Niche eyewear brands to know and how they’re doing after COVID-19 – WWD

MILAN — As an industry dominated by large groups that generate most of their revenue through licensing agreements signed with notable luxury brands, eyewear has left little room for independent players, who often lack the financial power and of manufacturing prowess to compete.

Although Italy has traditionally been home to many of the leading eyewear specialists, the country’s niche players are arguably competing in a different league and more often than not aren’t even interested in going down the same path, knowing that the model is saturated by the biggest players. .

Emanuele Pugnale, who founded eyewear company Pugnale in 2013, says the licensing business model has penalized creativity and most companies – except for some far-sighted players like Kering, which created its own eyewear division – did not recognize how this might impact the longevity of the category. – long-term performance.

“Eyewear has been somewhat abused as an accessory, but it’s picking up again. Fashion brands haven’t really considered its potential and have outsourced this product category to specialist players and their know-how, thereby also outsourcing creativity and quality,” he said.

Likewise, Federica Moretti thought the industry needed a refresh when she shelved her eponymous millinery brand to develop Huma Eyewear. She claimed she had been instrumental in changing the perception of sunglasses, and now optical frames, moving the conversation needle with her brand.

She offers traditional Made in Italy eyewear designs, but uses them as a plain canvas to accessorize with extravagant 90s hairpins, rhinestone beads and chains, as well as pendants, earrings, clips and even a lighter holder – all attached via hooks. to executives.

“When I started in 2017, I saw the industry evolve…my designs sparked interest because they stood out from the crowd,” Moretti said, noting how other more established companies have since started offering similar styles. “I’m proud to bring something new to the table. As bigger players were innovating with their frames, we were rewriting how sunglasses can be used as an accessory, adding an extra layer, accessorizing them.

While independent players can indulge in experimentation and new business models, quality cannot be compromised and must be backed by manufacturing agreements, entrepreneurs observed.

To this end, Kyme, the accessible eyewear brand created in 2013 by Antonello Calderoni, marked a turning point by selling a stake in 2019 to Stefano Scauzillo, founder and CEO of Essequadro, a niche eyewear manufacturer based in the region of Campania with turnover of 10 million euros last year.

Kyme women’s collection.
Courtesy of Kyme

This has helped the brand not only to strengthen its supply chain, but also to overcome the difficulties of the past two years and to increase its revenue despite the pressures induced by the pandemic. “It speaks volumes about the optimism of our medium-term goals for the company,” Scauzillo commented, citing reduced time to market and personalized services dedicated to opticians among the success factors. The executive expects Kyme’s revenue to total €4m, up 25-35% year-on-year, in 2022.

“I think we were able to leverage our competitive advantages and managed to identify a clear target both in terms of retailers and end customers,” he said.

While putting creativity first is the benefit of independence, it also comes at a cost.

The past two years have cast a shadow over the resilience of niche players, with a few exceptions, including Kyme. Pugnale has not presented a new collection since 2020 and looks forward to the Mido eyewear show, scheduled for April 30 to May 2 in Milan, to fully resume its activities and showcase the company’s creativity, now only focused on its house brand after licensing. and partnership deals with fashion brands Amen and Anteprima, respectively, were terminated.

“It’s going to be about redefining creativity and brand identity… To move past the trends that have set the pace of this industry for too long and ended up swallowing up niche brands as well,” Pugnale said. “When you have a clear identity, it’s easier to gain trust and that’s the way to keep growing and securing new market share.”

Pugnale and Huma Eyewear have recently been backed by investors, seen as essential for future growth and scaling up the business. Pugnale said the past two years had left little to no margin for error and were in a delicate phase of growth for the company which, backed by Friulia, an investment vehicle controlled by the Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, strengthened its direction. He hopes 2022 will see renewed activity, given the resumption of in-person industry trade shows and is expected to attract an international audience, with the exception of buyers from Asia, a key region for the company. eyeglasses.

While pre-pandemic plans involved retail expansion, Pugnale is now solely focused on opening a flagship on the first floor of its headquarters in Udine, Italy, while it has temporarily closed its Rome unit and postponed plans to open stores elsewhere, although non-European cities, such as New York, remain top of mind for long-term concerns.

Huma Eyewear’s Moretti tied up with a business partner before the pandemic, selling a 50% stake, and embarked on a rebranding strategy that saw her brand drop the word Sunglasses in favor of Eyewear. , reflecting a renewed interest in optical frames. “Despite the commercial devastation, we continued and expanded our offer,” explained the bubbly creative. Huma Eyewear’s collections now include 11 sunglasses and six prescription frames, each available in six colorways.

Niche eyewear companies had often found their sweet spot in pre-pandemic distribution in multi-brand fashion stores, which were more open to newness and seen as key to laying the groundwork for wider appeal. But in the aftermath of the health crisis, opticians have proven to be more reliable partners.

This was part of Huma Eyewear’s post-M&A retooling and gave the company more stability by opening up to new, less fashion-focused customers through independent opticians who can better communicate the brand. The introduction of men’s frames and accessories will further boost exposure and leverage this channel more, Moretti said.

Huma Eyewear men's collection.

Huma Eyewear men’s collection.
Courtesy of Huma Eyewear

At the same time, building on a new agreement with Milanese showroom Tora Tora, the company plans to resume and strengthen its activities in the fashion wholesale channel, where it already operates through a few retailers, such as Paris’ Modes, Piaff Boutique in Beirut, Lebanon, and 10 Corso Como, among others.

Similarly, Kyme started in 2013 through fashion stores. Its trendy styles at just under 150 euros quickly earned the brand a strong following. “The brand quickly became attractive to a wide audience, especially customers of fashion multi-brand stores with strong positioning based in Italy and France,” Calderoni said.

Capitalizing on this demand, the entrepreneur and creative has expanded distribution to opticians, who now represent the bulk of the brand’s revenue. There are no plans, Scauzillo confirmed, to return to the fashion wholesale channel, while other digital investments to support e-commerce operations are underway.

Kyme men's collection.

Kyme men’s collection.
Courtesy of Kyme

Pugnale, on the other hand, launched through opticians and continues to generate 90% of its revenue through this channel. “Our sunglasses would be a great fit for multi-band fashion stores, but we often find barriers to entry for our high price tag,” Pugnale explained, noting that he expects clothing stores won’t represent more than 20% of sales, which should reach 1 million euros in 2022.

In line with the rapidly changing market, collaborations will increasingly play a central role in expanding brand awareness, although they are often more difficult to develop than for other fashion categories.

“It’s hard to design the perfect collaboration,” observed Calderoni of Kyme. “It’s either collaborating with a solid company for a win-win match, or with high-profile personalities. Otherwise, it’s just too much effort for too little return. [on investment].”

Over the next month, Kyme will be launching a contest reaching out to its community and asking its subscribers to submit their own sunglasses designs. The winning project will be manufactured and sold as part of the brand’s collection.

Similarly, Moretti is testing the waters of the collaboration, but acknowledged that she can only see them applied to Huma Eyewear’s accessories line, rather than frames. For her first, which will be unveiled later this spring, she has partnered with an association that supplies recycled PET.

Pugnale women's collection.

Pugnale women’s collection.
Courtesy of Pugnale

Pugnale’s adventure in collaborations began with a capsule collection designed by New York architect Hani Rashid and developed for Audrey Tritto and her lifestyle and luxury website. At next September’s edition of the Silmo eyewear show, the brand will launch a capsule featuring an American singer, but the entrepreneur declined to reveal more details.