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Brand Tie-ups and Outré Frame Materials Prove Eye-openers at MIDO

Although the pressure is still on to provide higher-spec spectacles at lower prices, eyewear manufacturers are confident enough to experiment with innovative new materials, while continuing to seek lucrative co-branding opportunities.

Photo: Simply marble-ous: Exotic frames from Budri.
Simply marble-ous: Exotic frames from Budri.
Photo: Simply marble-ous: Exotic frames from Budri.
Simply marble-ous: Exotic frames from Budri.

The global eyewear market, in all of its many aspects, is both massive and fractured – a reality underlined by Milan's annual MIDO Eyewear Show. This year, the event attracted more than 1,200 exhibitors from across the world, with 130 of those in attendance for the first time. In total, the show stretched across seven huge halls, all crammed with everything from the latest fashion sunglasses to smartphone vision testers and lens-cleaning cloths. Tellingly, more than 55,000 visitors made their way the Fiera Milano exhibition centre this year, a 5.5% increase on 2016.

The eyewear sector is, undoubtedly, hugely valuable. In 2015, the overall market was estimated to be worth some US$102.66 billion, with research suggesting it will enjoy an average compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.1% up to 2020. If such predictions are borne out, the market will then be worth $141.3 billion. Some market segments, of course, will outperform others. The sunglasses sector, which currently accounts for about a quarter of the total eyewear market, is expected to deliver a CAGR of 9.1%.

For this year, though, the most clearly apparent trend at MIDO was a move to render frames in an increasing variety of materials. Apart from the expected titanium, stainless-steel, aluminium and plastic-polymer materials, there was also wood, carbon fibre and even marble making their way into the 2017 mix. The latter came courtesy of Budri, an Italian specialist in the use of marble inlays. Frames aside, the other key developments included 3D printing and facial scanning, a combination that allows lenses and frames to be individually tailored for a perfect fit.

One of the more interesting small developers making its debut at the event was Austria's Gabe, a company that offers wooden spectacle frames complete with water-buffalo horn hinges. The business was founded by a group of hipsterish mid-20s friends, with its acronymic name pronounced "gayb" – standing for ganz anderes brillen erlebnis, which roughly translates as "completely different eyewear experience".

Explaining the choice of name, Mike Milkowsky, an Art Director and one of the Founders of the business, said: "We very much wanted a name that could be said in English. We believe that's more catchy and more international, two things that are very important to us."

According to Milkowsky, the initial idea was to make the first optician-friendly wooden frames. Explaining how the concept evolved, he said: "We currently use 10 different woods, mostly regional varieties – including plum, walnut, oak, smoked oak, ash, chequer tree and pear. For those who want something a little more exotic, we also work with zebra wood.

"The frames were designed by Gabriel Kirschner and Ralph Kropf, two of the other founding partners. Gabriel, an optician by trade, had always had an interest in frame design and he came up with the initial concepts. Then it was over to Ralph, with his engineering background at Siemens, who came up with the hinge, including the idea of making it from water-buffalo horn.

"As we wanted to primarily work with natural materials, we felt using a metal hinge would undermine the whole concept. We didn't use the horn just because we wanted to use horn, though. We gave it a real functionality.

"We sourced it from India, where the horn is viewed as one of farming's waste products. We were very keen to ensure that our supply of horns didn't lead to any animals suffering. To that end, we tried a number of different kinds of horns, including cow horns. It was only the water-buffalo horn, though, that delivered the functionality we required.

"As a result, our frames are not the cheapest, typically retailing for around $650. We would really like to make them cheaper, but there's so much manufacturing involved. We mill everything ourselves and assemble everything in our factory in Austria."

At present, the range is only available in Austria, Germany, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands. The company is, however, keen to find agents/distributors that could open up new markets further afield.

And you couldn't get much further afield than Hong Kong. That, however, didn't stop 30 of the city's optical manufacturers and suppliers making the 18,600km round trip to Milan in order to participate in this year's event.

Photo: Back in vogue: Multi-coloured frames.
Back in vogue: Multi-coloured frames.
Photo: Back in vogue: Multi-coloured frames.
Back in vogue: Multi-coloured frames.
Photo: Wing Fung: Stylish designs in a fast-changing market.
Wing Fung: Stylish designs in a fast-changing market.
Photo: Wing Fung: Stylish designs in a fast-changing market.
Wing Fung: Stylish designs in a fast-changing market.

