LONDON, United Kingdom — While unknown to most consumers, the vast majority of upscale optical and sunglasses frames are actually produced and marketed by three large corporations: Luxottica, Safilo Group and Marcolin. The ‘big three’ enter into licensing deals with luxury brands such as Chanel, Prada and Gucci, who are highly incentivitised to leave manufacturing, and even design, to these corporations, which mass produce in Asia and simply slap luxury logos on the finished goods. In addition to these licensing deals, Italy-based Luxottica SpA, the largest player in the sector, owns eyewear brands like Ray-Ban and Oliver Peoples, and operates retailers like LensCrafters and Sunglass Hut.
But what if consumers knew that their Chanel sunglasses were actually designed and manufactured by a behemoth like Luxottica?
Well, it turns out that in the shadow of these large licensing companies, a number of independent eyewear designers are on the rise and resonating with more knowledgable, discerning consumers, challenging the grip of the ‘big three’ behemoths. Some, like London-based Linda Farrow, have partnered with designers like Alexander Wang and Dries van Noten. All have tried-and-true methods rooted in craftsmanship, unique materials and fashion-forward design — qualities for which their customers are willing to pay.
Cutler and Gross, London
British eyewear brand Cutler and Gross specialises in handcrafted glasses. Established in 1969, the company, which has earned its customer base largely by word of mouth, now shows its collections at Paris Fashion Week, has hundreds of stockists around the world and operates its own stores in London, Hong Kong, Toronto and Tehran.
“We have always seen Cutler and Gross as a niche club. We are not aiming for the mass market,” said design director Marie Wilkinson, who joined in 1982. “Over the last decade, luxury fashion brands have moved production overseas to meet demand. With huge turnovers from cheaper mass production in Asia, brands had an expendable budget to keep up the marketing buzz surrounding their products without having to [back] them up with quality produced pieces,” Wilkinson lamented.
At £300 or more per pair, Cutler and Gross eyeglasses are not inexpensive. But the frames are manually cut and hand polished at the brand’s own family-run factory in Cadore, Italy. This not only helps to justify the price tag, but also reflects the bespoke tradition upon which Cutler and Gross was founded.
The brand doesn't do much traditional advertising and instead often leverages collaborations with fashion designers like Maison Martin Margiela and Thomas Tait to show off the company’s know-how and reach new audiences.
Illesteva, New York
Although Daniel Silberman and Justin Salguero’s eyewear label Illesteva has only been around since 2009, fashion brands and shoppers alike have caught onto the pair’s oculars, handcrafted in Italy, France and Germany of unusual materials like bamboo, titanium and natural buffalo horn.
"I couldn’t find a pair of glasses that I liked and I don’t think glasses should cost $700. So I designed my own," Silberman told BoF.
Stocked at leading boutiques like Barneys New York, Neiman Marcus, Net-a-Porter, and Opening Ceremony, Illesteva was chosen as a 2012 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist for the “Americans in Paris” showcase, owing to its retro yet fashion forward aesthetic.
The company often starts the design process with vintage-inspired shapes, like the cat eye or 'Wayfarer,' and spins them with unusual colours or exaggerated proportions. The popular 'Leonard' features an ovoid frame with high, squared temples and is available in tortoise, leopard, cheetah and olive ombré.
Expansion plans are already underway; Illesteva will launch its latest collaboration with jewellery brand House of Waris next week and has already worked with fashion designer Zac Posen on a series of hyper-exaggerated cat eye frames. The company have also just launched a range of handmade umbrellas, produced in the same Italian factories as their frames, and hopes to develop a full accessories range.
Linda Farrow, London
Revitalised in 2002 by the eponymous designer’s son, Simon Jablon, and his wife, Tracy Sedino, the Linda Farrow brand has endured thanks to a haul of vintage shades discovered while Jablon and Sedino were clearing out the family’s warehouse in London. They called up Harvey Nichols, who purchased £5,000 worth of stock. After presenting their findings at London Fashion Week, they received orders from Colette, Selfridges and Barneys New York.
More than a decade on, Jablon and Sedino still hold the creative reins at Linda Farrow. After the vintage stock sold, they decided to design their own range and have collaborated with young designers including Alexander Wang and The Row.
“We wanted to offer more innovative eyewear, experimenting with shapes and materials used, for example exotic skins, buffalo horn and semi-precious stones,” said Sedino. To that end, they debuted Linda Farrow Luxe, a high-end range with details like python skin and 18 karat gold plating, although they are perhaps still best known for their fashion collaborations, like the highly sought after mouse-eared ‘Mickey’ for Jeremy Scott.
Although Linda Farrow does establish global licensing contracts with each of their collaborators, their design philosophy drastically differs from that of the 'big three.' “We work very closely with these designers to create collections that are very personal and in line with each of the designer’s full range of accessories and ready to wear lines,” said Sedino. Indeed, from Maison Martin Margiela’s ultra simple rounded frames to the bug-inspired ‘Spiral Ovals’ with wave-like brows for Erdem, Linda Farrow captures the defining traits of each of the labels they work with.
Selima Optique, New York
Designer Selima Salaun captures the energy of the French Riviera, where she grew up, in her whimsical, colourful glasses, which have been worn by notable fashion figures like Paper magazine editor Mickey Boardman and fashion blogger Garance Doré. After studying in Morez, a French town known for manufacturing spectacles, Salaun honed her craft in Paris before moving to New York, where she established her first boutique in 1993. Since then, she has added three more stores in New York and has expanded to Los Angeles and Paris.
“Selima Optique is in essence a brand inspired by the vibrant personalities of its core customer base, which sets it apart from ‘design minded’ brands. Whether it be the shape, size or colour, Selima always thinks first about how the frame will fit a face,” said Naveed Hussain, a spokesperson for Selima Optique. As a trained optician and optometrist, Salaun ensures that her customers have healthy eyes as well as a beautiful pair of glasses.
Most of her best-selling styles, said Hussain, “maintain a strong sense of personality, but also flatter a wide variety of faces.” Her ‘Onassis’, ‘Claire’, and ‘Chad’ varieties in particular retain an old-fashioned charm, with angular cat eye shapes and strong temples. Selima Optique has collaborated with fashion brands like J. Crew and Jack Spade, and is currently working on expanding their international reach via stockists, although the company does not rule out opening additional stores.