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Metals Back in the Frame at New York Vision Expo and Conference

Metal frames have staged a staggering comeback over recent months, according to exhibitors at this year's New York International Vision Expo and Conference, although the priority remained finding something new to woo jaded consumers.

Photo: Decidedly chunky fashion frames courtesy of Paris-based Struktur.
Decidedly chunky fashion frames courtesy of Paris-based Struktur.
Photo: Decidedly chunky fashion frames courtesy of Paris-based Struktur.
Decidedly chunky fashion frames courtesy of Paris-based Struktur.

In a market dominated by the power of the independent optometrist, exhibitors at the International Vision Expo and Conference in New York were at pains to offer something suitably engaging to help vision retailers win the attention of high-spending US consumers. Price competition in the mid-market, mass chain stores is fierce, with American tastes tending towards a more muted pallet than their European counterparts.

The trends this season were a swing away from acetates and back towards metals. The more exotic frame materials, including carbon fibre, wood, glitter and even denim, also proved popular with customers in search of something a little different.

Exhibiting at the show, Rob Maas, Owner of C Zone, a Netherlands-based frame brand, was well placed to note the differences between US and European tastes. He said: "In terms of what Americans like, we have to tone things down, colourwise. Gents don't go for colours here, so we take that into account. Nothing really too wild, nothing really too wacky – and you need to have an excellent price point. The West Coast, I would say, is more into colourful stuff, maybe it's to do with the weather out there.

"What I'm wearing now has been going well. It's stainless steel with two types of wood lamination. We've also introduced denim on frames. It's been done before, by the likes of Diesel and Ray-Ban, but in all honesty, we do a much better job."

The trend back towards metals was also noted by Richard Keating, President of BrillenEyes, a California-based women's fashion frame maker. Commenting on the shift, he said: "We've seen a dramatic change, even over just the last few months. Everybody's going back to metals now, largely because everybody's got plastics, everything is the same. With our Ella range, we have no acetate in the collection at all.

"Glitter is something you're starting to see a lot more of in the industry right now, but a lot of the stuff actually rubs off under your fingernail. Our glitter is actually mixed with epoxy, so it's not going to come off.

"This product is currently sold in the US market and in Germany. It will be distributed in Holland this year and we are looking for distributors worldwide. South America is probably one of our next ventures and we're talking to someone down there right now."

The use of distinctive frame materials was also an approach taken by Parkman, a handcrafted, recycled materials sunglasses brand based in New Jersey. The company uses waste from other manufacturing processes, including drums, vinyl records and guitar making, to produce its distinctive range of sunglasses.

Christopher Shalhoub, a member of the company's design team, said: "We're all about recycling, up-cycling, reusing, repurposing. It's all eco-friendly stuff that is scrap from another manufacturing process. We're just recycling it, turning it into a desirable product. Who doesn't like drums, vinyl records and guitars?

"Everyone is green nowadays and everyone is concerned with where products come from and where their products are being made. We are super proud to be making our product in the US."

Unconventional sunglasses frames were also on display courtesy of Raffaella di Montalban, an Italian fashion eyewear brand. In one key design element, the range features frames with flexible jewellery chains in place of ridged temples.

Luciana Olivotto, representing the brand at the show, said: "All of our products are handmade in Italy. For the chains, we co-operate with several jewellery manufacturers, as the stones and pearls have to be put together in a very particular way. For Miami and LA and New York, it would be perfect – for Chicago or Minnesota, probably not.

"Currently, we are looking for niche distribution. At present, we are selling in Italy, of course, and also in Hong Kong. Hopefully, by the end of this month, we will also be in New York."

Similarly targetting a niche sector was Mattisse, a New York-based hand-painted frames brand. Company Owner, Samuel Tomashover, said: "All our range is hand painted over acetate. There are no two pieces alike – hand-painting does not allow for mass production. It's all very whimsical and attention-grabbing. It's a fun piece for women to wear.

