A Point of VIU

As VIU open up their first London store, creative director Fabrice Aeberhard explains what it means to be Swiss and how geography has an aesthetic impact on the brand’s acetate and titanium frames    

Somewhere in the Dolomites, Northern Italy’s majestic mountain ridge, there’s a family owned factory producing hand-made acetate frames. I can’t tell you exactly where we are: the name of the village is secret, not for public consumption. That makes sense: eyewear production is like anything else, you don’t give out your sources. This area of Italy is home to countless factories, producing spectacles for both large fashion conglomerates but also smaller niche and independent brands, like VIU.

The Dolomites have 20 peaks that are 3,000 metres or higher. It’s perfect for seasonal adventure activities, like skiing in the winter and hiking in the summer. But eyewear production, that’s an all year around job for the 13 people working in this factory. Touring the space you get a feel for the challenges of scaling hand-crafted quality into a sizeable business. Zurich-based VIU seems to have nailed it: though only founded in 2012 they have over 50 stores – including a new London location opening up this week in Soho.

VIU makes their acetate frames here. The titanium ones are produced in Japan. In fashion, those two countries are the very best for manufacturing in, and the same goes for eyewear. Add to that the perceived minimal design and efficient quality that comes with a Swiss passport, and VIU ticks a lot of boxes. There’s an old school classicism to the brand, at least its backbone offering, that cements VIU as a wardrobe staple, the kind of pieces you can wear wherever and whenever.

Creative director Fabrice Aeberhard’s vision is clear-cut: the classic designs are a foundation to stand on while experimenting with more directional looks going forward. Based on innovative techniques and raw materials such as acetate, titanium and stainless steel, VIU has managed to navigate a market that is often dominated by large global luxury brands and high street opticians by finding the right balance in terms of both design and price points. VIU isn’t cheap, but it’s certainly not expensive considering you get frames designed in Switzerland and made in Italy or Japan. Ahead of the store opening, Aeberhard explains why making frames is as much about making people feel comfortable as making them look good.

Why did you get into the eyewear business? What do you find fascinating about frames?

If you look at the everyday products we use, what is more extreme than something that sits in the middle of your face all the time? You need to get it right, or people will look strange and not feel right. It’s quite the responsibility!

Yeah, there’s a lot of trust put into you because not only is it an aesthetic thing, there’s a medical side to it, it really has to work … people depend on their frames for survival. Or at least I do, as I’m severely short-sighted

Me too! But I’m always trying not to give the full potential to my eyes because I want them to have to work a bit. So, I wear my frames maybe a third of the time that I should. I don’t have strong correction in my eyes. I need them for when I’m driving or watching TV. But for moments like this it’s OK that it’s not 100% focused … I like not seeing everything super sharp because sometimes when you walk around it’s quite sad how dirty everything is. 

I’ve heard it from a few people actually, that they like living in a sort of fuzzy world… 

Yeah, life becomes a mix of colours, like a Jackson Pollock artwork.

Yeah exactly. Well, when you put it like that it’s quite nice. Life is like one constant artwork

I think frames have something very magical about them. You can either emphasise a character, making them stronger, making a man more male or women more female.

You say that but if you look at the VIU offering it’s a very classic type of eyewear?

That is the beginning. When we built VIU, I always said our first three collections should be contemporary classics. Just because if you start with an edgy collection it’s very hard to survive. But if you start with something that has more of a classic character, the foundation becomes more stable. That was my logical approach to building a base that we can actually make a business out of. We can build stores, we can build a strong machine and then we can start to create character and edge lines. So this is what we have been doing for three years, based on Italian classical art and languages and the natural approach of things.

When you design frames it seems to be very much in the twilight zone between fashion and product design. Would you ever want to work with clothing? 

What is very interesting about clothing is that it’s basically about reinventing yourself every season, which is sick, but in a certain way there really is the need to actually reinvent everything.

There aren’t that many Swiss fashion brands around, at least comparatively. How do people perceive Switzerland and, as a consequence, your brand?

Switzerland is seen as a humble place; it’s very simple, structured and it’s focused on the essential question of what defines something. To be Swiss also means to be very secure, always projecting five years ahead. And obviously that mindset has an impact on how we run our company.

It’s also a very fortunate country from a geographic point of view – you can borrow the pragmatism of your northern German neighbours but also the flare of the Latin countries

Yes, geographically, the surface that we are covering is very small, the longest distance measured in a line is around 400km. But in this very compact world you have so many cultures clashing together; we have a French part, an Italian, German and Austrian part that are all quite big, but also a Latin background that is still part of our culture. But once again, it just shows, you know that Switzerland cares about the future.

