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Whether they are worn to shield our eyes, strike a pose or conceal a hangover, sunglasses are big business. Most luxury brands license their production to one of four major companies: the northern Italian trio of Luxottica, Safilo and Marcolin, plus New York-based Marchon. Luxottica even signed a deal with Google last month to design, develop and distribute Google Glass, the technology company’s interactive glasses, which will incorporate designs from Ray-Ban and Oakley.
However, a number of discerning consumers are starting to side-step these big brands and instead seek out independent makers for their eyewear.
“Today’s customers have better access to information through digital media and are more interested in sustainability,” says Barbara Canales, co-founder of Bonocle.com, an independent eyewear blog. “They want to buy high-quality products with interesting stories, rather than letting a big logo on the temple do all the talking.”
Here are six innovative designers that share a passion for small-scale handmade manufacturing, with a look at what they are doing this season:
Founded in 2012 by Ti Kwa and Jean-Marc Virard, Rigards eschews the more popular acetate in favour of sustainable water-buffalo horn, a byproduct from domesticated herds in Ethiopia and Egypt. All Rigards frames are hand-polished to produce two unique finishes: “relique”, an unwaxed matte finish with a coppery patina, and “sanjuro”, which has an irregular stony finish with a fingerprint-like pattern.
This Berlin brand, founded in 2003, has won accolades for its handmade frames. The Mylon collection, the result of years of research and designed specifically for sports, is made from a high-performance matte polyamide frame unlike anything else on the market. This season the brand has collaborated with Croatian-born designer Damir Doma, who references the work of artist Sterling Ruby for his Rita and Vivien shades for women. For men, there is a minimalistic reinterpretation of the aviator motif, while the retro circular frames of the 1960s continue their comeback.
Inspired by a pair of second world war military goggles they found in the Dolomites in 2009, founders Eric Balzan and Mirko Forti spent the next three years defining Hapter’s aesthetic. The result – its “txtl001” collection – combines industrial-grade surgical steel dressed in a skin of Italian military cotton cloth sourced exclusively from the Lanificio Cerruti archives. The A01 model has already won the 2013 iF Product Design Award and 2014’s German Design Award. “The finishing process is entrusted to only the most skilled eyewear master craftsmen in Cadore, a small mountain community in the Italian Dolomites,” says Balzan.
London-based Eye Respect takes its design philosophy from Baldassare Castiglione’s 16th-century concept of sprezzatura, which has come to mean a relaxed elegance. Handcrafted by a family-run business in Veneto, the sunglasses are characteristically bold, incorporating the nuances of tortoiseshell acetate. “Each frame goes through more than 60 crafted stages to achieve the style and quality we respect, represent and embrace,” says chief executive Jonathan van Blerk. This year’s unisex collection beats a drum for the “panto” [round meets oval] shape of the 1960s, while ongoing collaborations with Oliver Spencer and A Sauvage also sing to a retro-inspired tune.
Sixty-five-year-old Doriano Mattellone from the sleepy Italian region of Friuli Venezia Giulia is not your typical trendsetter. Born into a family business of industrial woodworking, it wasn’t until a chance meeting in 2008 with designer Matteo Ragni that W-Eye was born. “Each frame is crafted from seven layers of wood and two layers of aluminium giving them flexibility, strength and lightness,” says Mattellone. The result is a hingeless one-piece frame that relies on the natural pliability of wood for comfort and fit. For this season, a hinged unisex collection – W-Eye H – was introduced, featuring typically smooth, linear styles, while for women looking to channel the glamour of the 1950s and 1960s, the Superlativa features cat-eyes with a mother-of-pearl finish.
“RVS Eyewear stemmed from our first company Rare Vintage Sunglasses [still active today], which started with me collecting rare vintage and antique sunglasses and frames from the 1930s to the 1980s,” says founder Vidal Erkohen. Uninspired by the mass-produced frames on offer, the young Istanbul-based designer decided to reinvent vintage shapes while adhering to old handmade processes. “Every frame we make is limited in quantity and handmade down to our hand-painted signature red screws,” he adds. This season’s sunglasses feature vintage shapes in bold colours with loud contrasting temple.