Inside Ace & Tate's Soho store

LONDON — A flurry of young, direct-to-consumer eyewear labels are entering the U.K. market, giving the optical industry here a new lease on life.

Dutch label Ace & Tate has recently opened its third London location in Soho’s buzzy Brewer Street and is looking across Europe for new locations, while its French counterpart Jimmy Fairly is readying a second opening in Covent Garden following an ambitious U.K. launch on Regent Street last summer.

Elsewhere, Selfridges has debuted a one-stop eyewear destination as part of its new accessories hall, spanning 4,000 square feet and offering more than 50 brands plus eye exams, while Gentle Monster brought its gallerylike retail concept to the British capital with a new, futuristic space on Argyle Street that’s filled with as many art installations as eyewear.

Local label Cubitts has also been garnering consumer attention for its bespoke services and traditional Made in England manufacturing. It’s now looking to further pique its audience’s interest in eyewear by curating an exhibition at St. James’s Market called “Retrospective: London, Spectacles and Half a Millennia,” which celebrates the history of eyewear.

“Our mission is to bring back high fashion eyewear to all the big European cities without any middlemen and at a fair price,” said Antonin Chartier, cofounder and chief executive officer at Jimmy Fairly. “In the U.K., we found that prices for eyewear were very high, while quality was low. We wanted to change that.”

The eyewear company, whose second opening at Covent Garden’s Neal Street is meant to capture the same “cool and local” feel as its Parisian boutique in Le Marais, said it’s been banking on its trendy designs and direct-to-consumer business model that allows it to keep prices competitive.

Its latest collection ranges from glitter purple cat-eye sunglasses to aviators and cool, square-shaped metallic eyeglasses — which are priced at 99 pounds, including lenses.

A Jimmy Fairly campaign image

A Jimmy Fairly campaign image  Courtesy Photo

Ace & Tate is following a similar model.

The brand’s founder, Mark de Lange, set out to simplify the process between manufacturer and consumer when it comes to buying prescription glasses — and make the experience of the eye test more comfortable.

“In the optical industry, it’s very normal to have a lot of links and chains between production and consumer and all these people have a trade margin. So, even though the product — including the lenses — is fairly simple and therefore not expensive to produce, it had become this daunting, complex process. But in fact, the idea of a pair of glasses and correcting your eyes hasn’t really changed in the last 100 years. It’s all very standardized,” said de Lange, adding that to keep costs low the brand works directly with the factories, designs everything in-house and uses a lens type that is suitable for all.

If a customer needs a higher prescription, the company is willing to take the cost, in order to stay true to its promise of offering all its eyeglasses at 98 pounds and ensure customers aren’t “surprised” with additional costs.

“The idea is that when you walk in you know what you will pay,” de Lange said. “But we have no compromise on quality, style, service or design.”

Service and customer experience have been at the heart of Ace & Tate from the get-go. The company is now working to connect its digital touchpoints with all its physical stores, as it continues its European rollout.

“Our philosophy around retail is that online and off-line will converge. For every link in the chain, from orientation to purchase, we want to have digital and physical counterparts. Up to 90 percent of our sales have both physical and digital touchpoints, so the journey needs to be completely flexible,” de Lange said.

Inside Ace & Tate's Soho store

Inside Ace & Tate’s Soho store  Courtesy Photo

He is also looking to introduce new design concepts with each opening to reflect the store’s surroundings and use the spaces as community hubs, hosting talks and events.

The new Soho space, which is located next to the likes of Fiorucci, Champion and Machine-A, takes inspiration from the once-seedy neighborhood’s voyeuristic spirit and features head-to-ceiling glass so that customers can peek inside, a pair of neon eyes on the back wall staring back at you and handcrafted cobalt and sand marble tiles, referencing the paving tiles from Carnaby Street in the Seventies.

There’s also a service desk where customers can get their glasses adjusted and get recommendations on what frames best suit them, as well as a downstairs area that’s dedicated to eye tests.

“We are trying to make it a comfortable and relaxed experience, adding felt on the walls to minimize the noise and playing relaxing music. It should be a more fun process, not like you’re going to the doctor’s,” de Lange added.

Rethinking the purchase experience has been an overarching trend across the eyewear industry, with young brands looking to add elements of comfort and indulgence, which also happen to be Instagram-friendly, to the process of getting an eye test and choosing a pair of prescription sunglasses.

London-based Kite — whose minimalist store is located near Shoreditch House, Browns East and Modern Society in trendy East London — resembles a spa more than an optical shop. It offers free, “scientifically advanced” eye tests and then guides customers to its Eyebar, where they can get a one-on-one consultation with a stylist over a “bespoke Kite espresso,” avoiding the inevitable wandering around and trial-and-error process at traditional opticians.

As the optical industry continues to evolve, online eye tests are another development this new wave of brands has been experimenting with.

“We are still in the testing mode, it is very much in beta. For now we are only doing retests in Netherlands and Germany, but we expect to roll out the service across Europe,” added Ace & Tate’s de Lange, explaining that while online eye tests are unlikely to become the norm or replace physical eye tests, they will soon claim a place in the market. “The service allows you to retest yourself online, to see if you actually need another eye test. It’s still very early days and the consumer has to very much get used to it still,” he said.