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HomemistoryThe Great Australian Design Story

The Great Australian Design Story

In the global marketplace, where luxury brands can be picked up online or in-store for a song, sophisticated consumers are searching for more. A frame that defines their personality, that adds a sparkle to their mood… a frame they won’t see on the next person they meet on the very next street corner.

Australian eyewear designers, with their focus on producing smaller runs of exquisitely designed frames to suit niche markets, have what those consumers are looking for. So why don’t we see more Australian designed – let alone Australian made – eyewear on the shelves of our local optical retailers? The answers are a little more complex than you might think.

Research tells us that a healthy majority (71 per cent) of the Australian population try to buy Australian-made as often as possible.1 However, unless we as a nation begin to promote – and believe in the advantages of our own product – this is likely to change.

According to Roy Morgan Research, those most likely to seek out Australian made products are older generations – pre- and baby boomers, and those living in rural areas. “The younger generations are less likely to agree, with under half of Gen Z agreeing they try to buy Australian made (49 per cent),” said Warren Reid, Group Account Manager – Consumer Products, at Roy Morgan Research.

Perhaps that’s because younger buyers – those who weren’t brought up post war or by baby boomer parents – aren’t so aware of the need to support local industry in an effort to grow the greater economy. To them, it’s a global market; brand loyalty is no longer as important as it was; and choosing the product you like best is by far the most important buying decision.

The interaction between the optometrist and / or optical dispenser and the patient is what can drive the sale of one brand over another…

A Crowded Market

It’s easy to understand how Australian buying power ends up supporting overseas brands.

If you were to ask customers to list the eyewear brands they know best, the majority would most likely mention the big guns… Ray Ban, Tom Ford, Prada, Gucci, D&G, etc.

Ask them about AM Eyewear, Sunday Somewhere, Paul Taylor or Jono Hennessey and you might draw a blank.

Australian boutique eyewear designer Brendan O’Keefe believes it’s the cultural cringe factor. “In Australia there is the wrongly perceived idea that if it doesn’t come from overseas or have a brand name (that in many cases has nothing to do with optical frames) it can’t be a good design.”

Dean Harrigan, CEO of Face Optics, says the market simply needs to be educated. Harrigan has a strong track record in commercial design. For over 25 years he’s designed eyewear and clothing for the likes of Hot Tuna, Ocean Pacific, Carve Eyewear… the list goes on.

Through Face Optics, Harrigan now designs and distributes eyewear brands including Salt, Kate Sylvester, Iconik and Lisa Ho. He believes optometrists and optical retailers need to educate customers about the strengths of Australian design because, “in this retail environment there is very little impulse buying or for that matter brand loyalty… The interaction between the optometrist and / or optical dispenser with the patient is what can drive the sale of one brand over another.”

Harrigan believes Australian eyewear design is fashion forward and can be commercially competitive with global eyewear brands. In Australia, he says he constantly pushes these points and as a result, “our retail partners feel very proud about selling our numerous Australian designer brands and we know those brands are well received by our customers as well”.

Ninety per cent of Face Optic’s frame sales are in Australia with an average growth of over 50 per cent a year achieved by servicing both new and existing accounts.

Paul Taylor is another who is building his brand locally. Taylor, whose brand was a global success story in the 80s and 90s, took a step back for a few years in the mid-2000s but since 2010 has been on a steady growth path.

“Over the last three years my main focus has been the development of my brand in Australia,” said Taylor. “Currently outside of Australia I am only selling into Singapore and New Zealand. I plan to launch into the USA and Canada in the first half of this year. Because my focus is in Australia, which I love so much, the overseas market is in the development stage. The support that I am receiving locally is wonderful. So at present I’m selling way, way more here than overseas.”

Similarly Jonathon Hennessy Sceats says the Australian customer base has been integral to his off-shore success. “Jono Hennessy and Carter Bond sell more units overseas in the UK, France, Holland, Italy, Russia, Poland, USA, Canada and New Zealand than we do here,” Hennessy Sceats told mivision.

“Of course Australia is our main market, and without local optometrists supporting us, we would not be able to export and then in a small way help Australia. We are all very lucky to work in optics in this country and deal with such a great group of professional people.”

A Bigger, More Educated Market

The majority of sales for Isson, Graz Eyewear, AM Eyewear and relative newcomer Niloca are also from overseas.

Catherine Federici, founder and lead designer at Isson says exports account for 80 per cent of her company’s revenue. “Where population and geographic size are grossly disproportionate as it is in Australia, cost of sales is an inevitable cost contributor (to this imbalance). However, other key factors determining brand positioning are the strengths of fashion culture and sub-cultures within city/metropolitan areas, and there are enormous limiting factors due to this,” she told mivision. While Federici acknowledges the support of Australian retailers who have “nurtured Isson over the past 11 years”, Graz Mulcahy from Graz Eyewear says for his business, “the real support comes from Europe”, explaining that he sells to 35 stores locally, and to 35 stores in the city of Paris alone.