"Big frames are in. Currently, it's all about the big frames. Small frames are not selling and the opticians are not buying small frames. If they buy small frames it's strictly for reading, for single vision. The opticians would rather sell big frames as they can get more for their money."

Photo: Hand painted frames from Mattisse.
Hand painted frames from Mattisse.
Photo: Hand painted frames from Mattisse.
Hand painted frames from Mattisse.
Photo: Parkman’s recycled wood sunglasses.
Parkman's recycled wood sunglasses.
Photo: Parkman’s recycled wood sunglasses.
Parkman's recycled wood sunglasses.

In one interesting local variant, the US consumer is apparently more interested in clip-on lenses than most other markets. Highlighting this preference, Joseph G Zewe, President and CEO of Eyenavision, a Pennsylvania-based magnetic clip-on maker, said: "Our main product is the Chemistrie clip, which we have a patent on. We put magnets in the lens, so we can add a sunglasses clip. We also have a product that is a reader clip, designed for those working on a computer.

"It's about US$130 to the consumer, so it's fairly expensive as far as clip-ons go, but it is custom-made and fits perfectly. We see repeat business, we see people coming in for a second and third clip after they've bought their first.

"It's more of a challenge to sell into Europe and Asia. They don't use clip-ons as much, and it's hard to find the labs with the ability to make them. The US and Canada have been great for us. I think the money that people have to spend on a pair of glasses has a lot to do with their purchase preferences."

The spending power of the US consumer was also noted by Tomashover, saying: "The American market is the best market for us, largely because of the American consumers' appetite for the product. People buy and people pay, while opticians and eye doctors come to the show and they also buy. The European consumer does not buy as much as the American consumer."

The American market, while perhaps more reserved in its colour sense, is seemingly more direct when it comes to business. Expanding on this, Maas of C Zone said: "If you have the right price point they're willing to buy. If not, then it's over. They're also very quick to make decisions. They come here to your booth to have a look and you have three minutes to tell your story. That's all the attention you will get. In Europe, though, they stop and they want to see the whole collection. They want to go through it over and over again. It's a very different approach."

The fast moving nature of the business in the US was also noted by Rudolf Suter, President and CEO of PFO Global, a Dallas-based lens maker. He said: "The market here is very sensitive to turnaround. Our suppliers work 24/6 so we turn things around in 4.2 days for 95% of our orders.

"There is no difference in price sensitivity in the US and Europe. What is different here is that we have the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] in place. They have a so-called blacklist singling out those lens companies that manufacture in China."

PFO Global uses a distributed manufacturing model, subcontracting to suppliers around the world in order to keep costs down. Explaining the benefits, Suter said: "As we subcontract 100% of our production to Asia or the Middle East, we can be on a price point that nobody can beat, while still offering very high quality. It is no longer the case that products coming out of Asia are low quality, though maybe they are still perceived that way.

"We have our own QA system and we frequently audit all our manufacturers. We also do QA in our headquarters in Dallas, after the products have come into the US."

Another key characteristic of the US eyewear market is the power of the independent optometrist. Addressing this, Charles Posternack, Chairman of PFO Global, said: "We are trying to level the playing field for the independents, because they're the very core of the optical industry at the end of the day and they control the largest segment of the industry.

"We have the highest quality polycarbonate lens on the market. It's a completely distortion-free lens, so we've been able to reduce the price, while elevating the quality at the same time.

"In the optical world, the frames are fashion, but the lenses are medical components. In the US, this is a healthcare market where costs have to come down. They are intensely driven by a high efficiency, high quality, low cost requirement."

Photo: Far-sighted: Innovations abounds at the International Vision Expo.
Far-sighted: Innovations abounds at the International Vision Expo.
Photo: Far-sighted: Innovations abounds at the International Vision Expo.
Far-sighted: Innovations abounds at the International Vision Expo.

The International Vision Expo and Conference New York was held from 19-22 March at New York's Javits Center. More than 22,000 visitors from 90 countries attended the event, as well as some 500 exhibitors.

James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, New York

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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