a leap of faith doesn’t mean that you’re going to be comfortable. So, I’m a yes person and that puts me in uncomfortable scenarios all the time, but it’s also what has allowed me to meet really interesting people. I have no qualms about going after someone and saying, I enjoyed that and I’d love to know you better. As women, we’re often taught to sacrifice our own happiness to the point where we’re not even sure what it looks like to take care of ourselves. In a way, skincare is a part of that: it’s taking care of yourself and it’s saying yes to positive change in your life. I also hate negative messaging in products. There was this American motivational speaker called Florence Shinn, who wrote The Game of Life and How to Play It, which sounds so contemporary, but it was written in 1925. In this book, she has a friend that likes to come over for an old-fashioned chat, and to this friend that means, I want to come over and complain about everyone. And she said, I always tell her you can come over for a new-fashioned chat, but I’m too busy for old-fashioned. The friend never comes over.”

Sunday Riley

So, what can we expect from Sunday Riley in Italy in 2023 and beyond? “Italians are some of the most accepting, warmest and curious people on the planet. They love artisanal things and like to ask how things are made. I’m excited about next year because we’re expanding further into Italy through Sephora and we have counters opening in La Rinascente. We’ll be doing a big pop-up at Milan’s La Rinascente for six months as well as being in Palermo and different places.” 

Sunday Riley’s favourite places in Florence

Maurizio & Salici, in via Santo Spirito
Maurizio & Salici, in via Santo Spirito

I’m in love with this antiquities and curiosities store called Maurizio & Salici. The last time I went in, there was this painting of a woman that had come from a villa in Lucca, which had been closed up for 80 years. If you’re looking at a painting of a famous person, you know their life story, but in this case we didn’t know who she was. Just looking at her sparked life for me. Then there’s a shop run by a guy called Leo, which has great lampshades. He buys these vintage lamp bases and contemporary fabrics. The aesthetic reminds me of the Crosby Street Hotel in New York. It’s beautiful and I love that he does it himself.

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