Independent eyewear brands are gaining traction.
Their perpetual quest for innovation and desire to present unique product is setting the bar high for larger competitors, as the indies’ premium materials, high level of technique — including bespoke — and often groundbreaking design are driving both price and demand.
Hidden in a small passage behind the Palais Royal in Paris is one of the last surviving artisans who has mastered the fine art of bespoke eyewear. Spanning four generations, Maison Bonnet is a family affair. Franck Bonnet learned the craft from his father, much like his ancestors did before him. All day, he draws new styles, cuts, files, polishes and thermo-shapes each piece by hand.
No fewer than 30 hours of manual labor, fol- lowing years of meticulous training, are required to create one pair of bespoke spectacles. “This is our asset but also our biggest challenge,” he said. “It takes a long time to train people, and the work- shops that were able to do so have disappeared. We actually cannot do more than 1,000 pairs of frames per year.”
The artisan is looking to hire. With the revival of bespoke and a thriving couture business, Mai- son Bonnet’s sales have been rising by at least 15 percent per year since 2009. In fact, the house plans to export his savoir-faire beyond the French borders via a London workshop, opening in 2016.
“We represent less than 1 percent of the market, but the niche is real,” noted Antoine Weil of Mai- son Bourgeat, a fellow artisan workshop founded in 1879 in Morez, France, a valley in the Jura Moun- tains, known as the cradle of bespoke spectacles.
Weil, who in February revived the bespoke brand with his partner Guillaume Clerc, said, “There is a tendency among consumers to return to what’s authentic, and with sustainability as a factor. Industrial glasses don’t last. You have to change them every year, every one-and-a-half years. That’s how the big groups survive. It’s a mass market. Bespoke lasts.”
Besides a fastidious technique, durability is achieved through the use of exceptional materi- als. Having been named a “maître d’art” by the French Ministry of Culture, Bonnet’s father has been entrusted with a precious stock of turtle shell collected before the ban imposed by the CITES Convention of 1975, with the goal of preserving the craft of working with the material.
“What is special about turtle shell is that it is the closest thing to human skin. It’s composed of keratin like our hair and nails, it’s ultralight, extremely stable without the risk of deformation and it doesn’t provoke transpiration, which also means that it doesn’t slip,” Bonnet said.
At his workshop, the product is not merely referred to as frames but “expressive objects,” “an extension of the clients’ personality,” Bonnet said. Weight, height and ergonomic factors count just as much as actual measurements of a client’s face: the prominence of the cheeks, the distance between the pupils, at least three different nose angles, eyelash length, the path of the eyebrows.
Just don’t call it math. “It is not mathematical. We recently had an American diva here, a super- strong woman, ingenious. We knocked ourselves out creating glasses in tune with her silhouette,” he said, noting that a bespoke eyewear-maker is also somewhat of a fashion consultant.
Among those who came for a pair were Yves Saint Laurent, Jackie Kennedy and Le Corbusier — their names living on in the models they com- missioned chez Bonnet.
With about 1,100 pounds of the precious stock left in Bonnet’s archives, the price point ranges between 5,000 euros, or $5,675 at current exchange, and 40,000 euros, or $45,405, for a tortoise shell frame available in a range of natural hues, from deep black to blond to cherry red. Acetate and horn start at 1,000 euros ($1,135).
Maison Bourgeat, meanwhile, whose savoir- faire lies in buffalo horn frames and metal-horn combinations, is experimenting with alternative materials such as tropical woods, deer horn, ante- lope and even mammoth, which due to climate change has emerged in large quantities in places like Siberia. Prices range from 700 euros, or $794, for acetate frames to 3,000 euros, or $3,405, for a pair done from horn and precious metal.
The artisan is in talks with French couture houses to craft limited editions, in addition to designing his own collections, but always with the goal to keep the quantities small.
“We have a habit of going to an optician who has 2,000 frames up his wall, of which he will show 50 to reassure the client. Reassure him of what?” asked Clerc. “The number of standard sizes has already gone down from 5 to 2, which means if your features are just a little different, you are [out of luck]. We pick three to four styles, which are in line with the client’s morphology, and then make a unique pair based on that.”
Berlin-based eyewear firm Mykita takes a dig- ital approach to bespoke. It has developed My Very Own, a manufacturing process that uses 3-D technology along with an advanced algorithm to create glasses whose design and fit are tailored to the individual topography of one’s face.
In a virtual fitting, the computer scans the face in 3-D. The algorithm then calibrates the frame to the customer’s facial contours by making micro-adjustments to the width of the frame, breadth of the nose bridge and the nose pads, among other parameters. But it’s not just about changing the width of the bridge.
“Through the virtual fitting, the creative DNA of the style remains intact. The glasses change pro- portionally with all [facial] features,” said Moritz Krueger, chief executive officer and cofounder of Mykita. “This means that we are also able to adjust the glass to the frame for ideal comfort, which hasn’t been done before.”
