NEW YORK, United States — Fashion matters no matter where you live, no matter how much money you make, no matter how young or old you are. Every clothing choice is the answer to a fundamental question: How do I see myself today?
“To attract the brightest stars, companies will increasingly need to walk the walk when it comes to social innovation.”
Before co-founding Warby Parker, I worked as director of VisionSpring, a nonprofit that trains low-income men and women in the developing world to perform basic eye exams and sell high-quality glasses to their communities at an affordable price. The organisation was started with the idea that market-based solutions are often more effective than relief models, and with the conviction that glasses are one of the single most effective poverty alleviation tools on earth. To put it in perspective: glasses can increase an adult’s productivity by 35 percent and their monthly earning potential by 20 percent. It’s hard to work well if you can’t see well. (VisionSpring is still Warby Parker’s primary partner and we’re thrilled that they helped us to distribute our one millionth pair of eyeglasses this month.)
There are a couple of reasons why VisionSpring sells glasses (again, at ultra-affordable prices) instead of giving them away: it creates jobs, helps avert a culture of dependency, and it forces our partners to produce glasses that people actually want to wear. Glasses are the most prominent mingling of form and function that we wear; they sit right in the middle of your face. Nobody wants to wear a pair that makes them feel unattractive, even if it helps them see.
One of the coolest parts of working in the field at VisionSpring was mapping out trends and figuring out which styles of glasses worked in which communities. Because trends often percolate in urban areas, then spread to more rural areas, I kept my eye on what was trending in the major cities near where I was working. While in India, I mentally catalogued billboards and advertisements in Delhi; I paid attention to celebrities in Bombay (mostly their eyewear). On a more regional level, each town I worked in had its own group of influencers: the village mayor, the local officials, the prominent religious figures, the shop-owners whose stores operated as social hubs. Gold and gunmetal wire frames — round shapes, in particular — were popular in India.
In Latin America, the most-desired styles were acetate frames in colourful hues, more similar to what you’d find in New York or LA. But trends bubble up and spread as swiftly in Ouinaminthe or Cuenca as they do here in New York, so it’s ultimately impossible to generalise. The last time I visited our partners in Guatemala, the first frames to sell out were slender rectangular wire frames in muted colours. I was surprised, but our partners weren’t: they’d been on the ground taking notes on what customers wanted, observing which frames sold and which lingered. Everybody speaks with their wallet.
Similarly, talent speaks with their feet. Millennials prioritise helping those in need over having a high-paying job. In fact, more than half of the millennials recently surveyed by PricewaterhouseCoopers said they would consider leaving an employer if its social-responsibility values no longer matched their own. And the only way to stay in business (let alone grow a business) is to recruit and retain top talent. To put it bluntly, good people want to work at good companies. My co-founder and co-CEO Dave and I still interview everyone we hire and without fail the strongest candidates talk about their desire to work for companies that take their impact seriously. To attract the brightest stars, companies will increasingly need to walk the walk when it comes to social innovation. To be customer first, you need to be employee first. And to be employee first, you need to be mission-driven.
The fashion industry understands better than any other how to design with empathy and foster emotional connections with customers. Putting these skills and creativity to work on some of the world’s most intractable problems — and, on a smaller scale, to our own organisations — can create large-scale positive change. It’s good for the world, and it’s good for business.
Neil Blumenthal is the co-founder of Warby Parker.
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