By and  on July 28, 2014

Sunglasses have joined the ranks of handbags and shoes as must-have accessories, and makers are capitalizing on demand by offering more styles, brands and features than ever.

“Sunglasses are a very serious accessory,” said Claire Goldsmith, managing director of the Oliver Goldsmith and Claire Goldsmith brands. “You spend all this money on shoes, but what do you think people look at first? Your face.”

And consumers have taken note. Sales of sunglasses rose to $3.8 billion in the 12 months ended in May, from $3.7 billion in the 12 months ended May 2013, according to The NPD Group Inc.

The uptick in sales has affected major players, such as Luxottica, Marchon, Marcolin and Safilo, and smaller, independent designers.

“Our sales are way over budget and we are almost doubling our profits from last year,” said Marchon chief executive officer Claudio Gottardi.

Marchon’s current roster includes Calvin Klein, Chloé, G-Star Raw, Jil Sander, Nike, Salvatore Ferragamo and Valentino.

“We are passing the $1 billion mark, which, just a few years ago, would have been a dream. We tripled our sales in the last three years.”

Los Angeles-based clothing company Wildfox launched its sunglass division in 2012, and estimates it to now be a $6 million retail business. “Sales are double what they were last year, based on monthly numbers,” said the brand’s eyewear designer, Benjamin Montoya.

To keep up with the ever-growing market, brands are continuing to add to their existing offerings, introducing styles and color families to keep up with changing trends.

“Brands are focusing on frames mixing acetate with metals to obtain a richer effect,” said Fabrizio Gamberini, U.S. ceo of Marcolin, which produces Balenciaga, Diesel, Guess, Roberto Cavalli, Tom Ford and Swarovski. “We are also registering an increased demand of polarized lenses, especially in the U.S., where they account for one-third of the market. People tend to choose them not only for sports, but it’s actually a trend.”

Montoya similarly cited polarized, flash lenses as a best-selling trend.

“We do extremely well with pieces that are over-the-top,” he said. “Some of the pieces that we’ve really pushed the boundaries with, [design-wise], but thought might not have great sell-through, are our most popular styles. It’s become a brand-identifier.”

Among the brand’s top sellers: the Lolita, heart-shaped flash lenses; the Classic Fox, an Eighties-inspired large frame in various colorways, and the Bel Air, a thick, circular frame etched with the words “Wildfox” and “Bel Air.”

While the thick, vintage-inspired trend continues to reign, many brands are looking to a more streamlined future in the coming seasons.

“The trend in the market is moving away from the bulky look and toward lighter, more colorful profiles,” said Gottardi.

Goldsmith described the styles as “more refined, more slim and more tailored.”

Larger companies maintain control of shifting trends by filling their portfolios with brands that will each reach a targeted consumer base.

“A strong brand has a distinctive point of view, plays in an unmistakable chosen consumer segment and is authentic because it draws its strength from meaningful origins and messaging,” said Luisa Delgado, ceo of Safilo Group.

According to Delgado, Safilo — which oversees licensed brands including Dior, Marc Jacobs, Fendi, Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Tommy Hilfiger, Céline, Kate Spade and Pierre Cardin — connects to two customer types: “mass cool” and “atelier luxury,” with the sweet spot for sales somewhere in the middle.

“The differentiation among consumer segments is growing,” said Delgado. “We see that the two opposite sides of the spectrum — the more accessible ‘mass cool’ consumer segment on one side, and the ‘atelier luxury’ on the other — are growing. The middle, comprising what we call the fashion luxury and the contemporary luxury segments, is pretty stable. In our portfolio, we experience that brands like Dior and Fendi are growing, because they stand for unmistakable origins, a defined and clearly embraced identity, a strong brand equity and superior craftsmanship content.”

Like Safilo, Luxottica has also put increased focus on its more luxury-based brands — among them Burberry, Chanel, Donna Karan, Miu Miu and Prada.

“In the last four or five years, we put renewed attention to the content in the highest segment of the market,” said chief marketing officer Fabio D’Angelantonio. “Brands like Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and Giorgio Armani continue to grow.”

The company added to its “fashion diffusion” segment with the acquisition of the Michael Kors license in April. That joins similar labels Tory Burch and Coach. D’Angelantonio declined to provide sales projections, but noted high expectations, citing the robust performances of other categories of Michael Kors products, “and we are expecting a terrific launch,” he said.

