The following conversation has repeated itself often in the past few years:
Somebody: “So what do you do?
Me: “I make eyeglasses and sunglasses.”
Somebody: “Isn’t there this this one company that owns all the brands and controls everything?”
For many years, Luxottica flew below the general public’s radar. But not anymore.
Let me first say, I think Luxottica is a great company, and Leonardo Del Vecchio is a personal hero of mine. His life story is one of overcoming enormous odds to achieve enormous success. The focus here is to try to understand the recent blizzard of negative press and why the company seems so Ill equipped to handle it.
When I was writing my book, Luxottica graciously helped with some images of 18th Century pieces from their museum. Since the focus of the book was the development of the modern industry, I was keen on featuring Luxottica’s first Armani collection, which was their first designer license.
I felt it was a benchmark for both the company and industry. It beautifully encapsulated the sensibility of the licensor and the moment in time it was created. It was an unprecedented combination of aesthetic and commercial triumph. It set the tone for their rise to industry domination and the industry itself.
To my surprise, they discouraged me from featuring it! Apparently they didn’t want people to know there was a middleman between the licensor and the product. Although they’ve used “Never Hide” as Ray Ban’s slogan for years, invisibility seemed a core P.R. principle. This was obviously unsustainable for a company that size.
It also seems strange until you remember Luxottica was a component manufacturer that evolved into a distribution company. They’d never built a public facing brand from the ground up, and successfully promoted it to end consumers. Public Relations/relating to the public was never part of their toolbox. This was an endemic weakness, but it went unnoticed as Luxottica advanced from victory to victory.
Around the time of my book, someone very powerful in fashion suggested to them that they bring me on to work with them on Ray Ban – something like Thom Browne’s role with Brooks Brothers (owned by Leonardo Del Vecchio’s son). I had impressive credentials as a designer, authoritative knowledge of the brand’s design history, and proof of concept for numerous unique strategies to add value and generate press.
On the strength of the recommendation, most fashion companies would have, at least, taken the meeting seriously. From Luxottica I got a courtesy lunch with a mid-level P.R. executive. They must have thought the idea of anybody “helping” them add “cool factor”, or any other value, tangible or otherwise, to a commercial juggernaut like Ray Ban was absurd.
They probably figured the labels they’d licensed or bought had all the brand equity they needed. Consumer facing, value added initiatives were unnecessary. Having a corporate persona was unnecessary. This approach was validated by their bottom line – profit margins of over 20% (EBITDA as a percentage of revenue) on a vast scale.
So when Warby Parker materialized, well-funded and highly aggressive, they were easily able to define Luxottica because Luxottica had never felt the need to define themselves. And Luxottica’s been getting hammered in the press like a piñata ever since.
Even the FAANG companies, most of which are at least as monopolistic and much spookier than Luxottica, seem to get better press. That’s probably because they worked at building corporate personae that included well crafted hagiographies of key personnel… And various consumer facing, value added initiatives.
Former Luxottica CEO Andrea Guerra’s 60 Minutes interview, of course, was an historic debacle. He was asked the difference between an inexpensive frame sold under a house brand, and a similar designer license frame, which cost more than twice as much. After a long awkward silence, he pointed at the logo hardware on the designer frame’s temple, explained how nice it was, and how expensive it was to create.
Things like that can happen when a company doesn’t prioritize contributing to a product’s value equation beyond the purchased/rented branding.
But can any of this hurt Luxottica in the long term?
In lieu of superior competitors, and with their massive entrenchment, probably not too much.
But if the incessant bad press spurs anti-trust regulators to get involved… Who knows?
* * *
As noted last post, I’m going to be showing my first collection in years at Vision Expo East this week. For those unaware,I do pretty cool work. (hit the bolded lettering for link)
For those in attendance, I’ll be at booth G127. To make an appointment, leave a comment. It won’t be published…
I’ll be happy to sign your book if you bring it, too.
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One of the many retail doors Warby Parker has opened since 2013
I first heard about Warby Parker before most people, I think. I was friendly with Kate Spade (God rest her soul), who had just opened a store with her husband Andy. They were doing an event for Warby Parker. I attended. It was nice enough. I really didn’t think much about it until a few months later, when suddenly the company was everywhere.
At that point, almost everyone I met asked me what I thought of them. Many must have assumed nobody ever thought of selling prescription eyewear online before. I noted it was already a difficult space in which a notable player, Zenni Optical, was selling product at one tenth the price Warby Parker was charging. As far as I knew, Zenni controlled their own production facilities and labs. A new company without similar infrastructure would be hard pressed to match their efficiency.
Furthermore, although I’d studied the industry profoundly and just published a 400 page history of it, my biggest reservation was a matter of simple common sense. I felt shipping and returns would kill them. Often, when I’d had a prescription filled, the glasses needed a physical adjustment before I could see out of them. This suggested higher return rates than most other products. As a result, I saw prescriptive eyewear remaining a brick and mortar stronghold for the foreseeable future.
Beyond this endemic disadvantage, there were others. Warby Parker’s generous try on/return policy and charitable donation of a pair of eyewear in the developing world for each pair sold, promised to be costly. I wasn’t very sanguine about future profitability. And yet they continued to be the talk of the industry.
