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NEW YORK — Eyewear buyers and exhibitors descended on the Vision Expo East trade show last week and got two shows for the price of one.

This story first appeared in the April 6, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Held at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center here, the event was home to two distinct presentations: there was the “underground” space where small-scale brands showcased styles in an intimate and stylish setting, and the main exhibition floor that featured the loud, packed megabooths of billion-dollar firms.

Those brands holding court in the underground each spoke of how to endure a difficult economy while lacking designer-name cachet. The best option: providing consumers with distinct design and top-notch materials.

“I see one advantage for us in this market, that for people today, it is all about quality,” said Sheila Vance, founder and chief executive officer at Sama Eyewear. “Today’s customer is reducing the amount of buying, but will buy a unique item in design and of perfect quality. It cannot look similar to anything else.”

Sama’s Incognito frames, which like their name lack any sort of brand attribution, are still faring strongly at retail.

Christian Roth is also focused on offering its customer something different.

“Your special selling point has to tell a story, you need to give the retailer a reason to buy,” said co-founder Roth. “People are still willing to spend, but they’re more conscious of quality, uniqueness and design. You can’t be lazy in this economy and people have been lazy for far too long.”

The firm is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and relaunched its first frame updated with 25 tiny diamonds along the rim. They retail for $2,000.

Robert Marc took inspiration for his latest collection from the streets of New York and the different styles found from the Upper to the Lower East Side.

“People are looking for quality, exclusivity and individual style,” Marc said. “That is not about wearing another person’s name. They want investment pieces.”

Marc said he reconfigured his business due to the economy, namely by working with his manufacturers to produce styles in a shorter time span. The designer stressed the importance of having product ready to ship.

“If a style takes off unexpectedly, we can hit it fast,” Marc said. “I’m investing in materials and parts so that when we need to make a style, we can turn it around in three months, not nine.”

Linda Spruce, owner of Optic Extreme in Boulder, Colo., said she was looking for smaller brands to round out her offerings.

“My customers are gravitating toward the lesser-known these days,” Spruce said. “It’s not in style to have a logo stamped on your forehead.”

Lori Robinson, co-president of licensing firm B. Robinson, which produces eyewear for David Yurman and Judith Leiber, said the reaction to the one-year-old Yurman line has been stellar but with doubts.

“People are hesitant at the high end and about putting in large orders” said Robinson, who noted that Yurman sells a 50-piece minimum. “Some retailers are coming to us saying ‘We’re scared.’ But Yurman has done very well, specifically at its opening price of $325.”

Upstairs in the main exhibition wing, global companies Marchon, Luxottica and Safilo presented their collections. After its acquisition by optical company VSP last August, Marchon is expanding its international base with a wide roster of licenses.

“We made a decision to bring in more international management to strengthen our position in the international market,” said Claudio Gottardi, president and ceo at Marchon. “It’s an important step for the company given today’s economy. We’re cutting down in some ways and investing in people and new opportunities all over the world.”

Safilo Group has seen its share of trouble as of late, with first-quarter revenues dropping 10 to 15 percent. The firm is intent on addressing the needs of its customers in today’s market.

“Right now, nothing is more important to them than value,” said Mark Ugenti, senior vice president of sunglass sales. “We are reevaluating our pricing strategies at every level of the business and trying to offer the customer an incredible value.”

Luxottica also acknowledged the difficult climate, but said sales were still up.

“Luxottica is an integrated company with a wide portfolio of brands,” said Vittorio Verdun, vice president of marketing for Luxottica wholesale, North America. “Therefore, we can leverage such strength and the different segments according to the changes in the economic environment.”

On the night before the show, Cartier held an eyewear presentation at its Fifth Avenue boutique. The brand is celebrating 100 years in the U.S. this month and will launch its limited edition R Extreme sport style in August, complete with a special centennial stamp.