At AM Eyewear, Simon Ponnusamy has followed two distinct strategies to build his brand locally and internationally.

“In Australia we’ve been primarily known as a fashion sunglass label whereas overseas, 80 per cent of our sales come from the optical market. I think the optical industry is definitely stronger in certain places through Europe, the USA, Korea and Japan and in general the quality of stores in these places is a little higher.

“With the release of our second optical collection at Mido 2014, the local optical industry is finally starting to take note of what we are doing, which is great. In fact this season could see our sales through optical retailers eclipse the fashion stores.

“There are great Australian stores, but the pure quantity of optical stores per capita

in other global cities leaves our cities for dead,” said Ponnusamy.

Niloca’s Managing Director and head designer Colin Redmond said he has focused on the international independent optical market from day one because he loves to travel and overseas customers generally understand his pragmatic yet eccentric designs.

“For every four frames we sell overseas, we sell one here,” he said.

“I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I put it down to people needing two things when they live in a densely populated city. Firstly people are confident in what they wear, they crave being individuals. Secondly they’ve been sub-consciously exposed to good design and art from a very young age, because I’ve never seen a poorly dressed Parisian, Milanese or Tokyoite in my travels.

“Government policy indirectly supports the eyewear industry in parts of Europe where the public health system provides the equivalent of AU$700–1000 rebate annually. Enabling people to buy multiple frames – whether it’s a frame for the office, for gardening, or the theatre and so on.”

Standing Proud

Faced with endless fashion images from catwalks, the Internet, movies and advertising, it’s hard to imagine how anyone can come up with an original idea for eyewear, let alone one that will make a small Aussie label stand out from the global competition and turn into a sell out.

Melbourne-based Simon Larcey launched his new brand of sunglasses, Glarce, to the world late last year. Already he’s stocked in eight stores in Australia and he’s beginning to look for markets overseas.

Larcey differentiates his product by promoting its Australian heritage – the frames are named after Australian beaches, and designed and made locally – from the temples, hinges, fronts and lenses right through to the Australian leather case and the point of sale.

Other designers are proud to be Australian but less focused on promoting our country’s cultural identity, preferring instead to differentiate with their own artistic style, their ability to confidently lead trends and deliver a commercially viable product.

At sass & bide (distributed by Sunshades), lead designer Emily Klein, who also designs eyewear for Oroton and Preen, says each frame needs to “resonate with her fashion brand’s DNA while at the same time offering something new and unexpected”.

“You don’t want the range to become stale and predictable, so you need to keep looking at ways to reinterpret the essence of the brand. There is a set of questions you ask yourself with each design. For sass & bide, it’s all about ‘the clash’; whether it be clashing materials, colours, modern versus vintage.

“Each piece needs to have an element of contradiction. You also need to consider the product mix: does it appeal to local markets and international markets? Are there enough size options and shapes? And, at the end of the day, is the design saleable? There is a lot to consider so you have to have your business hat on as well as your creative hat.”

At Sunday Somewhere, Dave Allison says differentiating his designs from the global competition is not something he does knowingly.

“For me, travel is the best source of inspiration. Like a bowerbird in my mind, I am constantly collecting colours, colour combinations, shapes, design elements, details and anything unique I can apply to the collection I am working on – or for future designs. When travelling I find this inspiration in cars, street art posters, restaurant menus, visiting art galleries and immersing myself in the street, art and fashion of the city. Today, I still keep a visual process diary to scribble my thoughts and ideas down onto.”

Jonathan Hennessy Sceats says his rule for differentiating product from global competition is to maintain an approach that is “simple, obvious and one that sticks to your direction”. Similarly, Paul Taylor says differentiating his range comes down to “just being myself and going with what I feel will provide a fresh new look… I go against the grain and provide an edge with strong marketing”.

Blue Reef Vision (BRV) combines high fashion styling with the functionality of polarised lenses and coatings. Lead designer Gisu Mobarhani says this is what differentiates her family owned brand from many others and has helped establish it in Australia.

“Optometrists don’t know the brand but once they see the sunglasses, they appreciate the quality and functionality,” she said.

BRV sells 70 per cent of its production to NSW retailers and has a smattering of practices selling the range around the rest of Australia. The company has just launched an optical range and entered the European market with representation in Germany.

Mobarhani said while local optometrists are reticent to try a new brand, the overseas market loves to buy Australian. “I guess just as we love to buy product from Europe, Europeans love the idea of buying Australian made,” she said.

The Difference Sells Itself

Isson eyewear has a strong niche following in Australia. With 28 years in the optical industry and a background in industrial design, Federici says the “innovation and intrigue” of her eyewear is “underpinned by a unique Australian style forged by a brazen and tenacious culture” she believes differentiates it from German or French design for instance.

