PARIS — An industry in flux following a series of mega mergers between firms armed with rich brand portfolios and know-how — from the recent fusion of Luxottica and Essilor, respectively, the world’s largest frame and lens manufacturers, to Thélios, the joint venture between Marcolin and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton — in the eyewear sector, the heat is on for players to outshine the competition.
This jockeying for position has led to a sharper focus on product over marketing and branding, and has left an opening for the smaller boutique companies, according to experts attending the recently wrapped edition of Silmo here. Faced with growing demand from customers for unique product designed to last, the eyewear behemoths see a business opportunity in accessing a market that they can’t serve with their licensed brands.
“There are a lot of independent opticians and optometrists that, quite frankly, don’t want to support a lot of these larger companies because they’re competing with them on a direct level,” said the owner of a cult boutique brand who preferred to remain anonymous.
Echoing the fashion and beauty industries, the eyewear behemoths are said to be eyeing hot specialty brands, with Dita and Barton Perreira — which in January inked a distribution deal with Marcolin — rumored likely targets.
When asked if any acquisitions were on the cards, Marcolin Group chief executive officer Massimo Renon demurred: “When you enter a distribution partnership, maybe you will discover in the medium- to long-term something that could make the brands come together. It’s a question of getting to know each other, seeing if we fit each other, and then we’ll see.”
Renon described the partnership with Barton Perreira — which marks the firm’s first distribution agreement — as “the first step of making Marcolin a potential partner in distribution for other brands.” He cited among the motives the halo effect that aligning with a brand like Barton Perreira — “probably the most precious and high-quality product in the eyewear industry the world” — brings to the group which has as its ambition becoming “the number-one alternative to Luxottica” and leader in the high-end luxury and fashion segment.
“It’s double contamination. We’ve also started doing eyewear for GCDS, a sort of early Off-White, and the contribution they’re bringing to our company in terms of modernity and freshness is incredible,” added Renon.
Key trends flagged by buyers, meanwhile, included oversize graphic shapes, vivid colors — from primaries to pastels — a return to metal and a continuation of Japanese-inspired artisanal fabrications.
Zoran Pekas, owner of Optika Sole in Belgrade, Serbia, saw a return to “more metal and bigger, rounder shapes.”
“Just as you expect things to get smaller, you look around and all you see are big shapes, like big square metal frames,” said Marc Karbaron, owner of Optix Opticians, one of the U.K.’s largest independent opticians. Heritage shapes — like aviator, wayfarer and clubmaster frames — are still big, he said, while colors are “all about complementing skin tones,” from beige to blue and lilac.
Karbaron also cited an ongoing trend for 3-D-printed frames, although, “In my opinion, they still haven’t managed to get to the third step in terms of colors and textures, which are still very dull and rough — they’re 2-D,” he said.
As eyewear brands experiment with sustainable materials, for Karbaron nothing lives up to acetate, which is cotton based, and buffalo horn, both “far more superior” vehicles for color. “Many are getting on the sustainable platform, but they just don’t have universal appeal,” he said.
Out to change that are the denim and sportswear giants breaking new ground by including sustainable criteria in their contracts with eyewear licensors. Examples unveiled to select buyers at Silmo included Adidas, which in June signed a five-year licensing agreement with Marcolin.
“It is the [number-one] factor. Adidas is super attentive to all that is sustainable, eco-friendly and in line with all policies with regards to respecting nature, and the younger generations, they want this,” said Marcolin’s Renon adding that the company is stepping up its research and development in sustainable materials, like bio-acetate and bio lenses.
“Production is the first step, then distribution: we only sell to channels and customers that are compliant with the eco-friendly approach,” he said.
For Mykita cofounder and ceo Moritz Krueger, it’s also about “the kind of business model you’re running.” The company, which produces all of its frames in-house to order, has “a lot of projects underway” around material innovation. The company, which this year will bring its total number of retail stores to 19, with openings planned for Taipei and Bangkok. showcased its new collaboration with Helmut Lang and launched a facial jewelry line. “Within new technologies there are a lot of possibilities for integrating new sustainable materials,” Krueger said.
As for any potential investors sniffing around, “We are two shareholders and our future is Mykita,” he stated. Faced with growing competition from “many different angles,” including a mushrooming of direct-to-consumer Millennial-friendly challengers like Warby Parker, the plan, he added, is to “focus on what we can do better than others, our core values.”
Tim Holland, cofounder of sustainable Dutch eyewear label Dick Moby, which offers frames in biodegradable, oil-free Mazzucchelli acetate and recycled stainless steel with zero-waste vacuum coating, said “we definitely see a lot of potential.” The brand introduced a new range of cleaning cloths and banners made from recycled PET plastic that can be cut up and used as cloths at the end of the season. “We want to take sustainability beyond the frame,” he said.
For Blake Kuwahara, meanwhile, the sustainable cause is a question of critical mass.
“The apparel industry is the leader with respect to sustainability and awareness, because they’re larger, in general, and they have the resources, and a larger voice. But if we work together to tell the same story — and we’re by definition an accessory of fashion — we should be able to change the mindset of not only consumers, but the retailers and the brands,” he said.
The fact that the manufacturing process for eyewear is “not a clean process” needs to be addressed, but for the designer and optometrist, it’s also about the end product. “Sustainability is also about reuse and the longevity of the product you’re selling,” said Kuwahara, who introduced his line the Grey Label, based on “the artistry behind the way frames are made,” with the first collection inspired by bones and articulation, using jewelry techniques. “That it’s not just about fast fashion or cheap fashion, but it’s almost a response to that. Rather than putting the effort in marketing, it’s really about the product itself,” he said.