Brick and mortar opticians were terrified. Warby Parker was successfully promoting itself by attacking them, from Luxottica on down, as inefficient at best and shady at worst. I heard, from many quarters, that brick and mortar optical was doomed. Warby Parker was becoming become a household name. At some point I was told they’d passed the 1000 frames sold a day milestone. And yet they still weren’t profitable. It seemed expanding scale was having no effect on their bottom line.
Regardless, they had done an unprecedented job of getting their message out. They were becoming widely known as the company that had “changed the optical industry”. The paradigm still hadn’t put them in the black, but the money they’d raised, and the press they’d gotten by hammering away at that message were incredible. I believe they raised over a half billion dollars.
In 2013, they opened their first retail door. I remember it well. It was in SoHo, in New York City. At any given time there was a literal crowd inside. The steady torrent of reportage of their disruptive paradigm had piqued enormous public interest . By that point, the brand was semi-legendary. Needless to say, the store was a resounding success. By the end of 2017, they had opened over 70 stores. Published reports say their stores generate $3000 per square foot: about the same as Tiffany’s, which is astonishing.
I was surprised when I surveyed that first, newly opened shop. Instead of only selling $99 frame/prescription packages, the store represented a distinct move upmarket. It had attractive composite frames selling, I recall, for $145, and even $195. Quality on those was noticeably better. I also noted a pricing scale more in line with traditional brick and mortar. Extra cost items include blue blocker lenses at $50, prescription sun at $80, and progressives at around $300.
Basically, though the under $100 options remained, Warby Parker was charging more, at better margins, for better product than online. Customers being able to visit physical locations probably also meant easier adjustments, fewer returns, and significantly reduced costs. The main difference between Warby Parker’s stores and most others was Warby Parker still used its existing infrastructure to fill prescriptions, so the finished glasses were mailed to the customer after the store visit.
Of course the stores themselves represented higher overhead, but when you can do $3000 per square foot out of the gate, you’ll accept the trade-off.
Let’s assume the stores average 1000 square feet. Each then would average $3M revenue per year. 70 of them would represent $210M revenue per year. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Warby Parker finally announced profitability in the spring of 2018. One can only assume online operations remained a drag on overall profitability.
So, it seems the company rode a highly touted business model to enormous VC funding and public recognition. The model didn’t work. But that funding and recognition enabled a successful pivot into becoming a lucrative brick and mortar optical retailer – of the type their model was supposed to make obsolete.
Perhaps the founders always planned on having a “brick and click” business, but I doubt they expected the brick to be the engine of revenue.
So, what next?
Since this is a venture backed company, some sort of liquidity event is probably planned. An IPO? Their last round of investment put the company’s valuation at $1.75 billion. I’d guess higher profits are needed for the IPO to beat that. You don’t want your IPO to be a down round.
Their profit engine seems brick and mortar based. Sales are almost exclusively through their own doors. Growth through more Warby Parker stores would necessarily be capital intensive. Not desirable for a supposed tech company.
There are other, less capital intensive ways to grow.
Perhaps the greatest asset they’ve built is brand recognizability. If they did a separate line for other brick and mortar optical specialty, they could open thousands of accounts almost overnight. This would represent a torrent of revenue.
But there are obstacles. They’d have to either adjust their pricing structure or otherwise differentiate the products they’d be wholesaling. This would affect margins. It would also represent an apostasy which might be bad for the brand.
A bigger obstacle might be the enmity they generated among the rest of optical retail, from top to bottom. Mending fences might not be possible. Other optical specialty retailers would probably be resistant to carrying the line.
A sale is always a good exit strategy. I don’t see Luxottica as a candidate (imagine the optics of Luxottica “gobbling up” WP), but maybe LVMH or Kering. They have growing distribution infrastructure and sufficient funds. Problem is the resistance of brick and mortar optical specialty to carrying the brand might well linger even after a sale.
All in all, though, I’d gladly trade my problems for theirs. For the first time, I’m sanguine about their future. All they need to do is continue opening retail doors, in which their cost of goods is low and their margins are high. It’s only a matter of time before revenue justifies their valuation, though at $1.75 billion it might take a while.
Furthermore, the brand equity they’ve built can be transferred to other branded products, which can be sold at their rapidly multiplying high traffic stores.
Perhaps at some point the technologies for online operations they’ve invested in will bear fruit. Based solely on the incomplete information I have as an outside observer, if I were them I’d probably just accept the sack of gold fortune has thrown at them and focus primarily on the brick and mortar stores.
Given the reports I’ve read that Warby Parker ultimately plans to open 1000 retail doors, I think they got the memo. Bear in mind, their own stores are probably their only real option as a brick and mortar outlet, but I assume they have enough cash to keep building them. Looks like instead of Warby Parker changing the optical industry, it worked the other way around.
Of course, the investors – some of the best venture funds in the world, plus assorted other heavyweights – could have just started an independent eyewear company from scratch. With similar PR and scalability steroids, it could have achieved a comparable result for a fraction of the cost. It would also have the ability to generate even more revenue by wholesaling to other brick and mortar stores. I guess the problem was they’re tech obsessed and apparently didn’t bother with industry due diligence.
Either way, Warby Parker is and will be a success story. The moral of the story, though, is a paradox. By their own example, they’ve demonstrated that prescription eyewear is and will be a brick and mortar stronghold for the foreseeable future…
I’ll be showing at Vision Expo East in New York for the first time in many years. Booth G127. If you’re there, come by and say hi. I’m really much more designer than writer and my new line is some of my best work. But if you bring a copy of my book, I’ll be glad to sign it.