Colin Redmond’s frame designs are influenced by his experience as a car designer in Europe and as a R&D Manager working in Australia.

“I design first and foremost for the person wearing the frames – and they always want something that compliments their personality and character – while providing excellent vision” he said. “Life is too short to go unnoticed, express your personality with your glasses.”

Additionally, he says, “if I designed another retro frame, we would need deep pockets to promote it over what already exists, or we’d have to reduce the quality and therefore cost to free up funds for advertising – our unique designs sell themselves and we’re not forced to compromise on design.”

“When I look at creating a new design, I take a big picture view of who I’m designing for, I remove myself from the situation and create a scenario or story board of ‘A day in the life of X’. I then focus on the intrinsic connections between each project stage as I try and marry decisions, with outcomes of a sound business model.

“In regards to design I really enjoy looking at how surface textures catch light. With eyewear design, adjusting lines a fraction of a millimetre can either add visual weight to a frame or make it lighter. These subtle design queues always provoke a subconscious response on the right person.”

Simon Ponnusamy at AM Eyewear says he differentiates his frame designs with passion. “I design with my heart and I think of it as an art form. I start by thinking about a look that I could forecast will be an upcoming trend. Then I imagine a loved one who would best suit that look and I design the frame around them. I will name the frame after that person and in my own way, I’ve given each frame a bit of a soul.

“We have a saying that ‘each frame is designed by hand, made by hand and only complete once it is worn’.”

Ahead of the Curve

Eyewear designers typically design their collections 12 to 24 months in advance, which provides time to finesse the designs, source the materials (allowing for tooling time, curing acetates, etc.), over-see production and then get their product into the market ahead of the season.

Getting from design to prototype takes Jonathan Hennessy Sceats seven months alone. “Then we’ve got to push to get acetate delivered to the factory on time and continue pushing through to finished construction. Sometimes I’ve gone to the acetate factory, pulled out the sheets myself, and put them on a truck to the factory,” he said.

Sunday Somewhere eyewear is designed 12 months out with one mainline season each year and two capsule (smaller) collections in between. Allison says that as he slowly shifts into new markets in the United States and Europe, he’s reviewing this, “with a focus on producing a more efficient calendar that better aligns with our emerging territories”.

Brendan O’Keefe’s exclusive handmade frames are a different story again as he often goes to the extent of hand making his own manufacturing equipment before crafting the frame. “After designing a new frame it usually takes about four months of making prototypes fine tuning before the frame is ready for the market,” O’Keefe told mivision. “This is partly because I’m using innovative new materials, techniques and designing and making my own unique components, hinges, springs from stainless steel. It all seems to take time.”

Australian Designed… and Made

O’Keefe is one of very few Australian eyewear designers who hand makes his frames himself. “I design and make my own frames, and being handmade, I can only manage about 20 frames per week. I use to think about global markets but after a while I realised I could hardly keep up with production for the Australian market.”

He said the advantage of personally designing and making frames is that he can be highly responsive to the wearer’s needs. “I can talk directly to the optical practices – the people at the coal face – and get feedback and a feel for what’s happening in the market here, which can be quite different to what is happening overseas.”

At Weye, eyewear designer Per Andersen produces just 15–20 colourful, rimless frames per week from his Cairns based premises although he can ramp that up when necessary to meet orders in their hundreds. Similarly, he says he can custom make a frame in a specific colour or style to suit an individual customer, such is the flexibility of his business which started as a frame repair company. A structural designer by trade, Andersen says he enjoys his role as a frame designer and manufacturer because it enables him to “constantly change things, bend metals and play with different designs to see how he can further improve the functionality”.

Another company manufacturing locally and in small quantities is Fritz Frames. Each of these exclusive frames is hand crafted from sustainable timber veneer and composites over a period of 10 hours. Lead designer and former boat builder Friedrich Schwarz, considers his frames to be more a fashion accessory than an optical tool, akin to a fine piece of jewellery. He and his colleague produce just ten frames a week and there are no plans to ramp that up. “The business needs to stay at this size because of the way we work – so we’ll keep it where it is and look at other options (for growth) – products that might complement our range,” he said.

For some of the bigger manufacturers, like AM Eyewear, an established factory is a necessity. Simon Ponnusamy sources his materials from Europe then has his frames manufactured in China. He says a hands-on approach has been key to his success.

“After 10 years the one thing I’ve never wanted to change is the hands-on approach we take with every aspect. I visit our materials factories in Italy and I know many of the workers by name. I also spend a lot of time with our artisans in Shenzen (China). My view is if you know every facet of what you’re producing, it leaves you with a better understanding of what can be perfected. More importantly, you connect with the people making your product.”

Fashion forward, flexible, focused and financially competitive – you’d have to agree, Australian eyewear designers present a compelling reason for why you should be stocking our frames created by our local talents.