The legendary French designer talks to David Hellqvist about frames, his signature style and being inspired by “life, wine and women”
In the design sphere, a loose term for the creative industries, few other disciplines so perfectly merge fashion and product design as eyewear. As an optical instrument designed with a sole purpose, to assist us in seeing properly, it’s still a highly feted design object. We spend large amounts of time and money on getting it right. And though a pair of glasses bought to match a seasonal look might have to updated again soon as they become part of a fashion trend, beautiful and classic frames are timeless products, designed to live with and on the wearer for years.
As with all creative fields, there are different kinds of players in frame design; the zeitgeist brands obsessed with trends, heritage brands defined by tradition and then there are the masters that not only set the initial boundaries but continue to challenge them. One such example is the imitable Alain Mikli. Like his contemporaries in fashion and product design, architecture and art, Mikli has managed to create an aesthetic identity, a recognisable point of view, as it were, in regards to his designs. Setting up his studio in 1978, Mikli helped define the frames of the 1980s through his unique take on colour and shape. Aiming to make “jewellery for the eyes”, Mikli’s early accomplishment was to liberate glasses from their limitations; no longer were they solely a means to make people see, but also to make them look good.
Throughout the years, Mikli has pushed himself forward by not letting the restraints of the frames limit our ability to ‘clothe our personalities’. Today, sunglasses are big business, they’re incorporated into fashion shows and brands rely on them as much as handbags and perfumes. But the art of crafting a pair of prescription glasses – the quality, the material, the design – is no different from designing a Ready-to-Wear garment. And it doesn’t seem like Alain Mikli is ready to hang up his glasses just yet…
Why did you became interested in eyewear design as opposed to clothes?
I love people, I love life, and I remain a child, so being an eyewear designer is very playful for me. It’s also a very nice excuse to be looking at a wonderful woman be behind my glasses – but only for professional reasons and not for seduction. By dressing up someone’s eyes you are also able to change the personality of somebody with eyewear, and that’s very powerful.
Would it have happened unless you wore glasses yourself?
No of course not. I need glasses and when you look at my face you understand I need very nice glasses to give me the chance to be somebody!
From what age did you have to wear them?
Since I was 17 years old I think. I don’t really remember. When I wore them for the first time, I totally discovered the life around me and I was very surprised – but sometimes it’s better not to have a better vision of our world…
What is the single most fascinating aspect of frame design?
To me, the most interesting part of the design process is seeing how I can make what I have in mind. I start working the acetate – the raw material – manually and see how I can technically make my designs real. This part of the design is what I like most, it’s not only imagining but creating the tools and the manners to make it happen. Finding the right technical approach, that will allow my design to exist but without compromising on comfort and personality is what it’s all about. And, actually, whilst some brands have iconic styles, we could say that I have iconic ways of treating the acetate, such as the Cil à Cil, Eventail, Laser Griffe etc.
Don’t you ever feel limited by how ‘small’ the product is, lack of space etc?
Size is part of the challenge as is is indeed a very small product with a lot of constraints in that sense. We have to be creative but I have always allowed myself to work with unconventional sizes.
It’s true that the beginning of each collection always gives you a bit of vertigo as you never know if you’ll be able to design something new. But for me it’s the opposite – I don’t know if my life is long enough to design and create all the ideas I have in my mind.
How far can you push frame design? What’s your most far out style?
Very far, I think we will never be done in terms of frame designs generally speaking. As we speak of creation, there’s no possible end. And I feel that I haven’t yet done my most far out style. Or better yet, I am doing my far out styles each season, as I am challenging myself each season.
Do you look to fashion, do you see any connection between catwalk fashion and glasses?
Yes, of course, especially in regards to the sunglasses – they are an accessory, a fashion accessory. But not optical glasses: we don’t have the same purpose [as fashion brands] as we have to create for somebody who needs to see, and needs to wear them all day long. And on an everyday basis they have to be styled with different outfits and different life actions. Optical glasses needs to be neutral but still have a strong character.
Have you got a signature style?
Yes, the rectangular shaped ones, but today my best ones are the round ones.
What excites you? What’s next for you in terms of eyewear design?
Everything, I’m a passionate person and a real epicurean. Let’s keep something a surprise, though I can tell you that I will not be where you expect me to be!
Photography Sascha Heintze
For more info on Alain Mikli, visit here