Upstarts and Startups in Eyewear Fashion - Smart Vision Labs

Upstarts and Startups in Eyewear Fashion

The eyewear industry is getting a whole new look. It also features a new vocabulary with words and phrases like disruptors, trendsetters, revolutionary, and cult online brands. Established industry leaders are now shoulder to shoulder with indie designers, entrepreneurial manufacturers, and intrapreneurs.

What’s the takeaway? A whole new way to create, distribute, and buy eyewear that is cost-effective and convenient.

By dictionary definition, trendsetters lead the way in fashion or ideas. By industry definition, they are among the key players in the eyewear industry’s disruption.

Enter the Trendsetters

No matter where you look, the landscape of the eyewear industry is changing. Whether the term used is upstarts, disruptors, or innovative thinkers, the result is the same: this industry has moved from a two-player game (established manufacturers and distributors) to a multi-level playing field. Everyone, including a Kickstarter campaign and a global luxury brand seeking to rewire their business DNA, has a stake in the movement.

But the real winners are the consumers. Go figure.

Figure is the right word to use since numbers are at the foundation of this movement. The global eyewear market is poised for a huge burst with industry experts predicting it will reach $140 billion by 2020. In a pre-disruption time, this would have seen the industry expand with comfortable tweaks that would inevitably bring the dollars back to the side of the established players.

They saw that same prediction and realized the dollars can be distributed differently, toward creating unique designs, using new materials, and establishing an atmosphere of freedom. The ‘win-win’ scenario they developed set everyone in the industry free to bring the best eyewear to the most people. Consumers applaud this since they also receive a share of the profits through cost-effective buying options, convenience, and having their voices heard.

The trendsetters not only entered; they sat, listened, and acted.

Anyone who disrupts an industry has a plan that is bigger than the present model. Yet, the path to disruption can take several forms. Some upstarts establish startups to have a clean slate. Others may work within an established company to reinforce their position in a new and significant way.

Kering Eyewear is an example of the latter. At first glance, they look like a startup but they are backed by Kering Group, which includes brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney. So what does it look like when a luxury goods giant finances the framework for an eyewear business?

No one will need glasses to see the benefits this union provides. Kering Eyewear is best described as a mixed-model. They have taken back control of design and product development, as well as marketing and distribution. They are no longer locked into agreements with certain manufacturers but can deal with a range of specialist makers.

This leads to a high level of consumer satisfaction by providing high quality at realistic prices. Kering Eyewear’s business model includes responding faster to market needs and making the most of new opportunities.

Kering Eyewear focuses on a future which brings much welcomed reforms to this industry. Using their financial backing to support their new mindset lets them take the challenge of change and turn it into a huge opportunity.

What’s the Takeaway?

The message of the eyewear industry’s disruption is that the time for change is now. But what’s most impressive about this movement is that it comes with convictions.

There are several factors in place that have never been together before. The first is the prediction (more like a fact-to-be) of the market growing exponentially. Yet, the consumer base that will fuel that growth is of a new breed.

Made up largely of millennials, these consumers bring more to the table than their credit cards. They bring a vision. No, that is not a pun for eyewear; millennials live for ideas and concepts and beliefs. They embrace life and art and need to connect to products in more than a physical way. Trendsetters are listening and responding.

There is no business as usual for the current consumers; they want to know how and why a product was made. They want to know the materials used, the venues of distribution, and all the available choices. They will either accept a company’s philosophy or reject it. The latter is not only a sale lost, it’s the voice of a customer who is socially connected and not afraid to share their thoughts on any company.

Industry disruptors have established ways to address core concerns. By remaining flexible and leveraging their autonomy, they are quicker to respond to market needs, can adapt to new opportunities, and keep promises to consumers.

Yet, this market demands more than a great product. The takeaway needs to connect to consumers in a significant way.

That’s exactly what Tom Steward and Michael Charley did. Their 2012 Kickstarter campaign for a line of quality, affordable sunglasses led to a $2 million-dollar business; Sunski. Their premise was simple and their strategy for implementing it was brilliant.

The duo recognized that quality sunglasses are either incredibly expensive, in which case people are afraid to actually wear them and risk breaking them, or else the glasses are so cheap they need to be replaced at warp speed.

They created sunglasses for real-life use, but the actual product is only half of the story. Every lens is polarized on Sunski sunglasses and comes with UVA/B/400 protection. The styles are unisex (a big selling feature!) and the polycarbonate frames have a lifetime warranty. If the frames break (doesn’t matter how) consumers can send them back for free repair or replacement. For the lenses, they offer a very cheap replacement kit. If we stop right there, everyone can agree that is an unusual way of doing business.

