We live in the age of customization. You can customize almost anything: your sneakers, your Twitter interface, your car, your kitchen cabinets, your own face. And yet, says British eyeglass designer Tom Davies, "almost nobody has glasses that really fit them."
Prescription eyeglasses are always, in a sense, custom-made, but the focus in this $16 billion U.S. industry has been "the lenses, not the fashion statement," says Diane Charles, president of the Opticians Association of America. "Most frames are made in one size. So is there a need for custom? You bet." And Tom Davies wants to meet it.
Ironically, Davies doesn't need glasses. He began designing them in 1997, after graduating from college with a degree in film production. "All my friends were going to Asia for a year, so I went too. I applied for every single creative job in Hong Kong," he says. "This one watchmaker wanted to start into eyewear. He didn't have a clue and I didn't either." But Davies learned.
After returning to England in 2001, he built his own eyeglass business, creating a bespoke service after a friend suggested he could make a living from it. He arbitrarily set his price at £5,000 (then about $10,000). He has fitted Middle Eastern royals, and Kevin Spacey and Rowan Atkinson have worn TD Tom Davies glasses on-screen.
Davies's service, in which he designs a frame based on measurements he takes himself, was — and is — a nice niche, but he has leveraged the Internet and skilled, low-cost labor in China to pursue mass customization. His product runs about $600, what you might pay for a high-end pair of designer frames but well above the U.S. average of $126. It draws from an existing range of shapes, finishes, and about 60 colors, and Davies is training opticians to do the measuring.
The linchpin in Davies's production process is a proprietary Web-based system called Supertool, which links his growing network of opticians to his Chinese workshop. After your optician measures you and helps you choose style and color, he'll plug the measurements and choices into Supertool; instantly, the data will pop up on a designer's screen in Shenzhen. Within two hours, that designer will have created a blueprint and a parts list for your frames. Then a team of technicians chooses the right arms — for efficiency, "they are semifinished," Davies says — and builds the front piece to order. Three to four weeks later, the glasses can be on your face.
"His point is spot-on: More and more people want customization," says Milton Pedraza, president of the Luxury Institute. But because it's new to eyewear — a couple of firms custom-make frames from atypical materials like wood and the Web-based Indivijual perilously asks you to measure yourself — "there's an education process," Pedraza says. "He will need to create a willingness to pay."
In 2009, TD Tom Davies made 36,000 frames, triple his 2008 tally. Sales have been strongest with buyers who need unusual sizes. "This has been a godsend for men with really big heads and little women that I had to put in kids' frames," says optician Arlene White of Optical Heights in Roslyn, New York, one of Davies's first U.S. stockists.
But Davies knows his toughest task will be to sell consumers with normal-shaped heads a product they never knew they needed. He has launched his own YouTube channel, with videos showing people how his glasses are made, but he's reminded of the challenge every time he tries to make a pair for his own father. "My dad has 15 pairs of glasses. He got them from Walmart," he says. "It's heartbreaking."
A version of this article appeared in the March 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.