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Chinese spectacles, probably 18th or 19th Century, on an invitation to a fine museum retrospective of eyewear in Treviso this past summer.
I spent some time in Italy this summer: the region between Venice and the Dolomites. I was there to tour factories and have meetings, but you can’t get away from the 2500 or so years of history that surround you. You drive along mountain passes that Hannibal might have crossed; you stroll through towns with no tourist guide and accidentally happen upon Roman mosaics and Romanesque cathedrals, almost casually strewn, here and there.
Venice is probably the most beautiful city I’ve ever visited. If you have no choice, visit it during the high season. Just be aware, at that time, the exquisite physical beauty is counterbalanced by a mob of punters swarming the narrow streets. There’s also plenty of retail with a distinctly modern feel. Imagine a strip mall on a large opera set.
Treviso, though not quite as magnificent, is still lovely – human in scale, with a ten century medley of architecture – and relatively tourist free. There’s a summer festival in the old city, with people chatting at cafes and strolling about until after midnight. I chose to spend my down time here whenever I could. I was more interested in relaxing than history or culture. And yet, I can’t describe my surprise and delight when I saw a small flyer there announcing an exhibition called “GLI OCCHIALI AL POTERE – dal Rinascimento a Andy Warhol”, or roughly POWER GLASSES – from the Renaissance to Warhol.
I felt like a kid who’d just been told about a large cache of candy. Of course I made it a point to go.
It was in the Diocesan Museum, an edifice built around 1200 or so – around the same time corrective lenses were first set in frames, not very far from there. Walking there, past the many Renaissance era buildings was a perfect aperitif for the exhibition.
Most of the pieces were European, if not actually Italian, though a small but eclectic selection from Asia was present; most 14th through the 18th/19th Centuries. All in all it was more Renaissance than Warhol. All the pieces were in design harmony with their time of creation, and the bulk of them faithfully echoed the historical medley of architecture that made up the town.
I apologize in advance for the low quality of these photos. I shot them on the fly in substandard light on my phone. The display cases weren’t always conducive to the best possible shots. But hopefully I captured enough for others to appreciate just how impressive many of these pieces were.
Here’s a pair of truly Gothic looking spectacles:
Hat Glasses fit for a Bishop – circa 1600
What makes them even more interesting is the equally Gothic curved bar that goes over the top of the head, meant to hold the spectacles steady under a hat or wig. No idea of their original owner, but they’d look right under a bishop’s mitre.
Metal Hat Glasses – circa 1600 – top view
Oakley wasn’t the first to do “over the top” frames.
There were more such “hat” spectacles, including two made of baleen. Baleen in a natural polymer, substantially made of keratin. Certain whales have rows of baleen slats in their mouths. The resulting structure looks like a comb. Sea water filters through the baleen, leaving plankton and other foodstuffs caught in the slats, which the whale then eats.
A length of Baleen, which is a keratoid polymer found in the mouths of certain whales.
The spectacles below were apparently carved out of slats of baleen laid flat, planed and used as plates…
Baleen spectacles – Sixteenth or Seventeenth Century – with detachable, hinged slat meant to fit under a hat or wig. This was a means of holding eyeglasses in place before the invention of the hinged temple.
In this other pair below, a flat baleen strip was flipped perpendicular, curled around the lenses, and fastened into eyewires, to hold the lenses in the frame. This type of fabrication was generally better for higher diopter lenses.
Baleen glasses in which the eyewires are made of strips which were rolled and fastened. These have an additional strip of baleen which curls over the head, to fasten under a hat or wig. Circa Seventeen Century.
On a different aesthetic note, these tortoise and ivory spectacles were made in India, circa the 17th Century:
Spectacles from India, circa Eighteenth Century, tortoise and ivory. The Elephants mounted in the frame of these eyeglasses recall Ganesha, Hindu deity of success and wisdom.
More baleen glasses below, from Venice and the Netherlands, with carved wood and stingray cases, respectively. Also note the self-portrait of the author reflected in the glass:
Baleen “nose” spectacles, from Venice and the Netherland with carved wood and shagreen cases. Circa 16th or 17th Century.
These fine baleen spectacles were presented in a fitted metal case:
Baleen spectacles in metal case – circa 1720
But there was more, going back even further in time. I’m unsure of the provenance, but these leather spectacles could date back to the 1400s. They’re formally similar to the earliest 2 lens eyeglasses we know of:
Glasses with leather frames. circa 16th Century.
Here’s another leather pair from England:
Leather spectacles from England circa 1600. These are of the earliest type of two lens eyeglasses.
You can consider the next piece either a large spectacle case or pop-up eyewear book.
The book is in German, was published in 1758, and the glasses are probably contemporary to it.
These next ones are interesting:
Japanese spectacles in the Western style, circa Late Eighteenth Century.
They’re attributed to Japan, circa late Eighteenth Century. The eyewires are pierced at the corners, to allow for string to loop around the wearer’s ears. One wonders about the development of eyewear in Japan prior to, and during the Tokugawa Shogunate, which substantially cut off contact between Japan and the rest of the world from 1633 to the 1850s. The Portuguese had initiated trade from the beginning of the 17th Century, but were expelled in 1639 due to difficulties with their missionary activities. I mention this because these frames resemble the type fashionable on the Iberian Peninsula during the Seventeenth Century. By the late Eighteenth Century, this sort of frame was an anachronism in the West.