But Sunski is not only about sunglasses. They have a real interest in the environment. They had previously been donating 1 percent of their earnings to various environmental groups. But on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017, they gave 100 percent of their online sales to One Percent for the Plant. This was to show solidarity with the outdoor industry and to inspire their supporters to stand up for the environment by taking action in their community.

Besides making a contribution to the world around them, they generated a customer base that applauded their actions and pledged loyalty to them.

The takeaway is never a give-away, rather, it’s something for the consumer to embrace and wear. And ‘wearing’ is not only putting on a pair of sunglasses. Today’s consumer connects to the companies they support because they decided that the company deserves their support.


There can’t be trendsetters without creativity. These industry disruptors recognize the impact creativity brings to a movement. While a new business model is being established, the creative element softens the edges, adds color, and generates excitement.

And sometimes creativity starts with a K.

Krewe opened its French Quarter flagship store in New Orleans on the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In a perfectly balanced approach, the company mixes the old with the new. This melding of atmosphere, people, places, and ideas is at the heart of this eyewear leader. Their fans and loyal consumers are part of their ‘krewe’ (pronounced crew) which is a New Orleans term to signify the diverse group of people that celebrate together at the Carnival season each year.


How does this relate to eyewear? Founder, Stirling Barrett, is a New Orleans native and artist with a background in photography. He recognized how photography and eyewear deal with perspective and lenses and translated that into the creation of unique frames.

The frame that literally set this company in full view of the world is the St. Louis one. It was inspired by the wrought iron fences and balconies that define the architecture of New Orleans. The frame is made of acetate and metal which gives it a distinctive and unique vibe. It was Barrett’s idea to create a brand around this city’s style and he has since fashioned other frames around specific locations.

Beyoncé was the company’s first famous fan, and now the Krewe includes Reese Witherspoon, Kate Hudson, and Kendall Jenner to name a few. A very active social media presence contributes to the buzz and connects consumers and celebrities alike. ‘Krewe’ has become more than a word for a diverse group coming together; it has come to represent the goal of celebrating individual style, regardless of location, affluence, or influence.

No matter how you spell creativity, when it’s used to its best advantage, it generates an unparalleled excitement that consumers notice every time.


Another Kickstarter Story

Is it time for another Kickstarter story? The very fact that Kickstarter is associated with eyewear industry disruptors is significant.

The entire purpose of Kickstarter is to bring creative projects to life. This global community offers direct support via their real-time funding platform. Legacy Eyewear wanted to offer handmade, polarized sunglasses made of wood. Kickstarter got the company in consumers’ minds and the glasses in their hands.

As with any trendsetting, it started as an idea. Pete Duncan’s father dealt with cabinetry and custom wood projects. Pete learned to appreciate the process of woodworking, and learned the variety of character in each type of wood. He was able to take a project from raw material to finished product but soon realized that there was an initial step he wanted to venture in. That step was designing.

Pete wanted a company that would handcraft wood eyewear that was affordable, beautiful and rugged. Legacy Eyewear came into existence in 2016. These sunglasses are made by a small team of expert craftsmen. Every pair is made with quality as the first requirement.

Polarized and shatterproof lenses are made with dual scratch resistant coatings and 100% UVA/UVB protection. Double-hinged frames offer flexibility as well as comfort. And these sunglasses even float!

Yet, the philosophy behind Legacy Eyewear is more than just great sunglasses. The wood represents what the company stands for. All of it is American-sourced while other eyewear companies procure the wood from China. Pete wanted to do more than just talk about bringing jobs back to America; he wanted to actually make it happen.

With each pair of glasses Legacy Eyewear makes, the company reinforces their beliefs that handcrafted, made-in-America, offers more benefits than mass-produced, made overseas. For this company and this business owner, the way to disrupt the industry is to live out your ideals. Give consumers the best product in the best way without sacrificing quality or integrity.

And guess what? This is exactly what the disruption is all about. Consumers want more than a product; they want a company they can trust.

Eyewear Landscape is Forever Changing

Trendsetters are changing the eyewear industry and that’s good news. While we speak of revolutionary ideas, innovations, and disruptions, changes are literally taking place before our eyes. Call them what you will but they are improving all aspects of this business.

People with ideas about how to create better eyeglasses are finding ways to make and market them. Consumers are looking for a new breed of eyewear business, ones that look beyond the profit line to what may be considered the ‘purpose line’, those larger issues that everyone on the planet has.

Buying and selling eyewear is more about connections than ever. Connecting to the consumer through quality products, American manufacturers, social media, and grassroots campaigns are several ways to do this.

Consumer confidence extends beyond the product to the persons who are the company. Eyewear has become more like “I care” and if the consumer doesn’t care, the products won’t sell. Yet, buying and selling aren’t the only results of this disruption. The main event is the understanding that when businesses listen to people, everyone (even everyone on the whole planet) can benefit.

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