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How Direct-to-Consumer Brands Are Disrupting the Global Eyewear Business

Brands like France’s Izipizi, South Korea’s Gentle Monster and America’s Warby Parker are shaking up the eyewear market with direct-to-consumer models.
Izipizi Eyewear | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Limei Hoang

PARIS, France — When Charles Brun and his two partners decided to reimagine the business model for the kind of low-cost reading glasses traditionally sold in grocery stores and pharmacies, they realised they needed to rethink three things: design, quality and distribution.

“What we noticed is that there was a real ask for a new kind of reading glasses,” says Brun, whose venture recently rebranded, changing its name from See Concept to Izipizi. “We decided to not only reinvent the quality of the product and the design but also the distribution network to make sure these reading glasses became fashion accessories.”

Izipizi offers stylish yet simple designs with brightly coloured frames which start at €30 a pair, helping it to attract customers looking for fashionable glasses without an expensive price tag. The brand began with a wholesale model, building fashion credibility by selling to select retailers like Colette and Le Bon Marché in Paris, Selfridges and Harrods in London, Bloomingdales and the MoMA Design Store in New York and Isetan in Toyko. But Izipizi is now shifting its distribution strategy towards direct-to-consumer, where it can control the customer experience and earn better margins.

The market for fashion eyewear has long been dominated by a handful of licensing giants. But in recent years, a wave of direct-to-consumer brands like Izipizi in France, Warby Parker in the US and Gentle Monster in South Korea have won legions of fans with fashionable frames at low prices.

“A large number of brands are choosing to offer good quality eyewear at more compelling price points,” says Luca Solca, head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas. “Some of these brands are well past their initial forays and are now worth several hundred million euros in sales, like Warby Parker with sales of over €100m [and] Gentle Monster with sales of over €230m. The largest ones are even opening physical retail stores in an attempt to further boost customer awareness and move mainstream.”

Eyewear is an industry that continues to be in yearly transformation.

Warby Parker and Gentle Monster already have flagship stores, while Izipizi is poised to open its first retail store in Paris this month and plans to open several others globally over the next five years. “We really want to build a worldwide brand,” says Brun, who declined to share financial figures. Expanding in e-commerce is also a major focus for the company. “Online is growing and we want to develop that. Also it’s the best way for us to know better our final customers, and to have their feedback. So, even if its only 10 percent of our business, our aim is to make it become 15 and after that, at least 20 percent,” Brun explains.

“The internet now allows smaller brands to gain access to global consumers through relatively modest investments,” says Solca. “Getting consumers to know about the brand remains an issue, but supporting prohibitively high rental costs is less so. Digital still represents less than 10 percent of the luxury sector retail sales and helps reduces barriers to entry built on physical retail by incumbents,” he adds. “Eyewear is still at the dawn of this transformation.”

The global eyewear market — which includes frames, contact lenses and sunglasses — is expected to reach $136 billion by 2021, with direct-to-consumer accounting for $2.8 billion of this, up 8 percent from 2016, according to data from Euromonitor.

“It’s an industry that continues to be in yearly transformation,” says Dave Gilboa, co-founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker, a venture-backed start-up based in New York. “You’re seeing a lot of industry moves where brands are beginning to understand that eyewear is a more valuable product and something that they felt that they needed more control over,” he says. Warby Parker, which is a privately held company, declined to share its financial figures.

“The transition of trends has become so rapid with social media, and a new generation of millennials are continuing to disrupt the traditional system of retail,” adds Won Lee, chief executive of Gentle Monster. “Traditional retail brands were hit while a new generation of tech-induced innovative brands stepped forward. A similar thing happened in the eyewear category, where brands emerged from a distributor-controlled industry.”

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