8 Oct 2014
Smart Glasses Get Style Upgrade at Europe's Biggest Optical Fair
As a number of the industry's giants begin a lengthy restructuring process, this year's Silmo, the annual Paris optical fair, saw a distinct emphasis on making wearable tech tolerably wearable and kids' specs more stylish than ever before.
Silmo, the annual autumn Paris optics show, took place in refracted light this September as Leonardo Del Vecchio, the 79-year-old Chairman of Luxottica – the Italian eyewear group that controls about 80% of the world market – reasserted his control over the company he founded in 1961.
Del Vecchio marked the parting of the ways with Andrea Guerra, the company's chief executive for the past 10 years, by stating his intention to get more involved. He also announced the appointment of two joint chief executives.
One is the company's former Chief Financial Officer, Enrico Cavatorta. The other – taking over as head of production – is likely to come from outside the company. Del Vecchio himself will lead an executive committee that oversees the whole operation.
If that sounds like a recipe for trouble in an industry not impervious to nerves, more was to come. A press conference, staged on Silmo's second day, saw Philippe Lafont, the trade show's president, giving a terse blessing to plans for the relaunch of Mido, the Milan early spring eyewear event and Silmo's chief European competitor.
Mido is to be recast under the theme "Never Ending Wonder", supposedly a summation of its "all-Italian ability to surprise with creativity, design, beauty, culture, art". The move is said to underscore its commercial primacy, despite solemn promises by both organisations to work together and share research.
When it comes to putting creativity and design into the marketplace certain products find life very tough at the start. Take Google Glass, now subject to a US partnership deal with Luxottica, whose Ray-Ban sunglasses are expected to incorporate the search-engine's smart technology by early next year. Disagreements over its implementation – Del Vecchio joked that he wouldn't want to wear such a thing – are rumoured to have been part of the reason for Guerra's departure. In the meantime, the company's competitors are moving quickly.
One problem with having a smart application by your right eyeball is that it looks, at best, eccentric. Well, at least it did until Rochester Optical, the American frame and optics manufacturer, called in Simon Chim, the renowned Hong Kong designer, to set a new facial context.
Launched at Silmo, the range proved a sensation. This clearly came as some relief to Bob Forgan, Managing Director of UK-based Waterside Labs and Chief Executive of Vision Technologies Europe, global suppliers of Rochester's Smart Frames and Smart Gold lenses.
Commenting on the reception the product had received, he said: "We were delighted to be nominated for a Silmo d'Or award this year. The interest in all our Smart Glass products was amazing.
"This is a rapidly developing product area and one that everyone wants to know about. We opened many new accounts during the show – with orders not just from customers in mainland Europe but also in Asia and Australia.
"The launch of our new Chimmm for Google Glass 2015 frame and sunglass collections attracted a great deal of attention. We believe it showed the importance of combining technology with fashion."
According to Forgan, the market for all Smart Glass products will be huge once the end price eventually comes down, but he emphasised the need for professional consultation. He said: "Opticians are the correct outlets as each frame needs individual fitting. This is not a sensible online sale."
He also advised opticians to get into the market early, saying: "It's worth their while to invest at this stage. It will give them a unique chance to be different in the marketplace.
"Smart Gold's lens design allows for distortion-free viewing of the heads-up display. No one else has even thought to the special optical requirements of smart glasses and Patrick Ho, the President of Rochester Optical, was very forward looking in developing this design."
Luxottica's dilemmas over Google Glass illustrate that, when it comes to offering choice and adapting to lifestyles, it's the smaller outfits that are able to move more quickly.
Take the Dutch children's eyewear company BBIG, founded by Rob Bresser 15 years ago when he inherited his father's Uden optician's practice. His initial thought was to go for exclusive designer frames. Then he wondered, if parents like such things, why not their kids?
As it happened, he managed to hook-up with a French manufacturer at that year's Silmo. Now he is offering opticians what he calls the BBIG Box. After paying a modest deposit, they receive a box containing 48 frames in sizes and colours of their choice. As the frames are sold, they are resupplied. If they don't sell, or are superseded by new styles, they are also replaced without charge. It's either sold or returned in a box.
Explaining his thinking, Bresser said: "Children's frames are becoming increasingly important for the optician. The phenomenal competition in the adult frames sector, with very aggressive chains coming in with tremendous price offers, is a big threat to the independent optician.
"Traditionally, kids have been regarded as difficult and not too interesting. Now we see that a good collection actually attracts children and also brings parents back into the shop."
Overall, Bresser was happy with this year's Silmo, seeing it as "much more optimistic and future-focussed" than last year. Having successfully trialled BBIG Box in Benelux, he is about to hit the French market in force. He said: "The reactions we've received have been very positive."
Elsewhere it became apparent that creativity moves in mysterious ways. This year's Silmo saw two stark opposites facing each other in one of the halls. Korean-based but French-made Musik introduced a sleek black spectacles case which, flipped over, becomes a stand/speaker for an iPhone. Very much one for the business executive.
By contrast, Spain's Paper & Paper Eyewear offers frames and cases composed of strips of paper taken from newspapers, magazines or comics, with each one said to be unique. For the "In Collection", the frames have paper strips inserted between acetate layers. In the case of the "Out Collection", the paper is overlaid onto the frames then protected with special glues and varnishes. Highly decorated and bulbous cases then feature slogans in the customer's style and language of choice.
Not to be outdone, Berlin-based Papp Up products combine minimal weight with resilience and flexibility – off-the-shelf, low-cost reading specs that, it's said, are slim enough to be used as bookmarks. In terms of other innovations, should a pair of IHuman specs go missing, they can be tracked down with a smartphone app that directs users straight to a buzzing FindME frame.
In the 10%-15% of the market not controlled by the Italian majors (Luxottica and Safilo), there also remain a number of traditional maker-suppliers. These include Inspecs, a British firm whose rolled gold frames have been produced in the East End of London since the early 1930s. The German machinery, brought across by Max Wiseman, the founder of Algha Works, functions just as well today as it ever did, though the workforce has dwindled from 200 to just 16.
When Robin Totterman, Inspecs' chief executive, bought a controlling share in the company in 2001, the factory was on the verge of closure. Today, incorporating a back catalogue made famous by users like John Lennon, the evolving Savile Row brand combines tradition with new designs and techniques. Some 80% of its market is outside the UK – not bad for a company that produced more than 2.5 million prescription frames for the National Health Service before deregulation in 1988.
Totterman visits Silmo as a matter of course, but he's not the only exhibitor to believe that the show isn't what it was. Recalling its past glories, when it was staged at Porte de Versailles, he said: "There you felt part of Paris. Here all the enjoyable sides of city life are remote. Why not an annual roaming show taking in the different European capitals?"
There's a thought, not just for Silmo, but also for Mido. Its "Never Ending Wonder" might be better repitched as a "Never Ending Wander".
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's event attracted 900 exhibitors showing 1,350 brands over 80,000 square metres of exhibition hall and received an estimated 35,000 visitors.
Robert Waterhouse, Special Correspondent, Paris