How Mykita Got to Manhattan

As Berlin-based eyewear label Mykita opens its first New York store, BoF examines how the technically sophisticated and fashion-savvy independent brand built a small but respectable business in a market dominated by licensing behemoths.

Inside Mykita's new New York store | Source: Mykita

NEW YORK, United States — Here in New York, light and space artist James Turrell’s graded cone of colour (currently on view uptown, in the rotunda of the Guggenheim museum) is on just about everyone’s lips. But further south in Manhattan, another luminous space is making its own little splash amidst the city’s languorous midsummer heat.

The newly opened Soho store of German eyewear brand Mykita, its first in the US, features the label’s trademark retail design. A backlit white wall of perforated metal displays the company’s frames. White and red neon tubes are suspended from the ceiling, while in the store’s generous glass front, the same neon lights spell out “Mykita” in simple, capital letters. Together, these elements give the airy space, which is otherwise raw, with original concrete floors left exposed, a soft, sublime glow.

Mykita is best known for its feather-light, high-quality frames — handmade from stainless steel, acetate and Mylon, the brand’s proprietary polyamide-based material — as well as its numerous designer collaborations with the likes of Bernhard Willhelm, Damir Doma and Moncler.

In a luxury eyewear market dominated by three large licensing behemoths — Luxottica, Safilo Group and Marcolin — which make and market the vast majority of the world’s upscale optical and sunglasses frames, the independent, ten-year-old Mykita has managed to carve out a small but respectable business, which continued to grow through the worst of the global recession and, in 2012, generated €18 million (about $23.6 million) in revenue. Today, Mykita’s frames, which cost between $400 and $700 (higher for designer collaborations), are available in almost 70 countries via a mix of retail partners, joint ventures and two directly owned and operated stores: one in Berlin and, now, one in New York.

But how did Mykita reach this milestone?

Independent Spirit

The company was founded in Berlin in 2003 by four friends with a background in industrial design. The young entrepreneurs, eager for a personal and professional adventure, set out to produce a hand-crafted product combining classic German savoir faire with the latest production methods and high-tech materials, in particular sheet metal, allowing for exceptionally bendable and almost unbreakable frames. “It all started with a pure wish to create a strong brand and have an adventure for [our group of] friends that allowed us to be independent,” Moritz Krueger, Mykita’s CEO and creative director tells BoF.

Right from the beginning, out of sheer necessity, Mykita’s founders learned how to improvise and be resourceful. “Flatmetal had never been used for eyewear before. There was no [factory that could] produce our glasses, so we had to industrialise and create our own tools and our own production.” To wit, in 2007, faced with a dwindling number of acetate production facilities in Europe, Mykita bought a factory that was about to close. As a result the company’s production is completely independent.

Under the umbrella of “Mykita Haus” — which refers to the company’s physical headquarters on Berlin’s Brunnen Strasse, but is also a conceptual metaphor for its organisational strategy — everything from design to production and communication is done in-house or through tightly controlled partnerships.

Krueger says the brand’s independent spirit is intimately bound up with commercial viability. “To be commercially successful has always been important to us, because commercial success is essential if you want to be independent. We have 300 people working for us, that’s a huge responsibility. So, before anything, we have to perform soundly as a business. If we are doing that, then we have the space [to be independent and experiment].”

Focus on Technology

More than anything, Mykita’s frames are distinguished by their design, which takes classic shapes and makes them unequivocally contemporary through the use of new, high-tech materials and a patented hinge-free construction system. In fact, the company’s founding mission was to create super-lightweight frames using materials and methods gleaned from the automotive, kitchen and medical supplies industries.

Mykita, which was entirely self-funded and has been profitable since its second year, has always been committed to technical innovation. “We have been lucky to be able to finance ourselves until now, but because money was limited, we had to be very smart about what we invested in,” says Krueger. “We had to identify the most important elements for future growth, so we always invested as much as we could in technology.”

Fashion Credibility

Another key to Mykita’s success has been its designer collaborations, which have proved instrumental in building the brand’s fashion and luxury positioning. But interestingly, the company’s association with fashion came about almost incidentally. Two weeks before presenting his Men’s Fall 2009 collection, inspired by the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, designer Bernhard Willhelm called Mykita and asked the company to create sunglasses for his show. Mykita came up with three aviator-inspired models with distinctive mirrored lenses.

In a stroke of unexpected good fortune, the stylist Patricia Field picked a style from the Willhelm collection to be worn by Sarah Jessica Parker in the movie Sex and the City 2. “At the time we didn’t see ourselves so much as a fashion brand, but as a result of being in the most commercial fashion film ever made, worn by an actress who is considered a fashion icon, suddenly our small factory was in the spotlight. It showed that we existed. Because the world of eyewear is dominated by a few monopolists, people thought that when it came to fashion and eyewear there were no [unique] brands out there. The film helped make people aware of us and maybe gave our product some credibility.”

Mykita has an on-going partnership with Damir Doma that’s a good example of how the brand continues to work with fashion designers. Krueger says it took nearly three and a half years of development until the Damir Doma collection was launched. “We had to learn a lot from his side and he came to our factory in Berlin a few times to look into our production process.” The first Damir Doma collaboration was launched last September, followed by second and third collections released in January and March of this year. A fourth collection is currently in the works and Krueger says the collaboration with Doma “is performing extremely well even though it retails at upwards of $1800.”

Rather than commercial propositions, “the collaborations have helped Mykita to become firmly established in the international fashion world. They are also a bit of a playground for us. They offer us the chance to be creative without so many commercial restrictions or considerations.”

Global Outlook

A focused global outlook has also been a key component of Mykita’s success. And indeed, the company’s collections and merchandising strategies are precisely tailored to a range of consumers in a number of key geographies. “It’s an extremely analytical process to analyse the success of certain models in different markets. Because when it comes to eyewear you need completely different collections in specific markets. Even just within Asia, our Korean customer wants something different than our Chinese customer and it’s not what our bestseller is in Europe either. It’s based on different parameters, including physiognomy, aesthetic and cultural preferences.”

Krueger says the eyewear brand plans to expand its business, with a focus on international markets like China, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but aims to keep distribution small and selective. “The future strategy when it comes to growth is that we still want to keep a very exclusive distribution, which means attaining the maximum global potential for our brand with the minimum points of sale.” At the same time, he says he sees Mykita being sold in the “1000 best stores” in the world by 2018.

But as Mykita grows, will it be able to maintain its meticulous production standards?

For now, the answer seems to be yes. Working with Porsche Consulting, Krueger says his team has developed a system for serial production that will allow Mykita to scale while maintaining its focus on quality. In fact, the system includes 14 steps of quality control for metal frames alone, according to Krueger.

And with its technologically-savvy approach and outlook, Mykita may be at an advantage when it comes to one of the hottest areas of future growth for the eyewear market: Internet-connected wearable technology like Google Glass.

“Today everybody is talking about wearable technology and I really think eyewear could be the most prominent area of growth in this area,” says Krueger. “What has not been achieved is for technology to be integrated aesthetically into the product. But [Mykita is] at a unique position to lead the way, because we knew from the beginning that for technology to be commercially viable as a fashion product, we had to make it look good.”

“There is no reason why we should not be able to create a really beautiful pair of eyewear that has all this technology integrated. This will definitely be part of the future. It just makes sense.”