Among the companies grouped in the Hong Kong Trade Development Council-organised pavilion was Wing Fung Optical International. Founded in 1982, and based in Kowloon with production facilities in Shenzhen, the company now has more than 300 employees. Its primary focus is manufacturing sunglasses and optical frames in both fashionable and traditional styles, which are then exported to markets across the world.

Taking an overview of the current state of the market, Raymond Chan, the company's Sales Development Manager, said: "Eyewear is all about fashion and design, and it's a fast-changing market. We've been coming to MIDO for 15 years now, typically meeting new clients while saying hello to old ones.

"There are, however, fewer new clients around than there were a few years ago and everyone always wants lower prices. For us, though, our price is holding up and remains at around the same level as last year. This is despite competition from companies in such places as Guangzhou and Dalian, cities that are known for making cheaper frames. Those two aside, we don't really see much competition emerging from companies beyond China."

Also nestling within the Hong Kong pavilion was United Creation Optical Hong Kong, a business launched in 2003 that is already exporting to the US, Australia and Italy. With a manufacturing facility in Dongguan, the company produces its own designs and also works to customer specifications, including wholesalers and optician chains.

Echoing Chan, Alex Liu, United Creation's Sales Manager, said: "I have definitely met fewer new clients here this year. Overall, business remains tough, with wholesalers continuing to push for lower prices at the same spec."

A third member of the Hong Kong contingent was Colette, which manufactures its range of high-quality frames in Dongguan, following designs provided by its in-house team. Introducing the business, Wesley Lau, the company's General Manager, said: "We focus on a quality – rather than a price-driven – proposition. This is my 10th year at MIDO and business seems to be picking up.

"Among the new trends I've noticed is the introduction of a greater range of materials and colours. In the sunglasses' sector, the semi-mirror effect seems to be very much in."

While many Hong Kong optical companies hedge their bets by splitting their activities between OEM work and building their own brands, Plus Eyewear is focussing solely on the latter. Explaining its proposition, Jack Cheung, the company's Brand Manager, said: "Around the world, Hong Kong products are seen as fashionable and good quality. We believe we can capitalise on that.

"We pretty much specialise in the use of innovative materials, combining, say, a stone veneer with fibre glass and steel to make a frame that is both strong and stylish. We've even used plaited straw. At the moment, we export across Asia and North America, although 80% of our output goes to European wholesalers."

While fashion is a hugely important aspect of the eyewear industry, brands also have a highly significant role to play. This has led manufacturers in the sector to try to piggyback on almost every conceivable brand – from Ferrari to Victoria Beckham, from Disney to Levi's. In the case of Kowloon-based Icare, it has long co-branded its eyewear in association with Schott, the US clothing company best-known for creating the leather jacket worn by Marlon Brando in The Wild One, his seminal 1953 biker movie.

This year, the company chose MIDO to announce its latest tie-up – a deal that will see it producing co-branded eyewear with Moleskine, the Milan-based manufacturer best known for its range of notebooks and other stationery items. Outlining how the deal will work, Cedric Bimar, the Managing Director of Icare, said: "We will be making prescription spectacles, sunglasses and reading glasses all under the Moleskine name. At present, Moleskine has around 80 boutiques of its own, while also selling its products through 25,000 other outlets.

"The standard Moleskine eyewear will be sold through opticians, while a range of pre-mounted, ready-made reading glasses will be available in bookshops, stationery outlets and any other outlet where Moleskine products are currently sold. We believe they will be the first reading glasses that owners are truly proud of.

"These are not going to be the kind of undistinguished reading glasses you pick up off the shelf in a pharmacy. Rather, they are going to be both fashionable and stylish. As yet, we have not settled on a price point, but we have to stay within the norms for reading glasses, albeit at the higher end. I would anticipate that they will retail for between $30-70 a pair."

Photo: The Hong Kong Pavilion: Some 30 of the city’s optical companies headed Milan-ward for the show.
The Hong Kong Pavilion: Some 30 of the city's optical companies headed Milan-ward for the show.
Photo: The Hong Kong Pavilion: Some 30 of the city’s optical companies headed Milan-ward for the show.
The Hong Kong Pavilion: Some 30 of the city's optical companies headed Milan-ward for the show.

Mido 2017 took place from 25-27 February at Italy's Fiera Milano.

Martyn Cornell, Special Correspondent, Milan

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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