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SPOT THE DIFFERENCE: s a pair of custom glasses worth the premium price? Tom Davies points out five places where made-to-order could matter. | Photograph by Eric Janes

Fast Company

How Custom Eyewear Will Change the Industry and Your Look

Tom Davies reframes customized glasses as a product for the masses.

Infographic: Spot the Difference Popup-Icon

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."

SPOT THE DIFFERENCE: s a pair of custom glasses worth the premium price? Tom Davies points out five places where made-to-order could matter. | Photograph by Eric Janes

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7 Comments

  • michael

    I have to tell you i am in the eyewear industry and there are alot of boutique eyewear collections that cost in upwards of $400-$600 and are not even custom. I happen to carry this product and have to tell you that the response from my clients is nothing short of amazing. Why not spend an extra fifty to one hundred dollars to have something truly unique to your features and coloring. You dont have to worry about you model being discontinued anymore. Truly a brilliant and revolutionary concept in eyewear and its proving to be quite well recieved.

  • Andres Franco

    Jeff,
    As your article highlights, customization is the big next thing in the eyewear industry. What's impressive about Tom Davies is that his project focuses on face measurements and comfort which goes way beyond Oakley's sunglasses customization option in which one chooses, frame type, frame color and lens color. Davies is making glasses much more personal. However, their is still much to be developed in regard to cost efficiency, not too many people are willing to pay $600 for a pair of glasses.

    Andres Franco
    GM- Premium Vision International
    andres.franco@premium-vision.com

  • Gregory Ferenstein

    How does costume design make up for the fact that people cannot try it on before buying. Is anyone using augmented reality? Or, do online shoppers care less about trying before buying?

    --
    @ferenstein

  • Danny Wong

    Jeff,
    Made-to-order seems to be the new trend in fashion retails.
    Companies like Randy's (Indivijual), my own, Blank Label (www.blank-label.com), even SoleEnvie (www.soleenvie) and LaudiVidni (www.laudividni.com) are pushing the co-creation revolution.
    Custom product is just exciting because it's uniquely your own, made to the exact specifications you want and need.
    I'd love to connect with you about the future of fashion retail.
    Hope to hear from you.
    Danny Wong
    dwong@blank-label.com

  • Randy Barnett

    Dear Jeff Chu,
    Why not give Indivijual Custom Eyewear a try? I guarantee you a better custom fit via our online service and we design a custom frame just for you, not pre-packaged options for style and color. Learn more at www.Indivijual.com or email me at RandyBarnett@Indivijual.com for even more information on our custom designed, custom carved one-of-a-kind eyewear. Randy Barnett, Founder and President, Indivijual Custom Eyewear