A host of emerging brands are giving glasses-wearers a clearer point of view. Emma McCarthy takes a look at the new ‘it’ accessory.
It’s been 70 years since the NHS introduced glasses to the masses. There were seven styles to choose from and they were not known for being easy on the eye.
Fast forward to 2018 and the specs industry has long shaken off that look. No longer are glasses an aid for the optically challenged or the butt of every playground joke but the must-have fashion accessory among long- and short-sighted style plates — and a fair few with 20/20 vision.
By 2022, the global eyewear market is expected to reach $165 billion with opticals accounting for 70 per cent. And while it has long been dominated by a handful of big brands such as Luxottica, which owns Oliver Peoples and Ray-Ban and licences to produce eyewear for fashion labels such as Chanel and Prada, there’s an influx of brands offering a fresh perspective through affordability and a fashion-meets-function aesthetic which promise to elevate high street opticians beyond Vision Express’s 2-for-1 wall. The result is a whole new sector within the accessories market.
Among the trailblazers is Dutch brand Ace & Tate. “It all started when I bought a pair of frames in the US,” says founder Mark de Lange. “They were pretty expensive and then I had to pay a couple hundred euros extra to add in the prescription lenses. I couldn’t understand why it had to be so complicated.”
In 2013, Ace + Tate was born with the mission to make shopping for quality specs less of a chore. “We believe that glasses are not just a medical device but a very personal fashion accessory and we wanted to encourage wearers to own more than one pair, in the same way you would own more than one pair of sneakers.”
The formula is working. This approach has resulted in a repeat purchase rate five times more frequent than the industry standard. While the brand has a flagship in Covent Garden, it identifies as online-first. “The average age of our consumer online is under 30 years of age — younger than those in-store,” says Lange.
With digital market booming — online sales of eyewear have doubled in the past 10 years and are set to make up 10-15 per cent of all sales by 2025 — Ace + Tate is also keen to invent innovative ways to make shopping for specs online easier.
This spring, it will launch a virtual try-on, which will work like a Snapchat filter to let customers see what shape suits them best, while the new-look website (here soon) will also have a wishlist option which uses an algorithm to build a digital shelf of personal recommendations for each customer.
Independent British specs brand Cubitts — founded in King’s Cross in 2012 — is also cornering the online market with a try-at-home service. It lets shoppers road test any four of its 24 frames for five days for free before choosing a pair to keep.
“Now is a great time to be a spectacle wearer, compared with the malaise of the past few decades,” says CEO Tom Broughton. “Our frames are unisex, and we don’t define our customers based on their background, demographics or age.” Cubitts’ inclusive approach extends to a transparent pricing structure too, with all handmade frames costing £125.
Other industry pioneers include Finlay & Co — a brand known for its wooden sunglasses which is expanding its opticals offering through the opening of its first store on Carnaby Street — and Ollie Quinn, which opened seven optometrists in the capital last year and cuts prescription lenses locally for frames created in-house, all for the standardised price of £98.
Online eyewear specialist Kite also launched its first venture IRL late last year with a concept store on Shoreditch’s Redchurch Street, which houses a selection of specs designed in its Soho workshop and a sleek Scandi Eyebar at which customers are invited to take a stool for a one-on-one appointment with a stylist with an espresso or prosecco in hand.
Off the high street, change is also afoot. Among the most ground-breaking launches is ByOcular — a striking selection of made-to-measure frames featuring a bifocal glass for reading. Devised by Caren Downie, the high street retail maven who helped turn around Topshop and ASOS before launching workwear start-up The Finery, a super-chic vision was top of the agenda.
“ByOcular has fashion at its core; it exists to provide people with a sense of individuality,” says Downie, who was inspired to launch the brand after falling in love with a pair in a vintage store in Camden and struggling to find anything else like it on the market. “You wear glasses every day but they are not seen as solely functional any more. Glasses have become your most important accessory — they’re the new lipstick."