Britain has always been known for trend setting fashion. From the Kings and Queens of the Tudor court to modern day style royalty like Victoria Beckham and the Duchess of Cambridge, the world has always had its eyes on Britain.
In turn, Britain has its eyewear on the world. With amazing styles from hot designers like Alexander McQueen and Burberry to independents designers from Newcastle to London, the world continues to look to Britain to set eyewear trends.
But what is the secret behind this centuries-long fascination with all things British?
Dixey of London Ltd., has been designing eyewear since 1777 including eyewear for former British prime minister Sir Winston Churchill.
They have seen designs and styles come and go, but remain true to their roots of providing a high quality, fashionable product.
“Our archive contains over two centuries of documents and eyewear designs (the earliest record is dated 1780), and serves as a rich source of
ideas and inspiration,” said company director Simon Palmer. “The design process begins by sourcing ideas from the archive. This may be the inspiration for a whole collection, or simply a design motif, colour, or frame shape.”
He noted the current Chartwell collection is inspired by designs originally created for Churchill. The dimensions and design elements (such as the temple tips) of the Churchill frames flow through the whole collection to give it coherence. In addition, the temple tips are branded with two white dots, as Churchill himself requested in 1944.
But the past isn’t the only thing that shapes the direction of fashionable glasses. It is rather used to build new and modern designs that will have long lasting appeal.
“As we are long-established many people assume our designs will be retro or vintage. This is far from the truth,” said Palmer. “We simply wish to continue our tradition by creating exclusive, handmade eyewear that is elegant, understated and relevant to contemporary tastes. As such, the final step in the design process involves ensuring the lens shapes are in-line with both our design heritage and contemporary tastes.”
Palmer notes the company will a select number of boutiques worldwide to partner with, which provides added value and uniqueness to each piece.
This independent spirit is what has shaped much of the British fashion landscape.
“Compared to other countries, the British eyewear industry seems to have a much higher proportion of independent companies that serve the top of the market. I think this provides artistic freedom, allowing us to be a little more original, and to offer a more exclusive, higher quality product,” said Palmer.“British style in general also seems to be valued internationally for its mixture of heritage, authenticity, conservatism, creativity, and eccentricity.”
Beyond the Trend
Careful to avoid being a part of what is trendy, and choosing instead to set the trends, is something for which British designers are famous.
“We pride ourselves on not taking inspiration from our market place, which means we should not be similar to those around us,” said Simon Jablon, Creative Director of Linda Farrow. “However you will generally find trends within countries due to the fact people are subconsciously inspired by what is around them, and all coming from the same city, maybe those trends are close.”
He notes British brands are known for their long heritage and the use of this as a major influencer on designs.
“Linda Farrow’s heritage, is that fashion was what separated us from the rest of the market, and still today that is key focus which is part of our DNA,” he said. “With fashion, you are always looking forward and creating and taking risks in order to keep the brand and products fresh.”
When it comes to finding inspiration for Linda Farrow, Jalbon said it comes from anywhere and everywhere. He says stumbling upon the right design just happens and the company eagerly sets things into motion.
“Once you find the key direction, whether it be a colour pallet, art, country or just whatever it may be, you have the heartbeat of the collection and you build around the character you have created,” he said.
Over the years, he adds, London has been recognized as defining what will be in style long before it hits North American runways.
He says there is a resurgence of retro styles making an appearance across the eyewear industry.
“I think at the top end of the fashion spectrum smaller shapes are coming back. There is a bit of an early 90s feel, Calvin Klein early Kate Moss. This is coming, but I have no idea if it is a commercial trend, but for us and our fashion clientele, this is the new trends we are feeling.”
This tendency for fashion to repeat itself has motivated the team at Linda Farrow to avoid trends as much as possible.
He added the company does not stay ahead of trends but rather focuses on become fashion leaders setting the direction and influence of eyewear.
“I am proud to say we are not followers but leaders in what we do, and even though at times it is frustrating that other brands and companies copy our ideas, I guess it is only a sign that we are doing something right, and the educated consumer knows this and respects us for our work.”
This respect also comes from years of experience working with eyewear, not found in other parts of the world. A history of excellence carries a brand further and creates more appeal for buyers.
“With that comes experience, an archive of styles, imagery and of course the skill to make some of the best eyewear in the world,” said Claire Goldsmith, Owner of Oliver Goldsmith Eyewear. “Obviously a brand that spans several decades may have someone different at the helm, but having brand heritage gives you a library of inspiration and also sets a bar that you either have to exceed or at least maintain. Reputation is key to small brands.”
She says her company has several key components it uses to develop a piece of eyewear. It has to fresh, classic and challenge both the maker and wearer.
“There is nothing wrong with mixing things up a bit as long as you don’t stray too far from your values. We also very much look to our customers and retailers—they are always at the front of our mind when designing,” she said.
She added a good frame creates excitement for both the wearer and the maker. This feeling is also created when at trade shows and you discover what retailers are searching for and find out you have the piece to match.
“You can’t always predict which style is going to walk off the shelves. In reality it’s always a gamble, but its exciting and I find it fascinating looking at the sales reports after a big trade show to see which frame has wowed our customers the most,” she said.
Goldsmith is excited to see the variety of new materials entering the design landscape. She said materials like acetate have begun to reach capacity and a new market of interest is emerging.
“A couple of years ago wood was the new and interesting material to use and it’s been interesting watching the growth of new brands using this material grow,” she said. “I think metal will re-live its heyday, people are constantly finding new ways to treat it and create beautiful combinations. You also then have companies like Mykita Mylon producing 3D printed frames.”
In a time when it seems like everything has already been done, Goldsmith is optimistic about what the future holds for fashion and eyewear. She adds designers will continue to look to the past to influence the future, but the best will find new and innovative ways to make it relevant to a new market.
“The world of design, fashion, interiors, street style—its influence will be there albeit subconsciously,” she said. “I think that creative influence is different to ‘trends’ though—fashion follows these rules very strictly, its 60s, then its metallic, then baroque….trends change too quickly and come back round again just as quick and the way we manufacture wouldn’t even allow us to keep up with these ever changing style decisions. We’re not a fashion brand, we design eyewear—it just happens to be what we all consider pretty damn good eyewear!”