The brands behind the great glasses revolution
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Former investment firm manager Mark de Lange was on holiday when his girlfriend bought him a new pair of glasses from a London-based luxury brand. Back at home in the Netherlands, he had his prescription lenses fitted to the frames. “That whole process took three weeks and was €400,” he says from his home in east Amsterdam. “I just couldn’t understand why it would take so long – and why it would be so expensive.” The experience led de Lange to found Ace & Tate in 2013. The premise is simple: free eye tests, high-quality frames and prescription lenses from £110, all in. “We didn’t want that trade-off between quality and style on one hand and price on the other,” he says.
De Lange’s founding story is not unique. Just as consumer-focused tech companies such as Uber and WeWork were springing up, entrepreneurs were applying the same logic to the spectacles market: take something many people use (69 per cent of the UK population wear glasses, a number set to rise as the population ages) and make it simpler and cheaper to access – but retain the style. The first online glasses brand, Warby Parker, was founded in 2010 by four MBA graduates, offering glasses from $95, including Rx lenses. 2011 saw French brand Jimmy Fairly, which offers free eye tests and prescription glasses for £129, and online-only Dutch brand Polette enter the market. In 2012, British entrepreneur Tom Broughton started Cubitts with the ambition of making glasses-wearing more enjoyable, offering an eye test, handmade frames and prescription lenses at around £150. BlooBloom was an ethically focused addition in 2017.
A decade on and this business model, of selling stylish prescription glasses directly to consumers at lower prices, has completely changed the market. Cubitts and Polette have both seen double-digit revenue growth year-on-year. And many of these online-only spaces are now asserting their presence on the high street. Cubitts has nearly doubled its number of physical stores in the UK in the past two years, Ace & Tate opened 16 stores across Europe in 2020 and another seven in 2021, and Jimmy Fairly will open 8 new stores in London this year. This in a market where traditional opticians are typically seeing their retail footprint shrinking; David Clulow, for example, operated 70 stores in the UK 2010, and has now cut back to just over 30.
“I created Jimmy Fairly after identifying a problem, one not just experienced by myself but by glasses-wearers around the world,” says its co-founder and CEO Antonin Chartier. “How can an essential product that so many people rely on and need to survive cost the same price as Apple’s most extravagant iPhone?” (The retailer mark-up on cost price usually comes in at around 280 per cent). Cubitts was launched to make shopping for glasses less of a chore, like going to the dentist, and more of a pleasure. “I really liked wearing them, and I realised that most people didn’t,” says Broughton. “The vast majority of people seemed to wear them ruefully.”
True to this intention, the experience of shopping in a Cubitts or Jimmy Fairly store is more boutique than clinical optician. And the frame designs span from classic chic to statement. Marmalade-orange, moss=green, and tortoiseshell-brown acetates, peony-pink tinted flat-top designs, simple silver-wire frames and heavy black librarian styles are all bestsellers at Cubitts. Its designs have now seduced Madonna (who wears the classic rectangular acetate Calthorpe frames), Emma Thompson, Idris Elba and Cynthia Erivo. At Jimmy Fairly, worn by the likes of Kendal Jenner, favourites include blue-and-brown speckled acetate and ’50s-inspired oval tortoiseshell styles. And at Polette – whose tagline is “producing glasses costs less than £10 per pair. So why pay £500?” – the brand’s directional frames include geometric acetate shapes in Klein blue and clean-lined round gold wire designs (starting at €15 including lenses, edging up to €70 for the more intricate styles). “We design them and then we put them online at cost price,” explains founder and CEO Pauline Cousseau.
A high level of service – an in-store style advisory, rigorous eye tests – is built into the business models. My own Cubitts eye test lasted 50 minutes, including an eye health check, and was taken by a practitioner who worked part-time in an eye hospital. She informed me that reading outside is much better for your eyes than reading inside; reading on a screen is just as bad as reading a book – it’s because we blink less when looking at a screen that our eyes suffer. She advises regular breaks while working to curtail the effects, suggesting the 20:20:20 technique: look 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes.
Despite their tech-boom origins, most of these brands remain committed to physical retail. When Warby Parker saw its profit margin drop from 59 per cent in the second quarter of last year to 57 per cent this quarter due to the rising cost of goods, its response was to announce the opening of 40 more physical spaces this year, because “the unit economics of our stores remained strong”, as co-CEO Dave Gilboa said in an August earnings call. Cubitts lost £1.2mn in business due to lost footfall over the pandemic, regardless of the AI software it introduced that allowed shoppers to see what frames would suit them digitally. “We opened in Leeds last year,” says Broughton, “and we have people come down from Newcastle just to try frames. It’s such an important [thing]. I mean – it’s in the middle of your face!”.