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Eyewear Designers Remain Optimistic Despite Coronavirus

Coronavirus has changed many aspects of ophthalmology and optometry, some of which are more obvious than others. Visits to clinics have been significantly curtailed, tens of thousands of surgeries across the world remain on hold, and distanced medicine (or telemedicine) has become far more prominent. With the latter development in particular, one must consider the full impact of coronavirus on eyewear too.

Eyewear, as an industry, has been significantly affected by the coronavirus in ways that are obvious, and some less so. The impact of social distancing on the ability of optometrists to test their patients’ eyes is widely reported, but the pandemic’s impact on eye manufacturing, for example, is a less well-known issue. Given that many countries are now experiencing a second wave of the virus, understanding the full impact on eyewear is an important issue.

The Future’s in the Glasses

Over the last year, Vision Expo, an organizer of conferences pertaining to eyewear and optometry, has been running a series of online webinars which cover the many aspects of the optometric industry. Inspired by Vision Expo’s education-based webinars, the Virtual Eye2Eye series occurs every Wednesday. Each webinar is on average 1-1.5 hours, and offers a spotlight on the state of optometry.

Earlier this year, on May 29, Vision Expo held edCFDA: What is The Future of Eyewear + Design? (The acronym edCFDA stands for eyewear designers of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.) The webinar featured discussion on how the coronavirus pandemic has changed the eyewear landscape and how elements such as concept, design, engineering, manufacturing, price point and even marketing, will shift and change as consumer preferences are reshaped. The discussion also considered the ongoing viability of the luxury eyewear market as the world moves through the challenges of 2020, and how luxury and high-end eyewear design, price level and availability may change as a result.

A Who’s Who in Eyewear 

The symposium was chaired by Erinn Morgan, an eyewear industry expert and editor-in-chief and editorial director of Eyewear Business. The were four main participants, including Selima Salaun, the founder of the luxury eyewear brand Selima Optique; and Blake Kuwahara, the creative director of his eponymous eyewear company. Kuwahara is also the founder of Focus Group West, a design collective uniting eyewear designers, architects, managers and others working in the eyewear industry.

They were joined by Gai Gherardi, the co-founder and designer of l.a.Eyeworks, an international eyewear company; and Ahlem Manai-Platt, the award-winning founder of the luxury eyewear brand AHLEM. All of the participants interacted with others in a positive manner, and there was a clear spirit of solidarity in the face of coronavirus. Gherardi began the session by reminding the participants of previous difficult times, having opened her first business during the economic slump of 1979.

Travel No More 

Kuwahara discussed the importance of international shows to his own business, and how the lack of international events has significantly impacted operations. He spoke about the importance of adaptability during the coronavirus pandemic and postponing launches when necessary. However, the stability of optometry was also referenced. 

“We straddle both the medical and the fashion worlds, and even at the optician side we’re used to the highest standards of hygiene, so we were better prepared than most retailers for coronavirus,” Kuwahara said.

“We have to continue to produce, you cannot say to a factory that we’ll stop production and not pay them for six months, you have to move forward. The relationship you have with your wholesaler makes all the difference,” Manai-Platt added, following Kuwahara’s comments.

Finding Optimism in Sustainability

There is optimism to be had in the eyewear industry, despite the shock caused by coronavirus. The participants agreed on that, but also considered that this requires considerable adaptability. As people become comfortable with the coronavirus “new normal,” the behaviors they adopted during the pandemic will likely become permanent. This means e-commerce will become even more prevalent, and home visits for testing will become more common.

Quality rather than quantity, and brand sustainability, will become crucial for eyewear businesses to survive. There was considerable discussion among the panelists about how companies can better innovate to survive. For Gherardi, the current climate requires both determination and ingenuity.

“We are going to have to prove ourselves again, as coronavirus is going to be a real reset, if I can deliver a customer a frame to try, and we can talk about it over the phone, that is fantastic,” Gherardi said.

PPE and Perfect Fashion

Design would perhaps be the most obvious way eyewear will change due to coronavirus. People wearing eyeshields and other aspects of PPE are influencing eyewear, a point that Salaun was keen to mention, and she argued that this will have a considerable impact on design. This goes beyond purely aesthetic considerations, pointing to her own experience of contracting conjunctivitis.

On the other hand, Ahlem-Patt, while echoing Salaun’s comments about changing designs, described her company’s products as being like a family heirloom. She views her glasses as items that could be passed down from grandfather to grandson. She emphasized her commitment to continuing her activity as normal and focusing on quality.

“In the optical industry we have a wonderful community, we know the transformation eyewear can express, it’s heartwarming and I think we’ll make good choices for our industry,” Gherardi said, summing up the symposium.

The Virtual EYE2EYE Series holds a seminar every Wednesday and can be accessed from the platform’s own website or on its YouTube page. The series is produced by Reed Exhibitions and supports the American Optometric Association’s Think About Your Eyes Campaign.

Editor’s Note: Vision Expo’s Virtual EYE2EYE Series: edCFDA: What is The Future of Eyewear + Design? webinar took place on May 29, 2020. Reporting for this story took place during the event.

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