How Independent Luxury Brands Are Disrupting the Eyewear Industry
In fashion, apparel often takes center stage, with shoes, bags and sunglasses being seen as offshoots. That said, accessories, however secondary they may be perceived by the general public, are the bread and butter of luxury labels. Indeed, consumers nowadays are less likely to shell out the big bucks on, say, a suit or sweater—especially when the fashion cycle promotes the idea of seasonal trends. But they are perhaps more inclined to buy a less-costly accessory—if that.
To be sure, garnering the attention of shoppers is an uphill battle for many in the luxury sector. With the fashion industry being so saturated, and with consumer spending shifting toward experiences rather than high-priced items, the biggest firms are placing a greater emphasis on marketing its products. Whether it is staging elaborate fashion shows, paying for celebrity endorsements or increasing its advertising dollars, creating quality items is no longer the primary focus. It’s about feeding the beast and stocking store shelves with the trend du jour. This involves having a strong infrastructure and deep-seeded partnerships with major retailers—factors that may leave small, emerging labels by the wayside. And in regards to startup sunglasses brands, it is even more of a struggle.
“This cycle happens so rapidly now that the pioneer becomes the victim of its own success and gets surrounded by intense competition,” says Won Lee, the U.S. CEO of Gentle Monster, a Korean-based brand. “License businesses like Luxottica and Safilo have led the fashion eyewear market for a long time, but now there’s a proliferation of eyewear brands, including independent ones like us, due to the expectation on fashion brands to have their own eyewear lines—much like fragrances. This makes the slice of the pie even smaller for all and makes eyewear distribution more complex and aggressive.”
Unlike clothes, shoes and bags—which are usually produced in house, so to speak—designer eyewear is licensed by corporations that specialize in making and marketing specs for the masses. As Lee mentioned, the power players are Luxottica and Safilo, along with Kering Eyewear, which virtually have a monopoly on the market, representing names like Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, Cartier, Gucci and a slew of others. They have the resources, capital and visibility to dominate. So how does an independent firm compete?
“You can’t compete with them,” says Stirling Barrett, the founder of New Orleans-based eyewear brand Krewe. “Your advantage is to not compete with them. I think independents can be more nimble—we’re not going to beat their distribution strategy, so we’ve got to look for areas of partnership with larger players that allow us to reach the same sort of style distribution that they have.”
“Safilo and Luxottica have revenue of €3 billion and €9 billion respectively,” adds Ed Baker, the CEO and founder of Pared Eyewear, an Australian label. “Therefore, I don’t really see Pared and other independent brands competing against them directly. We are in our own segmented market that sits alongside, but essentially, we can’t ever compete directly with them. We are, however, working to disrupt a marketplace, and at the end of the day, you are competing on design and the end product, which is what the consumers are paying for.”
Essentially, independent eyewear brands are not targeting a large base, but are catering to a niche population that value original designs and standing apart from a more uniformed, trend-driven crowd. It may sound like an antiquated business model (almost couture-like), but for Gentle Monster, Krewe and Pared, the global market has become so vast and open that it allows for truly innovative products to trickle in. And because they have relatively small inventories, and aren’t tied down to filling up stock in a hasty way, they have more flexibility to offer a more curated product. To whit: it’s not about feeding the beast, but satiating the appetite of a discerning clientele.
“What’s nice about the independent market, is that you can get better quality and relatively more unique frames because they’re made in a smaller batch mentality,” says Barret. “You’re also able to support truly localized regional businesses—when you buy Ray-Ban, Oliver Peoples, or Prada, you’re really just supporting a conglomerate model.”
“We measure our decisions by asking ‘What is this for?’ The answer must align with our mission to inspire awe and curiosity—even if it doesn’t yield immediate results in sales and profit,” says Lee in agreement. “We believe our weird aesthetic will speak to the people, and that our steadfast branding will set us apart in a long run.”
Here, in their own words, the heads of Gentle Monster, Krewe and Pared explain how their brands are offering something fresh to the luxury eyewear industry.
“Krewe frames reflect a fresh, updated take on vintage-inspired frames that are both modern and iconic in design," says Stirling Barrett. "Most importantly, our frames are about representing the wearer and their individual style. A krewe in New Orleanian culture is a group of diverse people that comes together to parade during Carnival season. Our name definitely invokes this spirit of creative collaboration.”
“Our aesthetic can be described as ‘Weird Wonder Wow Beauty,'" says Won Lee. "Gentle Monster creates anticipation and excitement through our five core focuses: product, space, style, technology and culture. We have also determined that there are shared values between the east and the west—namely the past and future; technology and art. Following through on these principles requires serious commitment and a long lead time, which in turn demands that we don't simply cave into the current trends."
"Pared means to cut into something, to shave or refine it," says Ed Baker. "This action is what inspires the cutout detailing and design features of each frame. The word plays on a pair of something, which inspires the names of each frame in our collection. My favorite is Uptown & Downtown from our 80’s Disco collection, which is what both Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender have been wearing. We also have a strong focus on collaborations and partnerships, and are very well known for these in the fashion and influencer space."