Authenticity has become a key, if exhausted, word in analyzing modern-day consumer culture.
Recently, however, the trend toward authenticity has also permeated the eyewear industry — with optical specialists saying their businesses have benefited from consumers’ newfound sensitivity toward quality, earnestly made products.
“I think that because people are changing their value systems a little bit, when it comes to purchases they are a little more considered and willing to spend more money on a product with a more artisanal touch and sensibility as opposed to something mass-produced. People are looking for things that are unique and set them apart,” said eyewear designer Blake Kuwahara, whose three-year-old brand is sold in about 350 stores worldwide, including on Matchesfashion.com and assorted high-end optical stores.
“I think in the past few years we have seen people buy more for quality and style and less for brand. It’s a great shift for us. A few years ago, more mass brands like Ray-Ban were really hot in the market and I think that had a big impact. I think people are buying differently now and looking for unique product,” said Jeff Press, creative director for Morgenthal Frederics, which sells in 54 stores worldwide, 14 of them freestanding.
Being significantly smaller than the likes of industry leaders Luxottica or Safilo, many of the specialist brands interviewed reported double-digit growth. Luxottica, meanwhile, recorded a 2.2 percent increase, and Safilo a decrease of 16.4 percent.
Kuwahara’s brand, which retails for between $600 and $725, charted 36 percent year-over-year growth in 2017. “The market is either going in a very commercial direction towards lower prices and convenience or is segmenting into a higher end. On the upper end of the market, I’ve found very little price resistance because people now understand workmanship and quality,” he said.
Matthieu Lafont, director of marketing for Lafont, said his family’s brand has experienced steady growth over the last five years. “Customers are interested to understand what they are buying. Purchasing a specialist product from an eyewear maker creates a more in-depth story and history. This is interesting for us because the core values of our brand right now are working well for us and working well with what people are looking for,” he said. The brand is sold in nearly 12,000 stores worldwide.
Garrett Leight — which posted 25 percent year-over-year growth in 2017 and 42 percent in 2016 — has highlighted transparency in its retail strategy as a manner of conveying its specialist distinctions. “People want to know where and how their goods are being made. We have addressed this social shift through video content and sharing information about our factories and our process. We’ve even added an open kitchen-style prescription lab where you can watch your glasses being custom made in front of you on the sales floor,” said Leight, the son of Oliver Peoples founder Larry Leight.
Andy Wolf’s head of global business development Ana Sedes said that the “homogeneous” nature of mass-market eyewear has created an opportunity for specialists. “If you have the same product everywhere, in every shop, how will retailers differentiate themselves? So the more the monoliths grow, it creates a gap for independent eyewear. We can work with independent opticians on differentiating their offering and focusing on service,” she said.
Sedes noted that Andy Wolf’s year-over-year sales have grown between 20 and 25 percent in the U.S. and between 18 and 20 percent worldwide. The brand’s average retail prices range from $320 to $475.
“It’s about going back to the source for simple things that are well done. Millennials have a totally different mentality than the generation before. It’s not about buying things just for the sake of buying. There has be a reason to buy something. They are much more selective and bet on quality and service, which is something they know they won’t get at a chain,” Sedes added.
Many optical designers noted that eyewear’s placement on the body, its relationship to the face, skin and use as a medical instrument grab consumers’ emotions in a manner much different from other accessory categories like shoes or bags.
“I think there is no more personal accessory and fashion than eyewear. There is nothing that changes your look more, that changes your persona. Glasses are a real opportunity for someone to put a real print on style. This is why I think specialists are important to people now. They want to buy from really professional experts,” said Press.
Lafont concurred, explaining: “Because glasses help people see better, they are not changing them everyday like they are changing a bag and shoes. They are keeping frames on a more regular basis and change them every year or two. They build a specific relationship with an optical frame. They need it to see everyday, it’s the accessory that defines who they are, before a handbag and before a coat. You have a frame on your face from the beginning to end of the day, and are creating a true relationship.”
Selima Salaun of Selima Optique, who is a registered optician, said of the specialist trend: “I feel like consumers, when they come to me, not only want great quality and design, they also know I’m an optometrist. They can know about their eyewear from a medical point-of-view too, it’s not just about look.”
Salaun noted that a recent shift in runway fashions has increased eyewear’s prominence in the accessories market.
“Fashion is having a moment where buying eyewear is just like buying a nice bag or pair of shoes. I would like to say a big thanks to big companies like Gucci who every fashion show have so much unbelievable eyewear. This helps us,” Salaun said.
“People say that there are too many brands and I disagree, it helps us to get the accessory popular — but eyewear is not just a fashion accessory, it’s a medical device. Consumers know they can come to us for both aspects. This movement is helping us, the real eyewear designers, sell products,” she said.