Krueger said he sees MVO as a laboratory to individualize all Mykita products, starting with the Mylon styles, before also including metal frames. Launched by the brand in 2011, Mylon is based on selective laser sintering, in which a laser fuses fine polyamide powder into solid objects, i.e. a partic- ularly light, flexible and resistant pair of frames.
Krueger said an interdisciplinary approach is key. “We have hardly any products where a transfer of technologies hasn’t taken place. Be it Mylon or metal injection molding, or certain sur- face treatments, we use technologies that would not normally be associated with eyewear.” MVO’s algorithm was developed by Volumental, a Swed- ish firm with research experience from NASA.
Despite its thought-provoking technique, Krueger said technology isn’t the only factor that sets it apart from big groups.
“In eyewear, people feed off each other, so it’s easy to lose one’s identity. We manufacture our own products, all under one roof. We have extremely short times to market, with two months from development to release, depending on the material. The recipe is simple: Focus on what is personally interesting to us,” said Krueger, citing stable double-digit growth over the last few years.
In the coming months, the brand hopes to add another retail outpost to its existing network of 10 freestanding units.
“What’s happening right now is that there’s so much competition, so many people actually doing pretty nice work, that the only way to stand out is by taking that extra step. And customers are appreciating that,” said John Juniper, cofounder and co-creative director of Dita, in business for 20 years. “In the past it was like: ‘Oh, that’s kind of expensive.’ But now people are saying: ‘What do you have new?’ The attitude toward luxury prod- uct has changed a lot in the last couple of years.”
While the brand’s retail prices range between $500 and $1,200, Juniper says the higher end is actually more successful at the moment, which in turn gives the L.A.-based label the ability to invest in crafty details such as hand-polished finishing, laser-edged diamond patterns, custom nose pads, or its new 2.6 millimeter thin acetate frames, which are almost twice as thin as normal acetate and take three times longer to do.
“It’s a pain — nobody does it. We had two factories say no, only one factory in Japan that’s a 100 years old said it would do it,” noted Dita’s other half, Jeff Solorio, adding that because of its lightweight character, the new style feels deceiv- ingly like horn.
With double-digit growth across all markets, times are good in eyewear, the Dita founders noted, but more is possible. The brand achieves 80 percent of its business in the optical sector and is ready to go after more fashion accounts. A new team has been hired for the task.
“Originally, that’s where we were…selling in fashion department stores. We didn’t have an opti- cal frame collection until 2005, and then that took off and brought us a whole new category. We kind of forgot the fashion boutiques,” noted Solorio.
“Eyewear is one of the most important accesso- ries, it’s so much of what you are as a person — it’s in your face. Yet we all suffer in women’s opticals, because we are too conservative. Women tend not to wear optical in public, they use them at home to watch TV, but when they walk out they put their contacts in. So we figured we needed to do some- thing that has a bit more character, more fashion, something they can put on and forget about, like a statement,” said Juniper, citing its Sunbird frames.
Thierry Lasry, who launched his namesake brand eight years ago, said he’s got his sights set on men’s. “It’s still a relatively small market, but it’s growing fast. Until last season, 85 percent of our business was women’s, now one-fourth of our collection is men’s,” he noted.
In 2014, the brand logged $8 million in turnover, registering a 30 percent increase in sales year-on- year. “We are not fighting against Luxottica. We function more like a fashion brand rather than an optical brand. We do only sunglasses, and our brand recognition is strong,” Lasry observed, adding that his recent collaboration with Fendi definitely helped change the brand’s status.
The biggest challenge, said the designer, who relies entirely on wholesale, is to bring in new techniques while staying competitive, price-wise. “Our average retail price is $475; our most expen- sive frames cost $525, which is the most compet- itive price level. Above that figure, it’s a whole different market, and department stores especially are very price-driven. So it’s challenging.”
Handmade in France, the acetate frames feature a range of colored patterns, up to 40 new designs each season. Using a technique he developed, Lasry melts the colors into unique patchworks of shades, instead of simply stacking the colors. The specs come with artistically sculpted side-parts and will be upped by chic metal inserts for extra effect next season. “I’m a child of the Eighties; I play the frames like Lego,” Lasry said. “Trends? There is no trend. I do my own aesthetic vision.”
Having acquired its idol brand Christian Roth and aiming to open another flagship in London some time next year, Dita’s Juniper agreed there is still unchartered territory in eyewear.
“I don’t know what it is, but I’m looking for it,” he said. “Eyewear is always a few steps behind in technology, because it’s so traditional, but there is still a handful of new technologies waiting to come that we are all searching for now. Mykita is taking it to the next level on the tech side, other people on the bespoke side, but it’s funny how it all intertwines. Clients want that fine craftsman- ship rather than some microwave food. When you pick up the frame, you can feel the difference.”