Telling the Story, Part 3: LICENSING AND THE END OF THE WORLD.
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
Whether you are buying or just browsing, we hope you are enjoying the collection and perhaps it sparks some interest in things you didn't know about the history of eyewear until now.
Several people have recently encouraged us to create new books - either yet another photo book on vintage eyewear or, more recently, there have been requests for a book on Philippe Chevallier. After some years and a great deal of expense in creating the 456 page book called Udotopia, about the creative genius and crazy life of Udo Proksch, we know that even if they are critical successes they are most likely losing propositions. The vanity presses will have to satisfy the vanity of others. However, while we are going through this process of breaking up this very large collection, I will take time to tell as much of the story as I can.
- Michael Jardine.
Licensing and the end of the world as most knew it...
By 1980 there were big changes afoot. As the apparel trade became increasingly the domain of fashion designer brands, so followed accessories and eventually eyewear. Around 1979 a company started on Long Island called Optique Du Monde. They made two trademark licenses with well known designer brands that enabled them to develop and sell eyewear under those brand names.
The two licenses were Polo Ralph Lauren and Diane Von Furstenburg.
The result was extraordinary. They had huge success in the market and this spawned many more importing companies to establish and take licenses of their own. Ultimately it devastated the big manufacturers in the US, who simply did not react in time. Most of the designer frames were made in factories in France and Italy by factories who were better able to adapt. The US factories were old and accustomed to getting by with almost no new styling from one year to the next.
As American factories would close in the 80's I would sometimes go down to see if there was any equipment worth buying for our little acetate factory in Canada. It was shocking to see that so much machinery was created by them that would not even allow a tooling change for a new model. With the move to fashion and the public and retailers demanding new styles each season, the big old factories never stood a chance. The Europeans had newer equipment and, especially in the case of Italy, they had their own blossoming fashion industry. Their licensing of brands like Giorgio Armani, Versace and others was instrumental in propelling them from being a rather average Italian factory to the behemoth they are today.
Optyl too made the big strategic moves in the 80's and in their stable were brands like Christian Dior, Playboy, Christian Lacroix, Dunhill, Paloma Picasso and more. It was never quite clear to me what caused their demise. They were sold to a German publishing company and perhaps there was not a good strategic fit. It might also have been that the licensed brands simply did not replace the volume of their flagship brands.
Viennaline alone in the 70's sold more than 15 million pieces per year. One model, the Gigi, sold 14 million pieces in its lifetime. It is unlikely that all their licensed products combined would have achieved this.
Whatever the reasons, the eyewear manufacturers in most of North America and Europe were falling like dominos. A few bought time with licensed designer brands but it seemed that only a handful of Italian factories made that work.
There were a few notable exceptions of companies who continued to prosper with their own name and design ethos. Silhouette and Cazal certainly come to mind. Interestingly both had strong connections to Optyl.
Silhouette was born of a literal marriage of the sister of Wilhelm Anger and his manufacturing head, Mr. Schmied, and Cazal's Cari Zalloni was another Austrian art student like Udo Proksch and had worked alongside Udo as creative director of Optyl's Saphira brand before leaving for Germany and starting his Cazal brand.
Another Austrian of note was Robert LaRoche. He too started at Optyl and was in fact one of their first international salesmen. Later he left and started his own eponymous brand and successfully operated it in the 80’s and 90’s until he sold to another Austrian company in the early 2000’s. He was another who combined great eyewear with great advertising. It is no surprise that he and Udo were friends and Robert
continued to visit Udo in prison until Udo’s death in 2001. Robert LaRoche is well represented in the collection and best found in depth in Cabinet 11, in Drawer 11 through Drawer 15.
The only news from Asia during the early 80's was primarily from Japan and this was mainly Charmant, a good manufacturer who scaled and built international distribution for high quality house brands.
Later, in the 90's, the Murai company launched licensed collections for Jean Paul Gaultier and Yohji Yamamoto and really did an unparalleled job in marrying design and technology with highly directional licensed designer brands. A visit to Cabinet 7 - Drawers 4 and 5 is a virtual feast of creation and quality from the two Murai brands.
The 80's saw a proliferation of licensed brands and the disappearance of most of the old school who traded under their company names. This was followed by a great number of strategic moves, especially by the two largest Italian factories, that played out like something from Game Of Thrones.
My first customer in 1980 was Optique Du Monde, who hired us to cover Polo Ralph Lauren frames with leather. Cabinet 11 - Drawer 1 - Slots 9 and 10 are examples of the first work we did for Polo and Optique Du Monde. Later we supplied acetate frames for Polo from Canada too. There are plenty of examples in the first four drawers of Cabinet 3.
Later I moved to Japan and made metal for Polo and there are also examples of this in Cabinet 3. The Polo product in general was made in a variety of factories in France and Italy, as well as Japan and our factory in Canada. The brand was so successful that it was an OEM manufacturer's dream. The size of the orders were incredibly large. Success on this scale meant two things:
1. That no matter how good the product was, it will never be of much value in collector's terms, purely because there was so much of it produced.
2. The great success of the brand in the market made it highly desirable to the big Italian manufacturers. In the case of Polo it was like watching a war play out.
First Safilo acquired Optique Du Monde in the 90's and brought it in house and started to produce most of the Polo eyewear itself. Later came the breathtaking move by Safilo in 2003 when they took the Giorgio Armani license from Luxottica. This was shocking considering that Armani was Luxottica's second largest shareholder and Giorgo Armani's personal net worth was supposedly reduced by more than $100 million in reduced value of his Luxottica shares on the single day that the move was announced.
Luxottica had its revenge in 2006 when they went to Polo and offered Ralph Lauren ten years worth of minimum royalties in advance for dropping Safilo and moving Polo to Luxottica. The cheque they wrote for advance royalty guarantees was for US$160 million. Five years later Luxottica re-signed Armani.
The war continued on many fronts but by then most observers would say that Safilo definitely lost the war, especially when Luxottica bought two of the largest retailers in the world (Lenscrafters and Sunglass Hut) and then made them many times larger.
I will not stay on this track; we are talking about vintage eyewear and not writing a business treatise but some of these events were certainly pivotal, as they had much to do with turning eyewear from something that was often extraordinary into something that is most often very ordinary and uninspired today.
Comparing the creative products of the 60's and 70's with much of the mass production today, where ease of manufacture, low cost and volume efficiencies take priority over all else, leaves one wondering what there will be for collectors from the 21st century production.
No doubt there are special designers and makers today. I leave it to a new generation to decide the value of what is currently produced.
This actually raises an interesting question about what it is that inspires vintage collectors today and even how much of what we see in the vintage world is really about collecting at all and, if not, what the other drivers might be.