For decades, conglomerates like Luxottica – who manufacture eyewear for top-tier brands like Chanel, Prada and Burberry – have monopolised the luxury eyewear market, leaving no room for independent designers to make their mark. But in recent years, increasing demand for fashion-forward eyewear has encouraged a new wave of talents to try and break the mould.
According to data analytics firm, Euromonitor, the luxury eyewear sector is currently worth USD$23 billion and is expected to reach USD$30 billion by 2023. Miles Agbanrin, senior beauty and fashion analyst at Euromonitor, attributes much of this growth to the rise of the online trade: “Internet retailing is now the second-largest distribution channel for all eyewear,” he says. “This has provided new opportunities for independent players who can carve out a niche for themselves without absorbing many traditional store-based distribution costs.”
One designer making a name for herself in the sector is Hong Kong-born talent Percy Lau, who has followed a highly conceptual design approach since launching her label in 2013. “No one really focuses on the meaning or philosophy behind eyewear, and it’s often purely decorative or functional, but for me it’s multidimensional,” she explains. “I deconstruct eyewear to represent how we see the world in unpredictable ways.”
Lau learned to embrace an unconventional creative outlook while studying jewellery design at Central Saint Martins in London, but it was only after winning the 2013 YKK award at the International Talent Support (ITS) – a competition for emerging designers in Milan– that she became interested in a career in eyewear. “For the competition, I chose to base my jewellery concept on the human eye,” she explains. “Sara Maino, Vogue Italia’s deputy editor-in-chief, liked my work and believed in my potential to become an eyewear designer – she pushed me to go for it.” Since then, Lau’s whimsical collections have propelled her forward: for SS’19, she drew inspiration from a famous 17th-century Dutch painting, Girl With a Pearl Earring, basing the frames on the subject’s silhouette.
Aside from her own collections, Lau welcomes collaborations as a way to step out of her comfort zone. This year she teamed up with a number of up and coming labels including Chinese designers such as Xhu Zhi, and Xander Zhou. “Collaborations are important to me because ready-to-wear is all about the mood and the concept in addition to the clothes,” she says. “Eyewear on the other hand often focuses on a limited selection of objects, so teaming up with other creatives can open doors; it can spark a new mood or idea, and the purpose of eyewear suddenly changes.”
“I deconstruct eyewear to represent how we see the world in unpredictable ways.”
Lau reveals that when she launched the brand, Japanese consumers were highly responsive to her unconventional designs, while consumers in China were apprehensive. Interestingly, she says in the last three years, this acceptance has shifted, so much so that she relocated her studios from London and Hong Kong to Shanghai in 2017: “Shanghai is rapidly growing, especially in terms of fashion,” she says. “Business-wise, I see more growth in the city, and Chinese clients are really embracing my designs.”
Unsurprisingly, Euromonitor predicts the expansion of China’s eyewear industry will soon surpass North America, which currently controls the largest regional market, accounting for almost a third of global sales. “By 2022 eyewear sales in the Asia Pacific are forecast to overtake North America,” explains Agbanrin. “China will lead this growth, adding up to USD$2.2 billion – more than any other single market.”
Aside from building up the brand in China, Lau hopes to land more stockists in Europe, believing that the market remains relatively commercial, ensuring her designs will stand out. Now with over 70 premier stockists worldwide – mainly made up of select stores including GR8 in Tokyo, 10 Corso Como in Beijing, and Dressing For Fun in Chengdu – Lau is also eager to expand her department stores client base globally.
Of her future plans, Lau is looking to a variety of models: “I want to try my hand at more offline retail. For eyewear, I think people really need to try on the product and experience it firsthand, and especially with my work, it’s worth understanding the concept more directly.” But Agbanrin warns that without proper funding and support, this can be a major challenge, stating that few brands who do not have partnerships with larger multinational fashion groups have yet to reach global success.
Agbanrin goes on to point out, however, that adopting a direct-to-consumer strategy has worked for independent South Korean label, Gentle Monster: “They are a notable high performer, and a major factor contributing to their success is that they place significant emphasis on direct-to-consumer distribution.” Lau herself is optimistic, emphasising that pursuing this strategy is more of a personal aspiration: “I will continue with multi-distribution, and I aim to grow my online strategies, but I also want to get to know my clients up close and personal.”