A U.K.-based startup has come up with a new design for high-end, direct-to-consumer sunglasses that are original, modular and virtually indestructible. But to get their eyewear in the hands of consumers, they’ll have to compete with some industry giants, including Luxottica Group of Italy, whose brands include Ray-Ban and Oakley, among others.
Their company, Wires Glasses, isn’t competing on price. At $380 per pair, its sunglasses cost as much as other designer eyewear. If Wires succeeds, it will largely owe instead to its unusual single-wire design, patented invisible hinge and, perhaps most important, the narrative it tells about design and sustainability. Indeed, in a day and age where new brands are launched every day, storytelling can mean the difference between barely surviving and thriving, something this team seems to understand.
A new, albeit undisclosed, amount of seed funding from the early-stage venture firm True Ventures should also help. True has helped grow a number of consumer companies, including Blue Bottle Coffee, the doorbell startup Ring and the wearables company Fitbit; likely it has lessons to share.
We talked with Wires co-founder Yair Neuman last week to learn more about how Wires came to be and how the glasses work. Our chat has been edited for length.
TC: You’re a London-based designer. You’ve created visuals for big artists, and ceramic speakers, and projects for Samsung. How did you wind up starting Wires?
YN: It started with me needing a pair of glasses when I went on Spanish holiday. I took a piece of soft wire and created a frame and 3D printed lenses in my studio. That only happened because I didn’t want to take Ray-Bans with me. This was a design-y holiday with other designers. But the glasses started to get a lot of attention. I thought it was maybe something I should develop, so when I got back to my studio, I started working on it.
Soon after I met and connected with a guy who was born in Zimbabwe, where they often make what they don’t have. They’ll take wires from electrical products and create toys or products or art. And he put together a team in Harare to produce designs for me. We’d send money and clothes and tools, and they’d ship back these frames that we’d combine with 3D printed parts, and suddenly we had these glasses that people liked and we started selling them.
TC: But they are now made in Italy.
YN: We eventually needed more precision and know-how, and we get that in Italy. Cadore, Italy, was long said to be the center of eyewear production. In the ’80s, there were more than 3,000 factories there. But at the end of the ’90s, Luxottica took over [other brands] and moved all the production to China and the area collapsed economically. Still, the workshops and machinery and people with knowledge are all there. So we found a small, family-run business and we make our frames with them, though they had to really rethink the process because our frames are very different.
TC: How so, exactly?
YN: The first version of the glasses functioned more as a fashion accessory. They didn’t fold. But it was important to me to build a functional product that people could fold and put away.
I didn’t want to include hinges as we know them — these mechanisms on the sides of our eyes. I wanted to keep the consistency of the wire, to journey from one ear to the other without obstacles. I took a few months to focus only on that, and came up with our protected [intellectual property], which is the invisible hinge. There’s basically a wire and a mechanism inside [the hinge] that allows [the wire] to fold.
TC: Would you potentially license that hinge “technology” to Luxottica?
YN: It depends on the offer. If there was the potential to create something interesting while also focusing on the environment, then it might be interesting to explore. But I don’t want to create another object that no one really needs but we’re going to mass produce anyway.
TC: Tell us more about your products, which are modular. What does that mean?
YN: Our system is based on the fact that we have one wire, and you can assemble a few different designs around it. This first collection has seven different lens shapes in two [wire] colors — black and white — so if you want to change your look, you don’t need to buy another frame, just a pair of lenses that you pop on the same wire. We have classic round [lenses] but also avant-garde [options] and [lenses that are] easy on the eye — that people don’t really need to show off with.
TC: Do extra lenses come with each pair of glasses?
YN: If you add another pair of [lenses], they cost $70.
TC: How did you decide on pricing?
YN: It wasn’t a decision so much as the reality of production, plus profits, plus expenses. It costs us the same to make them, so we didn’t go down the route of should we charge more for this or that.
TC: The glasses go on sale today. Can you accommodate a lot of interest from a production standpoint?
YN: Normally in this market, you’d have led time of three to four months. For us, because we 3D print them, we just need three weeks. So we can react very quickly.
TC: How will you keep the lenses “fresh” from a fashion perspective?
YN: Before we introduce new Wires, we think there’s a lot we can do, not just with the shapes but with the types of lenses we make. If you’re a cyclist, for example, and you want to pop in your water-repellent lenses, or you’re skiing and want to pop in lenses that filters the light from the snow . . .
TC: Aren’t the frames a bit delicate for sportswear?
YN: They look delicate, but they aren’t at all. Even if you sit on these, the worse thing that happens is we have to disassemble the lenses from the wire; there are no screws or parts to lose. The arms are also highly adjustable so that you can fit them to your head as snugly as you like.
TC: You talk about sustainability in your marketing materials, but you’re shipping glasses from overseas.
YN: We’re a direct-to-consumer business, but we’re still in fashion, and as much as we like the digital world, that’s not just where it’s at, so we’ll have a pop-up stores in Paris as soon as next month. We’re also planning permanent boutiques in New York and San Francisco to give people the opportunity to go to a shop and see the real thing and not send anything back to us, because it is a lot of carbon dioxide.
Also, when we make our glasses, we’re only printing what we need. Glasses are typically cut from a much bigger sheet of material, with a lot of negative space that just becomes waste. For us, we make sure not to create waste and to use the lowest amount of energy. And when the end comes? The metal is all stainless steel. You pop out the lenses. You recycle these with your normal recyclables, so that’s easy as well.
Pictured above: model-turned-entrepreneur and advisor to Neuman, Lily Cole.