For context, here’s a pair of Japanese spectacles said to be identical to a pair owned by Ieyasu Tokugawa, founder of the Shogunate:
Japanese spectacles, early Seventeenth Century. These are said to be identical to those worn by Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
A couple of horrendous pictures follow. I’d just gotten a new cell phone. To be honest, I still haven’t figured out how or why the autofocus does what it does. In all probability, the aperture opened fully up in the poor light, which eliminated any depth of field. Who knows? But you deserve an idea of how lovely the display cases looked, in the context of the space:
Display case of early protective eyewear – mostly sunglasses – at L’Occhiale al Potere show, Treviso 2018
Above is a selection of sunglasses from the Late Eighteenth and early Ninteenth Centuries. It includes, clockwise from upper left, Two pairs of Richardson 4 lens sunglasses, one scissors lorgnette, one pair of very early sunglasses with leather side covers, one pair of early tinted, swivel armed spectacles.
Below is a display of early sunglasses; mostly from Venice. (At this point, I should note the summer sun is ferocious here, mitigated only by the unbelievable humidity that saturates the air. It’s no surprise sunglasses developed early here.)
The object that looks like a mirror with a big green lens in the back was an early example of sunwear, generally carried by ladies of Venice in the Eighteenth Century. It could also be used as a fan, or “double fisted” with a fan.
And at twilight, when the legions of mosquitoes descended, a lady could swing both, simultaneously (though futilely), at the inexorable pests, which are endemic to the region.
In the foreground is a pair of sunglasses that belonged to the Doge di Venezia, or Duke of Venice. Note his escutcheon, used as a sort of finial at the end of the temples. I tried to capture the hinges in a photo, but it wasn’t possible. They are probably the nicest forged hinges I’ve ever seen on a piece of eyewear. The finish and evenness of the barrels is superb; obviously the work of an artisan, probably a jeweler of the first water.
Here’s one of my attempts to get a shot of the hinge. You’ll see how flat it is:
In the late 1970s, through the 1980s, there was a group of young men in Japan who loved American denim. They were aficionados and collectors. As more efficient, and cheaper production methods proliferated worldwide, they felt traditional brands were no longer up to snuff, so they began forming companies to produce their own.
A group of some of the earliest such brands would become known as The Osaka Five: Studio D’Artisan, Warehouse, Evisu, Denime and Full Count. Although their denim and hardware was authentically vintage in quality and appearance, they still released original, though classic, designs. For example, the Full Count 1108 (I own a pair) has the detailing of 1940s or 1950s Levi’s, but the cut is slimmer, more modern.
At this point you’re probably asking: what are jeans doing in an eyewear blog?
When I first started making eyewear, what The Osaka Five had done seemed like a valid model to me. I loved eyewear’s design history and tradition, and had immersed myself in it. I felt a strong affinity for the construction methods and sensibilities of the past. I wanted to animate those elements with new life. That was my goal.
Until, someone asked me for a favor…
I’d been loaning some of my vintage collection to stylists for shoots. I hadn’t produced any product at that point. I was still figuring everything out. One day a stylist I knew came by with a request for a shoot.
The subject was Snoop Dogg. The stylist had a particular vision. He wanted the sunglasses to help project a feeling of danger; of night, and bling, and cocaine laden mirrors, and razor blades.
“I don’t think I have anything like that in my collection.”
“Why don’t you make it?
“Cool. I’ll be back next Monday to pick it up.”
He left. It then occurred to me I’d never physically made anything before, Plus, my design sensibility was exclusively classic.
What could I use as inspiration? I’d never seen a frame incorporating any of those references, much less all of them. I was on my own.
But by the following Monday, I managed to come up with this:
Face Shield, Moss Lipow, shot by Greg Kadel, styled by Patti Wilson – I did this a while ago – before everybody started putting spikes on everything!
Everybody seemed to agree: it projected a feeling of danger; of night, and bling, and cocaine laden mirrors, and razor blades.
And what was the inspiration? Same as designing any eyeglass frame, or worn object, or anything. You work with visual cues and references to communicate a feeling or message. I just cast my net a bit wider to achieve the stated objective.
Any given day, when someone wakes up and gets dressed, they’re assembling a visual presentation that communicates who they are, or want to be. The job of a designer is to help them do this better. I already had a strong background in the medium’s design history, and had already begun drafting my line. I felt I understood the visual tools needed to make people look smarter, stronger, cooler, in an everyday context.
This was just a matter of taking it a bit further.
The piece was never used on Snoop Dogg. The stylist never came over that Monday. It sat at my place until another stylist came by, saw it, and wanted to use it. The picture here was from the inaugural issue of Vogue China. Waste not, want not.
I wound up doing a lot of editorial type work. I enjoy it. But, reviewing the new collection I just designed, I’m reminded I never really strayed far from the example set by The Osaka Five. At least not in terms of the things I make for everyday wear.
If you want a strong tree, you need deep roots. If anything I do manages to reflect this, I’m happy.
More blog posts to come.
Whenever I tell anyone what I do, they usually ask: How did you get into eyewear?
One seemingly ordinary day, toward the end of my teens, I went to my optometrist. It was time for a routine examination. Only this examination turned out not to be very routine at all. Upon completing all my tests, the optometrist said wanted to speak to me about something.
