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Interview: Archibald Optics

Picking the right glasses is always a toughie. And it’s not just sourcing frames that fit your mug, it’s finding something individual, finding out where and how they’re made and making sure you don’t get ripped off. It’s a bit of a minefield. Recently we came across Archibald Optics, an eyewear company who claim to turn everything you know about glasses on its head. Yeah, right we thought (we’re a cynical lot sometimes). So we went for a chat with the company’s Founders Michael Tesfaye and Rohan Dhir, and the Creative Director Chris Benns to find out more. What follows is not only an entertaining discussion about eyewear, but the whole process of starting up a new company with a fresh approach to manufacturing, retail and design. So pour yourself a drink, sit back and enjoy…

PlanetNotion: So tell me a bit about how you guys got started? What your various kind of roles are? How the company works?
Rohan Dhir: So basically we started the project started back when we met in university. I was doing my Masters, and I decided that I didn’t want to get into normal jobs and work for normal companies. We came across this company in New York called Warby Parker, and thought the model was great, so we started looking into the direct-to-consumer market.
Warby Parker are quite interesting, because they do direct sales with a product that has a clear price advantage of selling. With glasses that mark-up is huge, and glasses-wearers are starting to question why that is. So we thought, if you’re going to start a brand and sell direct, why not start with a product such as glasses, that people relate to much more quickly and intimately than shirts or something like that.

PN: Yeah definitely, glasses become a part of your personality don’t they?
RD: Exactly. And so the idea at first was, ‘hey, why don’t we just bring that to Europe’, it’s the easiest thing to do. But what we realised was that the issue with direct selling in this market is the quality of the product that’s on offer.
Typically small companies starting out don’t have the manufacturing contacts or a big pull with suppliers, and with glasses those costs are high. So they outsource to China, which is what everyone else has done and then get the printing done in Italy, so it says ‘Made in Italy’. The quality of those products is not up to scratch.
We didn’t want to get involved in something where the quality was not good, so we realised that there’s this gap in the market: why not use the direct-to-consumer model on a high quality product; provide the best and make it affordable for people.

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PN: I think it works particularly well for something like glasses because it’s an investment purchase. Because you know you’ll wear them every day, like a really good pair of shoes.
Michael Tesfaye: But at the same time, our price point means that if you lose them, break them, or your kids break them, whatever the situation may be, it’s not gonna cost you an arm and a leg to replace them.
RD: We decided on a Japanese frame manufacturer, so we went to Japan and saw the process up close, and we got very lucky with the people we found. After just a couple of months, it’s a big deal to get them to trust you. So, once we got the trust of the supplier, we discovered realised that the factory that makes high-quality Japanese lenses are three doors down. So we thought why not just have the whole thing made out there, buy the lenses direct from the source, so there’s no middle man in that as well, and then ship the completed products over.

PN: How difficult was it to find these Japanese suppliers?
RD: Japan is one step ahead of the way manufacturing is done in big factories in China and Italy. The guys we use in Japan used to be at the top of the tree a century ago, but three generations later and now you’re talking about master craftsmen.
MT: People respond really positively when they hear a Japanese-made brand, and they want to check out the story itself. Rohan came up with an idea and started brainstorming, made some contacts, and did some travelling and then I came in, because we studied together at Columbia, and brought what I had to the table. A lot of my background was completely unrelated to design and the business part. We just figured that if we put our heads together, then we could do something and obviously we needed some more understanding on the fashion world, so that’s where Chris comes in…
Chris Benns: The guys had a really good sense of what they wanted for the brand, but they needed someone from a more creative background to push it in the right direction and get the right reference points. They had friends who were already working with them, industrial designers, but defining their core fashion aesthetic was what I really pushed through – and I’m really happy with the finished product; it’s all worked out really well.
It’s a great product, but at the same time, part of the appeal for me is that we kind of want to disrupt the market a bit; unless you cause a bit of fuss, no one really cares. We want to throw a few cats amongst the pigeons.:RD: That’s the cool part, that’s exciting: we’re annoying a lot of people in the process. When we showed at tradeshows, people were like ‘what’s your wholesale price’ and at LFW we had the same thing.
CB: We had a stand there just to kind of like test the water and talk to some press, with product in hand. Following that in January/February this year we went out to Project out in New York and Vegas. People were like, ‘oh that’s a really nice product’, and people there were very much into their eyewear, and they were like, ‘oh is this wholesale?’ And we were like ‘we’re not selling, this is just a product we’ve developed’. It was great to get a reaction to the product, and then tell them ‘if you want it you can go buy it from our website’, unlike saying ‘Yeah take 10,000; it’s manufactured in China.” That goes against everything we do.

