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Metal is back in the frame at Europe's biggest optical show video

While sourcing, the pre-eminence of the big optical brands and technological change all remain divisive issues, buyers and exhibitors at this year's Silmo International in Paris were all agreed on one thing – metal will dominate in 2014.

Photo: Metal: the form of the future at Silmo 2013.
Metal: the form of the future at Silmo 2013.

As the biggest producer, exporter and consumer of eyewear worldwide, it is not surprising that the Chinese mainland was quite so strongly represented at this year's Silmo International Optics and Eyewear Exhibition. Indeed, the country took pole position at the Paris-based event, now far and away the largest European expo of its kind.

In second place came the ever-stylish Italians with a sizeable delegation of their own. To those not au fait with the intricacies of the commercial optical world, it might come as some surprise to find that Hong Kong is actually the third largest global exporter of spectacles and frames. Accordingly, the city had a robust presence in Paris with 25 companies undertaking the 12,000 mile round trip to appear in its dedicated HKTDC-hosted pavilion. With Hong Kong optical companies generating US$1.9 billion of business last year, it is not hard to see why so many of them were keen to appear in the heart of one of its traditional markets.

A quick walk around the halls took in an event that seemed to defy the current economic pall that lingers over Europe. Even the rocky fortunes of the Euro seemed forgotten amid the vibrant (and interchangeable) colours that characterised the frames, lenses and cases on show throughout this massive fair. From major optical brands to the smaller independent players, bright customisable colours seemed to be very much the order of the day.

Tellingly, Charles Brun, Chief Executive of See Concept, an independent Paris-based manufacturer and marketer of fashion spectacles and lorgnettes, sees personalisation and diverse colours as this year's defining trends. He said: "I can see that most of our customers like the fact that we have bold colours – they're looking for things that differentiate them from anything already existing."

Founded just three years ago, See Concept sees its ability to tune into such consumer demands as key to its success. It's a policy that has already garnered the company several favourable reviews in the likes of Elle, Marie Claire, Le Monde and The Daily Mail.

In a market where licensing deals have long be the norm, the dominance of the bigger brands is a given. Bigger brands, of course, means bigger stands and many high street names invested substantially in their expo presence. While many of the names on show are the expected ones – Ted Baker, TAG Heuer, Diesel, Red Bull F1 – the presence of Barbie, Celine Dion and even John Lennon is perhaps a little more surprising.

Such diversity, however, has not met with universal approbation with Brun, for one, having a number of reservations. He said: "I think the problem with the optical market is that you now have three huge companies that everybody is familiar with and that own all the brands. Most of the optical shops only want to buy from them, leaving little interest in young creators and new brands, colours and shapes."

It is a trend that Brun is looking to buck, claiming little interest in signing up his own business for any major licensing deal. He said: "Our aim is to develop our own brands and designs. We're not interested in licensing – because if the backers ultimately withdraw from the deal then – boom – the business is gone."

While the desirability of big brand licenses may be debatable, the returned ascendance of metal as the optical material du jour seemed a little more certain. With Asian and European manufacturers divided on many issues, there is, at least, a common assumption that metal is very much back in the frame.

Benny Law, Creative Director of Lezoptics, a Hong Kong-based sunglasses and frame manufacturer, said: "While it's always difficult to say just what the emergent trends are, I would definitely say that metal is coming."

Law's certainty is shared by Sam Craig, Brand and Creative Director for Hong Kong's Mondottica, an optical 'brand partner' for companies such as Ted Baker, Hackett, Cacharel, Pepe Jeans and Anna Sui. Agreeing that all the signs point to the reemergence of metal, Craig said: "At the moment, demand is swinging back to metal. There's now a big demand for both metal and lighter frames in the marketplace."

For Craig, this development has serious sourcing implications, representing a possible opportunity should he meet the right supplier. He said: "Working with metal presents a challenge – it's always difficult to get the frames looking as good as acetate. At the moment, we're looking for innovations on the metal side – on a material level but also on a construction level. We are also looking at how we can bring some of the acetate rich colours and styling into the metal side of the business."

Metal aside, sourcing, in general, remains an issue throughout the industry. Whilst China remains the preferred option, there are growing concerns over its increasing cost base – concerns that could only benefit Italian manufacturers.

Commenting on the reevaluation that the market is now undergoing, Law said: "I think China still has the upper hand, but it's getting expensive. Inevitably, some companies are now going back to Italy."

Even the smaller boutique manufacturers, including See Concept, now feel obliged to reconsider their sourcing options in the light of this new economic reality. Brun said:  "While we wanted to stay in France, it was just too expensive so we started sourcing in Taiwan. Ideally, we would like to keep our manufacturing in Europe but, as our products retail at around Euro30, we have to keep our costs low. We are now keen to talk to companies from Hong Kong, Taiwan or China who would be happy to work from our designs."

Photo: Silmo: brand-focussed.
Silmo: brand-focussed.
Photo: Hong Kong in the frame.
Hong Kong in the frame.

Technological advances were also high on the agenda at this year's Silmo. Advances in manufacturing techniques and ocular technology mean spectacles are no longer seen as simply obligatory tools for everyday living, but have also become a popular means of self-expression.

Despite this, many of the current advances are more therapeutic than fashionable. Law sees the advances in the plastic sciences as taking the lead here – with frames now thinner and more functional. Brun, though, believes that new technology is delivering very real solutions to serious optical impairment issues. He said: "I have been most impressed to see new technology helping those people to read who have really bad problems with their eyes."

Over at Mondottica, Craig believes that technological progress is also having a major impact on lens fashion. He said: "Multi-layered, multi-coloured lenses began as a technologically-led phenomenon, but we're now starting to see a demand for polarised lenses in trendy colours."

In addition to its multi-coloured lenses, the company is also working on more, comfortable, better-fitting eyewear designs. Craig said: "We're about to launch a new kind of hinge technology. Based on how the backbone functions, it has a self-closing mechanism and a continual flex allowing it to fit any face shape."

Despite the vast number of stands and products on offer, Craig believed there were still a number of significant omissions from this year's Silmo. He said: "I would like to see more quality manufacturing. I think that a lot of frame companies are just churning out a lot of frames quickly and at a low price. For me, that's not really showing what we do best as a market – creating great quality eyewear.

"I'd like to see factories paying more attention towards quality and finishing and ensuring a greater consistency in terms of production. We're also really looking to bring lead times down – at the moment they can be anything between three and five months. What we're looking for is a good cost base, but we're also looking for efficient methods of manufacturing."

While, on the strength of this year's Silmo, it is clear that the eyewear industry remains reassuringly buoyant, it is also clear that it is yet to fully address a number of issues that will define its future form. While chief among these are sourcing and manufacturing requirements, it has also to settle on just which technical innovations to embrace for the long-term and which will be merely novelty cul-de-sacs.

Photo: Au revoir to Silmo 2013: Europe's biggest optical fair.
Au revoir to Silmo 2013: Europe's biggest optical fair.

The Silmo International Optics and Eyewear Exhibition is organised annually on behalf of the French optical industry. Taking place from 26-29 September at the Paris-Nord Villepinte Exhibition Park, this year the event attracted 900 exhibitors.

Duncan Slater, Special Correspondent, Paris

The HKTDC Optical Fair, takes place between 6-8 November this year. To see the highlights of last year's event, please click on the video below:

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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