I stared blankly at the doctor as he explained to me that as I’d grown taller and taller—I was a so-called “late bloomer,” and continued to grow until I was almost twenty—my eyeballs had gotten longer and longer, causing the focus of images I saw to fall in front of my retina, rather than on my retina. As a result, I’d become nearsighted. I listened numbly as he told me I was going to have to wear eyeglasses for the rest of my life. A heavy cloud of gloom descended over me. I felt glasses were the mark of Cain, had Cain been a dork instead of a murderer.
I hadn’t been a popular teenager. Everyone assured me that all this would change in college, and I really wanted to believe them. Finding out that I’d have to wear glasses until the day I died seemed like a black omen. My suspicion that I’d never get laid began to harden into panicked conviction.
First, I went into denial. Then, with dark resignation, I tried to make the best of a bad situation. Rock & Roll had been one of the very few aspects of my teen universe that actually made me happy. I had a passion not just for the music, but for the fashion as well. High style rock subcultures had always been an object of fantasy—a portal of escape—for me.
At the time of my optical diagnosis, I favored bands that were part of the British R&B boom of the middle 1960s. Their sense of style was essentially Mod. I’d been growing my hair out, and I figured that glasses with thick black frames, combined with the right clothes, might give me a retro-modern, Manfred Mann sort of look. It might even be cool enough to make the wearing of glasses tolerable. It was worth a try, anyway. What other choice did I have?
John Lennon wearing The sort of black acetate frames I’d eventually get. Not sure if he looks like a beatnik, existentialist intellectual here, or one of Freddie and the Dreamers.
So I went into my local optician’s, and, after much searching, fished the only suitable frames out of the bin to which he’d consigned his cheapest and most undesirable stock. I can still see him standing there, perplexedly urging me to choose something “less ugly.”
As it happened, the pair of glasses I bought that day added a lot of panache to my look. In fact, I was taken aback. Girls, rather than finding me less desirable, as I’d dreaded, seemed to find me more desirable. And, as an added bonus, the cooler and more stylish the girls were the most responsive. I even, finally, got laid. And with a hottie, too.
Thus I found myself actually enjoying wearing glasses, becoming, even, an
enthusiastic advocate. I sported this basic, vaguely Mod look for a good while. But style is sort of like a shark: if it stops moving forward, it dies. Likewise, my style icons began to evolve, becoming more eclectic. A touch of the Romantic began to manifest itself, and influences trended toward Syd Barrett, Jim Morrison, and Lord Byron, among others. I started getting into poetry. My favorites were the Decadents: Englishmen who were influenced by Frenchmen who were influenced by Poe. I began wearing velvet suits and fitted trousers. I came to own several billowy, embroidered, peasant shirts. But the thick black frames that had stood me in good stead through most of college were no longer sufficient; they didn’t fit with my new look. So I began to haunt my local flea market, buying up vintage and antique frames into which I’d put my prescription lenses. Soon, though, I had more frames than I could reasonably outfit with lenses, and I began buying frames just because I thought they looked cool.
Finally, it started to dawn on me — vaguely, uneasily — that I’d morphed into a collector. I really couldn’t help it: the beauty, artistry, and variety I found in this strange, neglected, style netherworld were unbelievable. Each individual piece told a story of its times, both aesthetically and technologically. As “useful objects,” each spoke more eloquently and thoroughly of its times than mere fashion items ever could. And, damn it, they just looked cool.
During the period this all unfolded, I’d attended and graduated film school. I had thought I’d wanted to do something in the medium, but intense immersion had burned me out. I developed an aversion to filmed entertainment that lingers to this day.
I still retained my love of visual art and design, though. Since childhood, I’d filled my notebooks with drawings of everything from cars, to guitars, to buildings. The sketches were always original designs. As I got older, my regard for fashion as a medium had grown. I considered it worn art. As such, it was living, and therefore more important than objects merely hung on walls. Eyewear occupied the most important real estate on your body and was therefore the most important worn art.
So, I started designing frames. I started making them, too. People responded well. My avocation had become my vocation.
So that’s the answer to the question, “Why eyewear?”.
In a previous post, I looked back at Prada’s abortive attempt to control their own eyewear licensing in collaboration with De Rigo. When Luxottica subsequently took over the license in 2002, they promised to nearly quadruple Prada Eyewear’s lagging sales in one year. This raises an interesting question.
Had Prada’s stature with consumers, as a brand, plummeted during their own venture into eyewear? Had signing a contract with Luxottica immediately raised it four fold, so they could sell four times as much eyewear?
I’ve read some recent articles and opinion pieces talking up the importance of branding to the end consumer in the optical industry. It has some importance, no doubt, more in sunglasses than prescriptive optical, but what exactly is that importance?
Let’s put it into perspective: it pales by comparison to distribution.
Luxottica was able to get the most mileage out of their licenses because of their slow, calculated strategy of expansion, buying sales and distribution resources region by region. Much of this took place before the company took on its first license.
So distribution trumps branding.
This will be the key to LVMH and Kering Eyewear’s success or failure. But this, in turn, raises other questions.
So getting goods on the sales floor is of paramount importance. But once products reach the sales floor, how important is branding?
I personally think LVMH and Kering have all the tools to succeed, but I might have to qualify any gloomy predictions regarding those licensing giants other than Luxottica.
