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Sunday / June 26.
HomemifashionCIOF: A Brave New World of Eyewear

CIOF: A Brave New World of Eyewear

Rapidly increasing wealth and awareness of prestige brands is driving demand for high-end products, as well as lower priced frames, in China. From diamond-encrusted solid gold frames to plastic fantastic and even velvet, it was all on show at China’s International Optics Fair, held in Beijing mid-September.

The 24th China International Optics Fair (CIOF 2011) kicked off with a bang, literally! Hundreds of people gathered at the stage in front of the Beijing International Exhibition Centre, to be entertained by seven striking young Asian female drummers, dressed in skimpy red cheongsam and black knee-high boots and pounding on matching red, dragon festooned drums. The drum-tops brimmed with water, so that with every pound of a drumstick a spray of water rushed into the air.

From there, it was a rush to the doors and I wondered how so many, many people could possibly disperse without a major international incident.

This year at CIOF 2011 there were 770 exhibitors from 23 countries and regions to represent an enormous 300 international brands.

We sell more and more solid gold frames into China – the people here like gold, especially the wealthy…

The high fashion hall was by far the brightest and loudest, with speakers at booth boundaries, competing to pump out the latest duff-duff music. The prestige hall, where exhibitors had established “exclusive retail style boutiques” was sophisticated and cosmopolitan while the equipment and parts halls were quiet and functional.

Then there was what the CIOF organisers describe as “a hall full of aggressive and aspiring companies in their developing stage, which inevitably used the design of international brand names as a general guideline and benchmark” – which can often be interpreted as ‘copies’.

An experience all in itself. Here many of the exhibitors worked hard to lure in potential customers and, if unsuccessful, were sometimes tempted to follow them down the aisles. Others simply created distractions. One booth I stopped at had a beautiful almost nude woman being body painted. Right next door, was a body builder, in black trunks, showing off his steroid induced muscles. Needless to say, both of these booths captured the crowds’ attention.

Big Brands in Demand

As I wondered through the halls, I spoke to a few of the new, and not so new, exhibitors about the evolving Chinese eyewear industry.

For China’s new wealthy elite, prestige brands are everything. As a result, quality designers and manufacturers understand that brand building is essential. Eric Wang at Bellidee, which has the Chinese license to manufacture brands including Jill Stuart, explained this focus. “We’ve been operating since 1966 and we have 10,000 people in two factories manufacturing 12 million frames each year. But we know this will change. In the future, this sort of manufacturing will move towards developing nations like Vietnam and into the west of China, away from the coast.

“That means we need to focus more on design, product development and channel management – or distribution – rather than manufacturing,” he said. In short, to ensure his company’s future, Mr. Wong needs to build brand awareness and loyalty.

Louisa King Fong from the Chinese brand EFE said her company, which manufactures frames and accessories, is also very focussed on building a quality brand image. While many of the frame factories are in areas such as Guangzhou, EFE’s factory is near the head office in Shanghai where she believes they have greater quality control. “Brand is everything and our company is trying to get our distributors to understand that. Chinese consumers are still very much into the top European brands like Gucci, but I hope that they will soon understand brands like ours offer the same quality at half the price.”

It’s difficult to imagine that the Chinese population will manage such a psychological shift very soon. Take a walk through the cosmopolitan suburbs of Beijing, like Chaoyang or Guomao, and the presence of prestige European brands is overwhelming. Salvatore Ferragamo, Lacoste, Gucci, Armani – they’ve all opened glamorous dedicated stores to capture the new generation of wealth. It’s hardly surprising then to find a strong presence from the likes of Ed Hardy, Porsche Design and Mercedes Benz at the Fair. Prestigious Japanese manufacturers also abound, many with solid 24kt gold frames. At Fukui Megane, one exhibitor told me that the Chinese market is very important to Japanese frame manufacturers. “We sell more and more solid gold frames into China – the people here like gold, especially the wealthy.”

The LOTOS exhibit was accessible by invitation only and there were no frames on display for passers by. Inside, I’m told, were diamond encrusted frames valued at around AUD$300,000.

LOTOS, along with other leading brands was extremely keen to guard its intellectual property and I could see why – there were plenty of exhibition visitors taking happy snaps of the frames on display, no doubt so they could be copied and sold at a fraction of the price. To protect their designs, big brands, such as Ports 1961 chose to have a presence at the Fair but they invited their VIP customers to attend private viewings of their latest collections at prestige hotels around Beijing.

A Mixed Bag of Designs

With eight halls packed with frames, contact lenses and equipment, the CIOF showcased styles from one fashion extreme to another. Rimless spectacles with diamonds or Swarovski crystals featured heavily, as did large, rounder 80s style shapes, designed to suit the Asian facial shape, many with a delicate chain of bling at the temple, others with three-dimensional floral decorations.

French eyewear brand Agnes B Lunettes was particularly interesting with an ultra contemporary slim-line, angular three-dimensional frame that held the lenses
in place at just a few fine points.

The Japanese Brand Masaki

Matsushima eyewear was another outstanding men’s range with simple, understated frames crafted from both titanium and magnesium.

At the other end of the spectrum were the bold, bright and colourful. Skunkfunk’s contrasting acetate colours and large, square shapes were a standout, although the Managing Director Cosmos Europe, which distributes the brand into Asia, admits these styles make up just 10 per cent of the collection and they’re really just attention getters – few customers will actually hand over the cash to take a pair home.

Distributor Interconcept Hong Kong had a range of Japanese manufactured velvet covered frames, which they claim are “very popular with the Asian market”.

Equally interesting, yet more conservative was the acetate eyewear introduced by Japanese eyewear designers ‘Gosh’.

I spoke to the Yoshinori Inui, the President of the company who told me that his brand name reflects his design philosophy. “It means a tiny surprise – the frames look normal but the detail is in the temples.” Gosh designs 600 new models each year and manufactures a limited edition of just 500 of each. Mr. Inui claims that his company is one of few manufacturers that buys complete sheets of acetate then layers three different colours before cutting from the top to achieve unique design results. He said that while he wants to expand his reach, maintaining reliable supply is a concern because he is creating such limited editions.

Throughout the exhibition, both among boutique designers and mass manufacturers, black frames were common, but often mixed with a contrasting colour – whether it be inside the frame or on the frame face. Some of the more interesting creations transitioned from solid black at the frame top to bold colours like yellow, orange or red at the base.

It’s clear from exploring the new ranges that as well as taking an interest in design, many of the manufacturers have been working on frame flexibility and weight. Some of the frames I picked up were as light as a feather, others could be bent and twisted with ease. Acetates, plastics, TR90, gold, titanium and magnesiumwere all being used to achieve frames with style, durability and functionality.

As China’s factories continue to invest in new technologies and explore manufacturing options, it will be fascinating to see how much further this exciting country can push the boundaries of frame design.

The 25th China International Optics Fair (CIOF 2012) will be held from 10-12 September 2012. The 12th China (Shanghai) International Optics Fair will be held from 22-24 February 2012. For information go to: www.ciof.cn.