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Thursday / July 7.
HomemifashionShanghai International Optical Fair

Shanghai International Optical Fair

The Shanghai International Optical Fair is much like the city that hosts it – noisy, over crowded and exotic; a blend of oriental and western influences – an adventure waiting to happen.

In Shanghai, the largest city in China, people dress conservatively – in black, from head to toe – with the exception of a few über chic Gen Y’s in downtown Shanghai. A soft pink hat in this dense sea is generally enough to make someone stand out from the crowd.

But, when you look closer, the black is punctuated by symbols of status everywhere: in designer bags, shoes and diamond-encrusted watches; in the ubiquitous smartphones and the high-end headphones worn by many of the city’s youth; and very definitely in the solid gold Porsche I saw negotiating the chaotic traffic of Shanghai’s financial district.

Cruising the vast exhibition halls of the 12th China (Shanghai) International Optical Fair (SIOF), it is easy to see the power of a prestige brand. Gold and precious stones speak to the wealthy Chinese customer, and this is reflected in the offerings being eagerly poured over by tens of thousands of Chinese optical buyers.

The market here is like a teenager growing up

“Luxury. They want luxury,” said Mykita Asia President, Nils Neckel. “Gold. Diamonds. Luxury.”

And there is a host of stands promoting just that, although many of the solid gold frames are hidden out of sight, shown only to those who are considered ‘legitimate’ customers.

Appointments with Lotos, renowned for its sophisticated gold, diamond-studded spectacles, were at a premium. Similar stalls were also crowded, although you have to wonder why, when one rep (who, not surprisingly, didn’t wish to be named) admitted his 18 carat gold glasses were heavy and “most uncomfortable”.

International Event

The winter fair, held over three days from 22–24 February, is the second largest in China, behind its autumn counterpart in Beijing.

This year’s fair moved to the venue of the 2010 World Expo, occupying more than 60,000 square metres – three massive halls of Shanghai World Expo Exhibition and Convention Centre – 50 per cent bigger than last year’s event.

Most repeat exhibitors I spoke to volunteered that the move was a good one, with many pointing to the potential of the show.

Mr. Neckel from Mykita said, “the new exhibition hall is nice, and the Fair is getting bigger and much more important.”

During the three days, almost 71,000 optical buyers viewed the latest in international and Chinese regional optical and sunglass offerings. An overwhelming majority of visitors were local, and regional Chinese and Korean brands made up the bulk of the expo.

But the main action was in the prestigious ‘International Hall 2’, where Australia was a notable absentee from the long list of more than 320 overseas exhibitors. Japanese and European brands – including Menrad, Lafont, Charmant, Lotos, Rodenstock and Safilo – dominated, although the US was also well-represented with Transitions and CooperVision taking up large areas of floor space.

Frames were complemented by manufacturers and distributors of equipment, contact lenses, and every possible optical accessory imaginable.

Satisloh Asia’s President and CEO Holger Zunft, whose optical manufacturing equipment filled one of the largest display areas, said the Shanghai show was the most important in his calendar.

“China is one of our fastest growing markets. We’ve been at this show probably from the beginning… it is highly frequented and there are a lot of potential customers,” he said.

Assaulting the Senses

Upon arrival, visitors to the show went through a thorough security check before walking into the sensory overload of the show.

There were people everywhere. The show was loud, chaotic and exciting. Bags full of brochures were being flung into our hands. There were lines of women wearing advertising placards, dressed in absurd fancy dress – princesses sucking lollypops; in bridal wear; in bunny ears; or in tiny gold dresses with sturdy black winter shoes. In the central hall, a group of drummers whose consistent beat created a hypnotic aural backdrop, encouraged visitors to take a place in the drum circle.

There was advertising everywhere – most of it featuring blond westerners frolicking through nature, or striding through pristine urban landscapes. Advertising in China is nothing, if not aspirational – brand is king.

Conservative

The trend towards the traditional was reflected in many – but not all – of the collections here.

“Wealthy people in China are conservative so it’s a conservative taste and we have collections for that market, for that taste. It’s a balance between aggressive styling and simplicity,” said Mr. Neckel. “China is very different to other markets.”

Menrad’s Kaja Romanova agreed that the more sombre styles sold well, but said people were also lured by brands they already knew.

“Our Jaguar brand is very popular – it’s a car’s name so the brand is famous. And Davidoff is a famous European brand. It’s a very traditional one, so they love it all,” she said.

But throughout the halls, there were indications that the tastes in China are changing. Dotted among the more conservative frames, Japanese brands provide a burst of colour and fun, particularly in glasses aimed at children.

Still, here too, it’s all about brand, this time Chupa Chup and Barbie, rather than Range Rover, BMW, Porsche, Hummer and Mercedes Benz (just a selection of the car brands represented at the show).

“Usually (the Chinese opt for) very traditional glasses,” Menrad’s Ms. Romanova said. “But the younger generation is rising up and they’ve got the money, given by their parents, and the fashion brands and the designers brands are becoming more and more popular.

“The market here is very complicated. It’s not Europe, America or Australia. Those markets are like an adult… the market here is like a teenager growing up.”

Transitions China Marketing Executive Jason Pan said consumer education was the key.

“Our penetration here is lower than in mature markets. In Australia, we’ve been in the market for 10 years, but we’ve only been in China for two to three years. Many Chinese still think of spectacles purely in terms of vision correction, not fashion or other benefits, such as UV protection.

“That’s the big challenge for us. We have to demonstrate and educate and we find the rate of acceptance increases,” Mr. Pan said.

Eye Catching

One of the more avant-garde stalls at the Shanghai fair had to be Parasite. Designer Hugo Martin’s eyewear looks like it belongs in a science fiction movie. Made of a stainless steel metal alloy called ‘steelskin’, the frames are feather-light, flexible and comfortable.

Mr. Martin said his designs, which hold at the temples, were initially conceived as spectacles that would hug the face while rock-climbing, but had evolved into concept fashion pieces. Not surprisingly, Parasite’s biggest market is Japan, and this year’s fair was the French company’s first foray into China.

Peter Ozim, the German designer of horn-i (pronounced horn-eye), a beautiful boutique range of glasses crafted from buffalo horn, said it was a matter of exposing the Chinese market to different ideas, and building a base over time.

“China at the moment doesn’t give any new ideas to the optical business. One is copying the other, the other is copying the first one and the fourth one is copying the second one… everything the same, same.

“It’s a very small market for us at the moment… but they’re learning very fast. It will take five or six years to develop but we have to be here now,” Mr. Ozim said.

“China, with 1.4 billion people, is a market you just cannot imagine.”