In the Vision Council’s periodic “Fashion vs. Function” surveys, somewhere between just 6 and 10 percent of consumers consider a designer name or brand very important in their purchase. A minority (a bit over a third) would “consider” spending more for a designer name. Of course, since this wedge of the demographic pie (younger, more affluent consumers) tends to spend more than others, their business is important and is courted. But they are a minority.
I personally love customers who are fashion literate. They’ve always been a core constituency of mine. There’s often a difference between these people and those who are “brand driven”. It’s sort of like the difference between style and fashion.
Once you build a brand, customers who are attracted to it will expect a certain kind of product. That’s a good thing. There’s quite a gulf between that and simply “branding” something and selling it.
But branding, per se, is fairly low on the list of factors that drive purchases. According to the survey, durability, the style of the frame and the fit of the frame are the three most important factors.
If you’re going to build a brand known for something, those are the qualities it should be known for.
I guess a message in this survey data is, any competitors concerned about recent industry changes and their potential for absorbing every desirable license and brand should go back to square one and focus on product. Good product should be able to hold its own on a sales floor. Superior product should do even better.
Results that contradict this would be interesting to analyze on a case by case basis. But licensing giants not named Luxottica should be able to do just fine if they make product that stands on its own merits. It’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out.
But back to our original question: What drives eyewear sales? At the wholesale level? At the retail level?
Surveys are all well and good. Sometimes empirical and anecdotal data are more revealing. Many of my readers are ECPs. I’d love to hear what you have to say. I suspect answers might vary by customer base, but who knows? It’d be greatly appreciated if you could share your thoughts in the comments section.
And I will be posting going forward. As the last couple posts suggest, you never know what you might find here, so… SUBSCRIBE.
When you collect anything seriously, you develop sources. Eyewear is no different. One of my best was a very old man, with a long scar on his face and an archaic Brooklyn accent, right out of a 1930s gangster movie. His name was Jimmy. Anytime I was looking for something unusual, he seemed able to get it. I bought a lot from him over the years, but the most intriguing piece he ever sold me was a pair of granny glasses made of baleen.
This was no ordinary piece. Baleen frames are very unusual in and of themselves, I’ve only run across a few, but it was the lenses that fascinated me. They measured about 2 diopters of nearsightedness and were of a bluish tint, with a few subtle impurities. I suspected they were very old, so, eventually, I showed them to a contact at the American Museum of Natural History. He told me the frame seemed to have been crafted with stone tools, and was likely inuit in origin. The lenses, beautifully ground, didn’t seem to have been made with conventional tools either. He found the piece interesting enough to carbon date it.
The glasses apparently dated back to around 300 A.D. – which was impossible since refractive lenses wouldn’t be invented for another thousand years – lenses for nearsightedness wouldn’t be invented until a few centuries after that! This, of course, threw the accepted narrative of the development of optics out the window.
But there was more: they found the crystalline structure of the lenses appeared changeable. It was as if there was a layer below the surface that could turn viscous and could repeatedly harden into different crystalline structures, depending on combined frequencies of light passing through the lenses. They’d never seen anything like it before.
As an artifact, the glasses were beyond priceless. But as technology, they might have been worth even more.
I’d asked Jimmy where he gotten them several times, but he was always evasive. Upon discovering their importance, I immediately set out for his home in Brownsville to find out more – only to find his wife of many years, Rose, who informed me he’d passed away a couple weeks earlier!
My best chance of learning the provenance of the glasses had been lost. But his wife’s loss was greater. The large red bag Jimmy had kept most of his treasures in lay draped by a mantle, empty. It was mid-December. There was Christmas decor out. It was a sad tableau.
We had seldom said more than “hello” and “goodbye” to each other prior to that afternoon. I actually knew little about Jimmy. He was always quite circumspect about himself and his past. I asked her how they met. She was grateful for the chance to talk about him and remember. I was about to learn why he’d been so circumspect.
He’d been a Gangster. During prohibition, he’d worked for The Chicago Outfit – Johnny Torrio and Al Capone – in the Alaska Territory overseeing the importation of bootleg whiskey from the Far East. It was there he’d obtained many of the treasures I’d bought from him over the years. Apparently he traded in precious artifacts as a sideline. As this sideline grew it became lucrative enough to support him, and he “went straight”. They met at a dance, at some point during his transition from gangster to curio dealer.
It was a long shot, but I asked:
“Do you remember anything about those glasses made of baleen – like whale bone – I bought from him?”
“Yeah. He said he got those back in Alaska. Traded for them from Eskimos.”
I spent the rest of the afternoon listening to her memories of Jimmy and their adventures together. That night I booked a flight to Alaska to do some field work and try to find out more about the glasses.
* * *
Jimmy’s former location had been remote: far up the West Coast near the Arctic Circle. I arrived a few days before Christmas; a land of almost perpetual night. It was a real winter wonderland: all coated in snow like glowing enamel, lit by clouds of articulated stars that billowed across the sky and illuminated it shades of purple.
I found a cabin to use as my base of operations. It was wood with a brick fireplace and chimney. There was a generator, but the fuel tank was small so conserving energy would be necessary.
There’d been some recent, violent polar bear attacks in the vicinity. I’d been given a shotgun upon being dropped off. I can’t say I was a happy camper, but I was after the eyewear version of the Ark of the Covenant. I intended to stick it out. There were a few small villages of indigenous people within a hundred mile radius. I’d rented an ATV. I hoped to have the trip wrapped up by New Year’s.