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PN: I think it works particularly well from a start-up perspective, because then you’re not stockpiling huge amounts of stock either.
CB: It doesn’t put any pressure on us to do that, and it means that we can focus on the quality of the product, which is really key for us. RMT: I think we’re the first in eyewear; the first to do these glasses at the upper end of the market. Glasses are so important to people’s lives: why restrict them?

PN: From a market perspective, how have the glasses been received so far?
CB: I think there’s still a stigma with the direct-to-consumer sales here. In the States they’re all like ‘oh I’ll just buy my glasses online.’ Here you can do it through Glasses Direct and all those sorts of places, but there’s something about the British mentality that always questions things. We’ve had very long, tedious discussions; people questioning the fact that it’s a quality product at a lower price, and direct to consumer, and dealing with responses like ‘but why is it so cheap, are they lying to us somewhere along the lines?’, and all that sort of thing.
MT: It takes a lot of convincing; a lot of building up presence online, having people review and have positive feedback that builds credibility. And that takes time, and that’s what we’re grappling with now.
RD: For example, Glasses Direct actually were the first people to sell glasses online: the only thing they didn’t come up with was their own brand. The other day I was telling someone about the business, and they said that all the glasses they’d bought online have been terrible. That’s because the precedent was set by the wrong people.

PN: Are people are getting more confident about buying luxury product online now?
MT: I think there’s a whole generation of online consumers that are very wary, maybe people who are 40 plus, and are like ‘I don’t know if I can trust buying quality online’. So it’s attitudes like these that are probably the biggest stumbling block at this point. It’s about breaking those preconceptions: what it is to buy something online, what it is to buy quality online…
CB: That’s the thing for us: we know if we get product in people’s hands, they’ll be able to tell the difference. That’s why we do the home trial; that’s why we went to the States and were just like, ‘no play, just feel it, just get to know the brand.’

PN: Do you think consumers are as interested in the idea of direct-to-consumer sales as you guys are?
RD: I think consumers are ultimately care most about products they’re getting; and in times like these especially, price matters.
MT: It’s clearly the internet that’s given the discerning consumer the access to question and seek out and find their own style choices. They’re less lead by what the big machine tells them, and more about being interested in researching their own ideas from blogs and so on. Also I think that consumers have become more interested in the back story of products; where they’re made and if they’re socially conscious. Our business is socially conscious, because for every pair we sell, we donate to Eyes for Africa, the charitable eye foundation. It’s this whole idea of conscious couture. That’s who our target consumer is.

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PN: I think in the last couple of years (maybe a little bit longer), it’s become OK for guys to be interested in that kind of thing.
MT: So it’s that whole ‘metrosexual’ idea: it’s really picking up now.
CB: I remember getting into fashion, and people being like ‘do you work in fashion? I’m a builder’, and I’m like ‘I look at tits and arse for a living’! [everyone laughs]

PN: Ha, so do builders! What’s your background Chris? How did you get into fashion?
CB: I used to work for Kim Jones, working on all sorts of projects with him. Then he went to Dunhill, and asked me to come with him, but I decided to style and consult on my own. And it’s just carried on from there: I’ve done everyone from the Scissor Sisters to Professor Green!

PN: How did you end up meeting the Archibald Optics guys?
CB: I got a random email from someone I was consulting for, saying ‘I’ve got these guys who I know who need a stylist’. And I remember having a random conversation on a Saturday morning with Michael on the phone and said, yeah let’s get a coffee and go from there. We were on the same page, and I think when I first met these guys they I said that for me what was important was that you don’t want to be too trend-focused. You don’t want to be throwaway fashion with a product like this.

PN: Is that the kind of design approach going forward, to go for it being quite classic?
CB: Yeah, I have no interest in any way shape or form in doing a bright pink frame. It just wouldn’t suit us as a brand. We want to stay true to the history of great British design, like Savile Row.

PN: I think there’s quite a nice parallel with Savile Row, partly because of the handmade aspect, but partly because glasses are all about tiny details, in the same way that a suit is.
CB: Yeah, it worked out quite nicely that! It was important and imperative that Archibald Optics was British design, with those British influences. What I found a lot of references from was when I worked for Kim; when he was first pitching for Dunhill and we were going through the archive, there’s all the early automotive design and influences there, and all the accessories that went along with that. That was a really good reference point for me, and I sort of grew everything around that. We actually showed some of the automotive blueprints in Las Vegas: the original old Jags and the Astons – classic British car design. We took small hints from those: a line here, a line there, and we’ve kept it really traditional and classic, it’s really great.

-      Interview by Seb Law

Visit Archibald Optics here.

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