LONGARONE, Italy — Gold.
This story first appeared in the June 17, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
You wouldn’t necessarily associate this precious metal with sunglasses, but that’s exactly what helped Marcolin break through.
When founder Giovanni Marcolin Coffen followed his instinct and decided to experiment with product diversification and a brand new concept — gold laminated arms — the move helped jump-start the business he set up in 1961.
“At the time, to grow you had to differentiate yourself,” said the 80-year-old Marcolin Coffen, in his office overlooking the Dolomites at the company’s headquarters — where he still clocks in and out on a daily basis. “The arms were not particular or unique, they were all in plastic, and the changes were made only on the frontal.”
Marcolin Coffen was only 16 in 1947, when he started working as a technician in an eyewear production laboratory. After 14 years, he decided to strike out on his own, with his idea as his only asset.
“My wife told me I was reckless,” chuckled Marcolin Coffen, adding fondly, “but she was my partner and has always stood by me.”
After a first six “tough” months, orders started coming in and Marcolin Coffen gradually ventured from the production of components to sunglasses.
“In the early Sixties, eyewear was mainly about ophthalmic glasses,” he said. He moved from working in the basement of his home to the first part of the manufacturing plant in nearby Vallesella di Cadore in 1967.
In 1968, Marcolin started selling in the U.S.
“Fashion came from Italy, at the time,” he said, recalling the “explosion of colors in the Seventies — white and yellow,” the geometric frames (“the hot octagonal ones”) or revolutionary round shapes, followed in the Eighties by gem-cut and rimless models.
The company also expanded in Europe in the Seventies, with a branch in France in 1976, followed by sites in Switzerland and Germany. A joint venture in 1984 with Marchon Inc., a Calvin Klein licensee, allowed Marcolin to take a further leap forward, growing from 80 to 200 employees and reaching production of 1 million frames annually.
The following year, the manufacturing plant moved to nearby Longarone, initiating the production of acetate frames.
In the Eighties, Marcolin Coffen’s sons Cirillo and Maurizio started working for the company, based in France and the U.S., respectively.
“Even in the early days, when he allowed other technicians to take over his responsibilities while he went out in the world to sell our products, our father was always aware of the importance of delegating, and he did so with his sons, too,” said Maurizio Marcolin, style and licensing director of the group.
Looking back, Marcolin Coffen recalls the roller coaster years behind him, the difficulties after World War II, the booming Sixties, and the small production units that turned into competitive, international groups — from Safilo to Luxottica, among the more prominent — in addition to his own firm.
“In the Eighties, glasses from China came cheap, but were not high quality, and the weak lira currency helped lift our exports,” said Marcolin Coffen. “In the early Aughts, things changed dramatically with the advent of the euro, which put a lid on the expansion of the sector here.”
He also pointed to increased competition from China, where technology advanced significantly, as impacting growth in Italian eyewear manufacturing.
However, don’t expect any negativity from Marcolin Coffen. “This is a tight-knit family,” he said, “it continues to grow the company with the help of good management, and we have a great stable of brands.”