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Innovation Meets Retro Styling at Europe's Largest Optical Expo

With Asia emerging as the optical industry's new focus, this year's Silmo event was characterised by the use of innovative new technology, increasing concerns over piracy, 3D-printed frames and the return of some distinctly classic old styles.

Photo: Urband: Demonstrating classic looks at Silmo 2016.
Urband: Demonstrating classic looks at Silmo 2016.
Photo: Urband: Demonstrating classic looks at Silmo 2016.
Urband: Demonstrating classic looks at Silmo 2016.

Retro styles, natural materials and the continuing rise of 3D printed frames were the talk of this year's Silmo, the Paris-based expo that is Europe's largest showcase for the optical industry. It was the threat from counterfeiters, however, that preoccupied many exhibitors, with a number of manufacturers now resorting to high-tech features in a bid to defend their brands. Overall, though, there was a general sense that Asia was taking centre stage as the one bright spot in the otherwise sluggish global market.

It was pretty much consensus that counterfeiting now represents the biggest threat to brands in the sector. As a consequence, a number of brands are now looking to protect themselves against any such incursions through technological innovation and the use of new materials.

One company notably opting for the technological innovation route was Belgium's Tokai. This year, it had on offer a totally clear photochromic lens said to give more UV and blue light protection than a darkened sunglass lens. The product was developed in recognition that increasing concerns over sunshine, UV and blue light have seen sunglasses move from being considered 'nice to have' items to 'must haves' for many middle class consumers, especially those keen to counter the problem of macular degeneration in middle age.

According to Kurt Leuridan, the company's founder, these new lenses could potentially revolutionise the world of sunglasses. At present a demo kit is available to opticians, with the company hoping that this will help drive worldwide demand for more sun protection, particularly from those who prefer not to wear sunglasses all the time.

In another area of technical innovation, this year has seen 3D-printed frames becoming ever more ubiquitous. Looking to take a lead here was Gotti Switzerland, which was launching Dimension – its debut 3D printed-collection – at the show.

Previously best known for its high standard of workmanship and use of traditional materials, technical precision has also played a key role in building the company's reputation. Keen to assert its adherence to its own standards, the company is billing its foray into 3D printing as more a continuation of the brand's values than a departure.

Sven Gotti, the Founder of the business, and his team have apparently been working on the 3D printed frames project for around three years. Their avowed aim was to provide the same level of detail, finish, comfort and fit through this new process as they had traditionally delivered in acetate, horn and titanium.

In another sector of the industry, magnifying vision aids appear to have developed apace this year, to the extent that the judging panel at this year's Silmo awards was unable to settle on just one winner in this particular category. Overall, there were seen as three leading contenders – GoVision's Visiole – a 24-inch high definition LED screen reader which can display text from a USB stick; the M'Eye Fit Touch – video glasses reminiscent of Google Glass; and NuEyes – lightweight, wireless data glasses that can be controlled via voice commands.

Another trend apparently set to be highly prominent over the coming years is an emerging preference for co-ordinating frame colours with makeup, particularly nail varnish. According to Le Nouy Gilbert, the Director General of Eschenbach, a German optical specialist, the company has signed a distribution contract with Art Deco, a fellow German cosmetics business, to collaborate on the production of a range of coordinated makeup and eyewear. This relatively new venture already employs 100 people and is said to have a turnover of around US$250 million.

While technological advances seemed to be the order of the day for this notoriously forward-looking sector, when it comes to styling something of a retro approach was clearly in evidence. Overall, a number of distinctly boho and vintage designs were widely on offer, with thick rims in a variety shapes – most notably the round and slightly 'panto' inclined – proving particularly popular. Throughout the event, a number of exhibitors were showcasing their take on these particular styles, with many seemingly drawing their inspiration from popular media, most notably Mad Men, the award-winning US television series.

Photo: Budri: Simply marbellous.
Budri: Simply marbellous.
Photo: Budri: Simply marbellous.
Budri: Simply marbellous.
Photo: Rigards: Buffalo horned.
Rigards: Buffalo horned.
Photo: Rigards: Buffalo horned.
Rigards: Buffalo horned.

