Luxury bridal gown designer Rita Vinieris has grown her business from a one-woman studio in Toronto to a recognized international brand. Hundreds of fashion-forward brides from New York to Los Angeles and Tokyo to Seoul walk down the aisle wearing Rivini couture wedding dresses every year.
It’s a long way from Toronto’s Greek Town, where Vinieris’ immigrant parents settled. Her mother worked from home as a seamstress and her father was a self-taught handyman who did everything from carpentry to plumbing to electrical. Their talent inspired the young first-generation Canadian.
“It was fascinating to watch nothing become something,” says Vinieris. “Both my parents transformed raw materials into something incredible.”
Vinieris spent 10 years learning the trade at different fashion companies while designing special-occasion clothes on the side. She launched Rivini in 1995 after creating wedding gowns for two friends who didn’t want poofy, Princess Diana-style dresses that were popular at the time.
“There was a void in the market for couture-inspired gowns with luxurious fabrications and finishes that combined classic, fashionable styling,” she says.
The designer started small, creating custom gowns one bride at a time, but she had big ambitions: “I always intended to brand myself and transition my business into a wholesale business in the U.S. market.”
About 15 years ago, Vinieris made her U.S. debut at a New York City trunk show attended by store buyers and fashion editors. The creative display and sleek, modern dresses enticed a few shops to place orders and export sales started to grow.
As an unknown Canadian designer in the huge U.S. market, Vinieris says it was critical to quickly develop a reputation for reliably delivering stunning luxury gowns.
“It’s always a challenge for a new brand as trust needs to be built,” she explains. Vinieris had to convince buyers her small Canadian company was solid and could fulfill orders six months out. It’s important to have financing to support exporting for the first two years while building sales, she advises.
Exports grew steadily as Rivini focused on developing relationships with retailers, learning which were a good fit and dropping others along the way.
By 2002, Rivini landed some major key accounts the company continues to supply today. Vinieris’s husband, Tony Giancola, quit his job with a global publishing company to join Rivini as business manager.
“Within the first five years we were one of the top 10 couture brands in the U.S. and won numerous awards,” says Vinieris.
Market research is key to Rivini’s successful export strategy. Vinieris has been able to identify fashion trends and offer retailers unique styles that complement their other lines.
The designer also diversified to help grow exports. She added a more accessible line of wedding dresses, Alyne Bridal, with gowns priced at $2,500 to $4,000. In 2013, she introduced a ready-to-wear eveningwear collection favoured by A-listers and celebrities. It is carried by storied New York luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman.
Fully 95 per cent of total sales are to the U.S. where the large population and buying power drive demand. High-end retailers in Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand, Singapore, Lebanon, Mexico and Hong Kong also carry Vinieris’s styles.
Rivini booked about $5 million in sales in 2015 and expects orders to increase about 15 per cent this year.
In Toronto, Vinieris has long outgrown the small studio and now presides over a 10,000-square-foot atelier that houses design, production and administration. She also has an office in New York and contracts out some manufacturing and public relations. The company has 20 employees, including sewers, cutters and beaders who meticulously craft and adorn each dress.
Market research outfit Global Industry Analysts Inc. projects the global market for bridal wear to top $80 billion (U.S.) by 2020, driven by rising cultural expectations for lavish weddings and the influence of celebrity nuptials and social media.
Now Vinieris is looking across the Atlantic and trying to increase brand awareness in Europe and elsewhere.
“We are hoping to expand into Ireland, the U.K., France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia, United Arab Emirates, Australia and New Zealand,” says Vinieris.
As Rivini continues to grow, Vinieris’s joy in creating beautiful dresses hasn’t changed.
“I love seeing brides wearing my gowns, as each gown comes to life and takes on a personality when a bride puts it on.”