Licenses move regularly in the eyewear business, and Marchon, which launched Michael Kors eyewear in 2005, is moving forward with its strategy.

“We’re in negotiation with three new brands, and those three will more than make up the difference in what we’re going to lose with Michael Kors,” said Gottardi. “Michael Kors represented less than 10 percent of our revenues because of pressure in pricing. It was not a very profitable collection for us.”

Gottardi related that the company has successfully replaced brands in the past, citing Coach, for which Marchon held the license from 2002 to 2010, as an example.

“That ended up being a good thing and let us enter with new brands that brought in more profit and opportunity to grow internationally. It was actually the loss of Coach that allowed us to bring on Ferragamo, which is now a huge brand across the world.”

Gottardi pointed to Ferragamo, Valentino, Lacoste and G-Star as being important new licenses for the company, particularly across the European market, with Nike as the overall top performer.

“[Nike] is to be expected, considering it’s a huge collection that goes in every direction,” he said.

Among those directions is the teen segment, a surprisingly lucrative market for Marchon.

“We focused on the teen market about two years ago, when we released a line for Nike,” said Gottardi. “It did extremely well, so at that point, we decided to explore that market in other brands, like Lacoste, which was an instant success. Sales went above the average sales of a normal collection. The buyers, as an age group, are a small number — maybe 5 percent of the market — but maybe 15 percent of our sales are [attributed] to that market.”

Conversely, without the capability to acclimate new licensees, independent brands have had to rely on their own marketing to reach new customers.

“We operate on completely different levels,” said Goldsmith. “The Luxotticas and Safilos are producing their products in tens of thousands of units. Then there are probably 100 independent brands that stock with different retailers and try to get through to the customers through different channels.”

One popular channel is celebrity collaborations. Warby Parker, which launched its sun division in 2011, recently teamed with model Karlie Kloss and beauty blog Into the Gloss on a pair of collections.

“We want to tap into a variety of different communities,” said cofounder Dave Gilboa of the collaborations. “Our customers tend to be really passionate about art, literature, fashion, and we want to align ourselves with those interests.”

Declining to provide specific sales figures, Gilboa described the sun division as having “explosive growth” with sales more than doubling year-over-year.

Australian brand Sunday Somewhere lured new customers, particularly in the American market, by collaborating with L.A.-based blogger Rumi Neely.

“The reception was overwhelming,” said founder Dave Allison. “We pretty much sold out of that collection as soon as it hit the market. We got onto Net-a-porter because of that, and it opened Revolve for us. It had a European and American alliance, which ties back to markets that we want to focus on. Going forward, we have about half-a-dozen collaborations in the pipeline.”

Technology has also begun to play an important design factor in the industry across the board, manifesting in different iterations. For Oliver Goldsmith, the latest innovation is 3-D printing.

“We use Mykita, a German company that does 3-D-printed glasses,” said Goldsmith. “It’s an amazing material. It’s got the visual of thick and heavy, but no weight. There’s also another company, Hoet, that is doing 3-D printing with titanium. 3-D printing lends itself to total bespoke.

“The least generalized thing in the world is a face. They come in so many shapes and sizes,” he added. “And you are trying to create something that is one-size-fits-all — it’s actually quite difficult. The idea that you have a computer file that you can resize and hit print is exciting. It’s a great marriage of technology and product.”

Marcolin, in partnership with acetate manufacturer Mazzucchelli 1849, has developed eco-friendly acetates for Tom Ford eyewear, while Diesel has introduced a denim collection using exclusive technology that fuses the fabric with acetate.

The buzz of wearable technology has reached the eyewear industry due in large part to the introduction of Google Glass. In March, Luxottica entered a partnership with Google to design, develop and distribute eyewear for the Glass, particularly with Ray-Ban and Oakley. New projects for both brands are slated for a 2015 release.

In June, Marchon entered the wearable tech foray with a Diane von Furstenberg/Google Glass collaboration — DVF Made for Glass — an optical frame available in five colors and two sunglass silhouettes done in four colorways.

“There was a lot of attention on Marchon,” said Gottardi, of the collaboration’s debut. “Bringing fashion into technology will change the world of eyewear. The development of our industry is going to be incredible. In America, sunglasses are a $2 billion to $3 billion [business.]. I would expect that in a matter of 10 years, that category can be in the tens of billions of dollars because those sunglasses will not just be sunglasses. They will be doing a lot more than defending you against the sun. The future of technology and communication is going to be very, very cool.”

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