A distinct movement towards gender-neutral fashion was also in evidence at the year's event, with the difference between male and female styles seemingly being eroded. In those instances where male and female ranges did differ, however, a number of new trends were also clearly apparent. Many new women's' ranges, for instance, offered a huge choice of cat's-eye inspired designs, lashings of bold colours and an increased selection of classic geek rims.

While many were inclined to imitate these classic styles, it was reassuring to see that so many of originals were still going strong. London's Savile Row Eyewear, for example, was in Paris to promote its range of bespoke frames, all 100% handmade in UK using the original machinery, tools and processes that were first employed in the early years of the 20th century.

According to Ben Kogan, Savile Row's International Sales Manager, the current retro trend may represent something of a golden period for both his company and the classic spectacles sector in general. He said: "The turnover of fashion trends in the eyewear sector is notably slower than it is in the case of clothing. At present, we are seeing a resurgence in the popularity of vintage looks and, more specifically, of the popularity of vintage metals. I would anticipate that this will be the case until at least around 2020. As the pantoscopic shape is the epitome of vintage, it's been great for us."

While Savile Row was keen to retain the use of traditional precious metals – notably reinforced 18-carat rolled gold – in its designs, those more interested in modern shapes are turning to titanium, at least according to Mark Keaney, Key Account Manager for Liverpool's Continental Eyewear. In line with this, he cited the company's Jaeger range as a particularly fine example of this trend, with each unit produced in-house by the company, using only the thinnest acetate and allergy-free titanium frames.

Elsewhere, the use of natural materials also continued to gather pace, with several examples serving to highlight this growing trend. Austria's Monaceros, for instance,  had on offer a range of frames all made from a single piece of buffalo horn and said to be entirely free of metal or plastic components.

Rigards, meanwhile, the Paris-based specialist in buffalo horn eyewear, had on offer the latest creations from Ti Kwa, its founder and lead designer. This year, they incorporated a number surprising combinations of materials, textures, polished surfaces and co-ordinated colours. Similarly striking was the new collection from Budri, specialists in the use of Italian marble inlay. This year, the company was turning the spotlight on its marble, onyx and semi-precious stone-encrusted eyewear collection, designed by Valerio Cometti and Gianmarco Budri, two of the sector's most renowned innovators.

Notably hard to ignore was range of wood and acetate frames courtesy of Christophe Cecchinato, Proprietor and Lead Designer for France's Lenoir Brand. The wheelchair-bound former snowboarder initially created eyewear in a range of innovative materials solely for friends and family. Increasingly, though, his creations have found popularity among the music, arts and sports communities. Now looking to take his designs into wider markets, he has appointed five influential global brand ambassadors, each said to a leader in their respective fields, including Rick Adams, the renowned jazz choreographer.

Overall, as far as this show was concerned at least, the eyewear industry seems to be generally optimistic, with a projected compound annual growth rate of 2.5% up to 2020. This is despite the fact that overall industry sales fell by 6% last year, largely on account of currency fluctuations. In particular, many are now looking to Asia and a number of the other hitherto less developed markets, to be the new drivers of the sector. Of the 7.3 billion people in the world today, it is estimated that some 2.3 billion of them need glasses, but have yet to buy them – particularly those resident in Asia, Africa or Latin America.

It is now believed that the Asia-Pacific will come to dominate the global eyewear market, with revenue from the region expected to exceed US$32 billion by 2020.

Photo: Silmo 2016: Technical innovation jostling for space with retro styling.
Silmo 2016: Technical innovation jostling for space with retro styling.
Photo: Silmo 2016: Technical innovation jostling for space with retro styling.
Silmo 2016: Technical innovation jostling for space with retro styling.

Silmo 2016 was held at the Parc des expositions de Paris-Nord Villepinte from 23-26 September. The event featured some 900 exhibitors and 1,350 brands occupying around 80,000 square metres of exhibition space.

Simon Sinclair, Special Correspondent, Paris

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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