While Italian powerhouses such as Luxottica, Marcolin and Safilo dominate the eyewear business, an array of independent brands offering high-end, artisanal yet high-tech products is making headway in the market.
“The niche segment has increased its business over the past couple of years, increasing from 2 percent to about 5 percent of the global eyewear industry,” said Dante Caretti, who in 2009 founded Caretti Consulting, a company focused on advising independent eyewear labels and retailers.
“The market is definitely looking for different kind of eyeglasses,” added Cristina Frasca, editor-in-chief of LYF, Les Yeux Fertiles, an independent magazine dedicated to the niche eyewear sector. “During the past year, we posted a 40 percent increase in eyewear advertising in our magazine, which is definitely a sign that despite the generally difficult economic moment, these companies are growing.”
To support and give visibility to these independent labels, Caretti and Frasca teamed with Massimiliano Bizzi, president of M.seventy, the organizer of the Milan-based White trade show, to create DaTe, an eyewear fair exclusively focused on this emerging market segment.
One hundred exhibitors attended the second edition of the annual, three-day trade show this month. That represented a 30 percent increase and was coupled with a strong visitor turnout: 1,300 people came to DaTe from Italy and around Europe.
“The goal of DaTe is to offer the international market a new way of looking at the eyewear industry,” said Carretti, noting that, especially in Italy, most eyewear retailers are behind the times. According to Carretti, they need to change their buying strategy, spending more time at trade shows and in showrooms, “where they can be focused on what they do,” and less time meeting sales people from different brands in their stores during business hours.
“The sales person going from one store to the other is dead,” Carretti said. “Retailers have to be stimulated with new products, which can push them to make a step closer the niche offering.”
He added that opticians should divide their time equally between eye exams and helping customers choose the best frames. This, in turn, could benefit independent eyewear labels, which usually guarantee better fit and comfort, more polished and durable materials than standard brands, as well as more interesting shapes and styles. Carretti said optical frames currently account for the bulk of independent eyewear companies’ business, while sunglasses make up just 15 percent of their sales.
The trade show could strengthen firms’ connections to fashion retailers, Bizzi said, because the latter are keen on expanding their product range with cool eyewear — especially sunglasses, since Italian law prohibits the sale of optical glasses if no optician is present.
Although closer ties with fashion retailers might sound appealing to niche eyewear manufacturers, some obstacles remain. In particular, Carretti highlighted the seasonal sales of fashion stores as a problem, since niche eyewear products cannot be discounted, mostly because they stay on the market for more than a single season and do not drop in value after six months.
Only about 30 of Italy’s estimated 11,500 eyewear retailers stock only independent labels. Another 200 sell a mix of independent and mass/market or widely distributed labels.
Punto Ottico Humaneyes is one of them, and it operates six national eyewear stores, including a unit in Milan’s central Piazza Meda, as well as a New York boutique on Madison Avenue.
“Our customers are all very different in terms of age, style, job, but they all share one thing: they want to stand out from the crowd,” said Marco Annibali, co-owner of Punto Ottico Humaneyes. According to Annibali, most of the store’s customers come through word of mouth, while others are simply attracted by the window display and wander in. “In this case, we immediately explain to them that we are not a traditional eyewear store, and that we don’t sell pieces from big groups,” he said.
Annibali added that, since niche frames are usually more expensive than mass-market products, those who sell this kind of sophisticated product have to explain the stories behind each piece, how it is made, what the distribution is. “There are some [customers] who make the purchase because of the price, or because they don’t view eyeglasses as accessories,” he said. “But in general once people have bought their first pair of independent frames, they never go back to less- sophisticated products,” he said.
In keeping with the general business trend of niche eyewear, optical frames represent the lion’s share of Punto Ottico’s sales. “You cannot only sell the most beautiful styles on the market, you have also to offer a high-end optical service,” Annibali noted. “For example, we have the tools and know-how to assemble lenses in-house.”
About three years ago, Punto Ottico acquired French manufacturing company Jacques Durand, which not only produces the frames designed by Durand himself, but also the line of designers Veronika Wildgruber – who won the prestigious Silmo D’Or eyewear prize in 2010 — and Alyson Magee.
In terms of product, Annibali observed that while the market is currently packed with acetate frames, thinner, metallic styles with a certain retro feel are making a comeback. For example, Jacque Durand introduced 22 karat gold pleated styles, which retail at 700 euros, or $886 at current exchange.
(By comparison, designer glasses typically go from the high $200 range to jut over $1,000. For instance, Tod’s runs from $285 to $525 and Roberto Cavalli from $270 to $550; Balenciaga runs from $330 to $675 and Tom Ford retails for $320 to $550, while Montblanc goes from $325 to $1,050.)
An appreciation for retro-style frames was also noticeable at DaTe, with many companies offering variations on the theme.
For instance, Belgian company Hoet presented its new Couture line, which includes two titanium frames, one for men and one for women, produced with a 3-D laser printing technology. The front of the pieces is transparent, honeycombed titanium, while the arms features titanium alloy springs able to memorize wearers’ face shapes. According to the company, the 3-D technology is energy efficient, reduces manufacturing waste and enables opticians to order the number of pieces they actually sell, thus avoiding overstock.
In addition, American label Chrome Hearts showcased carbon fiber styles with ebony arms, silver details and exclusive mat lenses, retailing for 2,025 euros, or $2,563, while Tom Rebel introduced cool shades with real metallic rust.
The use of unconventional materials was another key characteristic of independent eyewear labels showing at the fair. For example, Italian brand ArtFrameTotalArt, founded by artist Francesco De Molfetta, proposed leather versions of its bestselling styles, which retail at about 600 euros, or $759. The Alba, Piedmont-based brand Barrique, meanwhile, recycled wine barrels creating oak arms for eyeglasses with acetate fronts.
Among the most interesting projects presented at DaTe was the Nuiit label, which, inspired by Arctic Inuit tools, showed an innovative collection of protective eyeglasses. Four high-tech lenses with luminous stripes were matched with four more essential silhouettes for a modern look.
Sustainability and futuristic design were at the core of Berlin-based Vava’s eyewear line, one of the most interesting on the niche eyewear scene. The label, founded by Pedro da Silva, presented a collection of 100 percent recyclable sunglasses with flat glass lenses and aluminium joints from the aerospace industry. The range, which includes a White Line with softer silhouettes and a clinical vibe, as well as a more underground Black line, retails for around 450 euros, or $569.