My first full day there I visited the nearest northern village up the coast, showed the leaders the baleen glasses and asked if they’d ever seen any other pieces like them. They showed me some recently made pieces of craft – tried to sell them to me, in fact. I explained the specificity of what I was looking for and they agreed to help me investigate further.
That night I turned the generator on for a couple hours. I recharged my computer and connected to a satellite based internet service. I then microwaved a meal, and streamed “It’s a Wonderful Life”. I placed the baleen glasses on a mantle. Reflections of lamplight and Bailey Falls flickered across the lenses and smooth surfaces. Snow had begun to fall outside. I drifted into a deep sleep.
* * *
A loud noise outside the cabin jarred me awake just as George Bailey was being ejected from Nick’s Bar. Loud animal sounds, a thunderous thump, then heavy footsteps. I launched myself off the couch, towards the shotgun mounted on the wall. The source seemed to be near the back of the cabin by the chimney. I remembered there was a back door. It occurred to me: the smell of my dinner had probably carried for miles!
I grabbed the shotgun. It was a 12 gauge. Was it enough firepower to stop a ten foot tall, thousand pound bear? And where was the ammunition? I had no idea!
Just then the fireplace was snuffed out by a shocking burst of wind!
Black, fur trimmed boots dropped down from the chimney.
A fat man in a red suit, stocking cap, and white beard was wearing them. He touched down with the practiced élan of a commando.
“Who are you!?”, I demanded. He seemed jolly. Too jolly. I pointed the gun at him.
“Who do I look like?”, he asked.
“A home invader in a Santa suit.”
“Ho, ho, ho!”, he replied, and grabbed my hand. He pulled me quickly into the fireplace and we shot up to the roof , as if the chimney was a pneumatic tube. He gestured toward an ornate sled parked there with a team of reindeer in harness. The lead one had a red, incandescent nose.
I was sure this was all a hallucination or dream. What was Santa Claus doing here?
“But it’s not Christmas Eve yet.”
“This isn’t a gift run. I’m here about something else.”
I looked at him quizzically. He grabbed my arm again. We shot back down into the cabin. He explained.
“Many years ago, when I resolved to spread joy all over the world… My first year…. I didn’t think I’d be able to make it.. Think about it! It was a manufacturing and logistical nightmare! I didn’t have the resources, the personnel…. The elves were inexperienced, and there weren’t enough of them. And I had a hard deadline… So I farmed out a lot of work to local craftsmen. Native people who lived near the North Pole…
“Somehow we finished almost everything on schedule. We made a lot of people happy… I was so grateful to the locals for their help. Each got something very special in their stocking. And they responded by giving me something very special… an extraordinary pair of spectacles!
“They were magical; specially designed for my eyes by a shaman…. They could bend light so I could see over the horizon line, and take better routes, navigate bad weather…. My efficiency increased enormously… Going forward, every good little boy and girl all around the world got the gift they deserved.”
He paused. His expression darkened.
“But then, one Christmas Eve… 1928…. I went down the wrong chimney…”
His eyes glowed.
“I was surrounded by gangsters! with Tommy guns! They stole all my presents…. And my magic gift bag… And my spectacles, too.”
His expression turned grave.
“I could replace the gift bag, but not the spectacles…
“Since they’ve been gone, I haven’t been able to see well enough to finish my route on time. Many homes are missed every year. Deserving children go without gifts. There’s been a lot of disappointment… All that missing joy has had a terrible impact on the world. We’ve had The Depression; the rise of Hitler; Stalin; WWII; the Atom Bomb…. The Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the War on Terror…. Perpetual war.
“Had I been able to spread joy properly, I believe the last century would have turned out better… If I could get those spectacles back, the future might shine a little brighter.”
Silence, as all this sank in.
“Son… I think you have my spectacles”.
A pregnant pause.
“You mean those”.
I gestured toward the spectacles on the mantle. He picked them up, looked through the lenses and nodded. I leaned forward.
“One question: those gangsters that robbed you… Did any of them have any unusual identifying features?”
“Yes! One had a long scar on the side of his face.”
So Jimmy and his gang had ambushed and robbed Santa Claus. As we spoke more, I learned that red velvet bag he used to pull all those little treasures he sold from must have been Santa’s magical, self-replenishing gift bag.
I sighed. Giving up those baleen spectacles would be a massive sacrifice. It was the most significant piece of eyewear on earth. But you can’t refuse Santa. It’s bad karma. Besides, the future happiness of the planet was at stake.
But the glasses were priceless. More importantly, their lenses represented new technology that could benefit a lot of people.
I thought about the situation a moment, and then leaned forward.
“I’ve got an idea…”
* * *
Santa got his glasses back. Christmas around the world improved immensely from that year forward. (Hanukkah, too!). Maybe the world became a little happier. I wouldn’t know.
He was willing to share the optical technology embedded in his spectacle lenses. A team of research scientists at a remote government lab is studying them as you read this.
But that wasn’t quite the end of the story.
Just as Santa and I shook hands and raised an egg nog toast… Something huge smashed against the back door and splintered it open!
It was a polar bear!
It stared at us and bared its teeth. Its nostrils shot angry jets of steam into the cold air.
I recently spoke with a colleague in Canada about the future of the industry. He was explaining to me how online refraction will spell the death of the independent optical store; and how consolidation will spell the death of independent brands.
Some years ago I heard Lasik would spell the end of the optical industry in general. Then Warby Parker was going to obliterate the rest of the industry. Then the growth of Luxottica would cause everyone else to wither and die.
As far as I know most everyone is still here.
The equation is simple: as long as there’s demand for somewhat different eyewear made by independent companies, there will be demand for retail doors to sell it. Eyewear’s a $100B industry. There’s plenty of room.
I’ve always felt optical was primarily a service industry and was less susceptible to incursions from online retailers than most categories. Even if the online seller gets the IPD and refraction right, the frame often needs to be adjusted. I’ve never seen numbers, but I’d guess the shipping on returns must really eat away the profit margin.
My feeling is the brick and mortar industry is quite healthy, nonwithstanding online retailers and online refraction; if it wasn’t why would the very intelligent heads of LVMH and Kering Group want to plunge into it?
What do you think? Feel free to comment.
Not sure how many people know I actually design and produce eyewear. It might come as a surprise to some, because it’s been a while since I’ve been active. I had to go on hiatus to help family through some problems. I’m back.
I plan on launching a new line in the Spring. Some optical shapes and some sun. My friend Michelle Violy Harper is pictured below wearing one of the new sun shapes.
Michelle Violy Harper wearing the Fleur du Mal, a style from my upcoming collection. Vogue Nippon was featuring her as a stylish person. She actually brought the sunglasses to the shoot with her.
I’ll still run some older shapes that were popular.
“The Double M”, a favorite style of mine that was among the first I ever produced.
I do a classic line and good shapes are evergreen. The new optical shapes are a bit simpler than the Double M, but capture its vibe. Heck, noted optician Barry Santini, told me he’d wear most of them himself.
The production run will be limited. I’ll be taking pre-orders by private appointment in Las Vegas. I’d be grateful if those of you who might be interested would come take a look.
You can best reach me through my personal page on Facebook.
An advertisement for Prada Eyewear, Spring/Summer 2013.
Last post I noted that Luxottica had guarded themselves pretty well from their licensors going in-house for eyewear. In recent years they’ve avoided licensing from the luxury goods conglomerates, which were always the most likely to go in-house. Truth is, though, Luxottica is still vulnerable. Maybe not as much as Safilo, but vulnerable.
I recall once reading that Prada and Miu Miu combined represented close to a billion dollars in eyewear sold per year for Luxottica. Since the source document has vanished from my computer, let’s just say Prada’s name sells a few hundreds of millions worth of eyewear any given year. I figured I’d read Prada’s annual report to see how much actual money they got from their license deal. To my astonishment their total royalties income (from all sources!) was less than 40 million euros.
It seemed a low number, considering their branding substantially made all those sales. I’m sure Prada thought so, too. That’s probably why they left their license with Luxottica in 1999 and formed their own optical company in partnership with De Rigo.
What was the result? Sales plummeted, and by 2002 they were back with Luxottica, who promised to nearly quadruple their sales in a year.
Another way to understand the might of Luxottica’s distribution is by asking yourself the question: Which brand has the higher Q Score, Dior or Prada? Worldwide, I’d say it’s pretty close, but Dior Eyewear, manufactured and distributed by Safilo, only generates roughly 1/3rd of Prada Eyewear’s revenue.
And Safilo is no penny ante operation. Obviously Kering won’t even be able to match them at first. But the real question for the luxury conglomerates is whether net revenues will top the royalties they’d received. This is certainly achievable.
All this raises a question: Does the brand name drive distribution or does distribution drive the brand? At what point does the strength of one outweigh the strength of the other? We’ll ponder that some more soon.
LVMH and Kering were great candidates for forming their own distribution networks because they have many, many lines they can offer, each with its own brand identity. Each can fill different niches in the market thereby generating more money collectively while sharing infrastructure and enjoying economies of scale.
But what about more solitary giants like Prada, Chanel and Armani?
Having basically one brand each, it probably wouldn’t pay for each to set up costly infrastructure just to distribute their individual brand. But there’s another way: They could pool their resources and form a joint manufacturing and distribution company. Such cooperation between titans is not unprecedented. Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group did something similar in creating the video hosting platform Vevo.
Manufacturing and distribution, to a great extent, can be bought, and such a partnership would have plenty of money. Prada has a market cap of about $11B. Giorgio Armani is fully owned by Giorgio Armani himself, and has valuation of about $8B. Alain and Gerard Wertheimer own Chanel, which has a valuation of about $20B.
Put another way, you’re a sales rep. You’re currently doing well, but you’re offered substantial first and second year bonuses, guaranteed, to start carrying Chanel in your territory. Their new line is really good and a newly formed giant company is pumping big resources into infrastructure and they’re not disappearing anytime soon. The Chanel name beats the line you’re currently carrying. There’s a chance to make substantially more money going forward. Would you switch?
This would be a nightmare scenario for Luxottica. I wouldn’t write it off as completely unlikely either. If the thought’s occurred to me, I’m sure it’s occurred to one or more of those companies. In such a situation, Luxottica would either have to raise royalties or, maybe, partner with the new entity, like Safilo partnered with Kering Group.
Something like this is the one thing Del Vecchio couldn’t entirely hedge against. It would be a logical “next shoe to drop” in the current industry environment.
More soon. If you want to know exactly when, please subscribe.