You know, if you look at politics, it is also our way of thinking of the future, as being neutral, as being negative but also a very positive side, we would never be too strong in one direction, so it means that when we move on it is quite secure and the population decides on the big topics. We do not have one guy at the top that is just shouting around, deciding on the direction of things. We have the “Bundesrat”. We have seven Presidents, and one is always elected for one year as being the one ahead but he is not the one deciding, he is more like the leader of all seven for one year. And the departments are exchanging every year. This is also part of our system, that you cannot create a system that is corrupt. So with politics as with everything else, we are quite slow in changing, but that can also be a good thing. 

As a brand, where do you position yourself? Your price point is not cheap but it’s not too expensive either; it’s affordable I suppose?

I would say the most important thing for us is talking about prices being fair. It’s not about being expensive or being cheap, it’s a lot more than that. It’s about being fair and conscious, and explaining to people what they are paying for.

Is there a frame, that you would say sums up the brand?

Our titanium frames are very strong and it was also one of those moments where other brands saw us in a very specific way, because what we achieved in titanium was competing with the very best ones, like Dita and Thom Browne. So having that approach, that quality and that sense of lifestyle, but interpreted in quite a classical way of building and expression of the frame, that’s a good way to describe VIU.

Photography Sandra Kennel

VIU, 5 Upper James Street, London W1F 9DG

The Cary Grant

Oliver Peoples collaborate with the actor’s estate to create a range of iconic glasses

A dashing man on the run adjusts his dark glasses on a crowded train carriage, lowering is guard and frames momentarily. Mysterious, brooding, charming. This slice of cinema history is brought to you by the magnetic Cary Grant in his role as Roger Thornhill, star of the classic Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest. To celebrate his iconic look in the film, Oliver Peoples have collaborated with the actor’s estate, working closely with his family to create an optical and sunglass the man himself would have worn with élan.

Founded in 1987, with the opening of its first boutique in the heart of West Hollywood, Oliver Peoples have always had a vintage feel borrowing from elements of fashion, film, art and music built into its aesthetic. This partnership, however, breaks new ground, as it is the first time the estate has worked with a brand. Discussing the process, creative director Giampiero Tagliaferri states that, “working so closely with Barbara and Jennifer (Grant), and hearing their personal stories about Cary was an exceptional experience and helped us define the details that best reflected his taste. I’m honored Oliver Peoples is now part of his legacy.”

For, Tagliaferri, the glasses can be distilled into three words: “Timeless, Classic, Refined”. Six colorways have been made to include a product-exclusive tortoise acetate, and an 18k gold plated style for boutiques and online. On the temple tip of the frame there is a discreet CG monogram created from his personal stationery, and a custom case inspired by the colors of his suit worn in the film. Tagliaferri adds that Grant was “naturally a man of style. He valued the craftsmanship and quality of a product above all else. He believed investing in a product was in turn, an investment in yourself. This pride of knowledge about what he wore exuded the class, confidence, and sophistication that he was known for.”

Asked why Grant was such a style icon, his daughter Jennifer concludes that “Dad had great taste but above all it was his innate elegance. Elegance in his movement, his thought, and the way he put himself together.”

 The Cary Grant will be available the first week of April, 2019

Inspired by Grant’s style, we revisit his own words on how a gentleman should dress

Cubitts: A New Perspective

The founder of Cubitts celebrates London’s revolutionary relationship with spectacles in a new, collaborative exhibition

Despite its remarkable history, not many people know that London’s love affair with spectacles spans six centuries. Cubitts, the spectacles brand founded in King’s Cross in 2013, is celebrating the capital’s landmark moments and forgotten optical stories with a new exhibition in St. James’s. Moving from the earliest pair of glasses found nearly six hundred years ago in Trig Lane to the post-world-war-two manufacturing boom, sixties glamour to modern materials innovation, the collection concisely charts an industry and craft marked by growth, decline and now finally, renewal.

Among the examples is Isaac Newton’s revolutionary treatise Opticks, James Ayscough’s early form of sunglasses and British inventions such as the monocle, the Supra and the Lorgnette. Commissioned especially for the exhibition is a wonderfully unique frame made from London’s very bones. ‘A Frame for London’ has been created from materials mudlarked from along the banks of the River Thames, including Tudor hair pints, Bellarmine ‘witch pots’, a WW2 bullet and shell, clay smoking pipes and Victorian marble.

Port talked to Tom Broughton, curator of the exhibition and founder of Cubitts, on why sharing these stories is important, how our relationship to spectacles has evolved and why form should follow function.

How do exhibitions like this retrospective compliment the brand?

As a company we focus on storytelling and education, but not in an overly paternalistic, pedagogical way. I started Cubitts because I loved the product, I loved spectacles. I could never understand why people didn’t get excited by them and it always amazed me when, before a family photo, everyone would take their glasses off. Why? They’re brilliant! Over the last five years we’ve been trying to tell these little stories to get people excited about them. How can we change people’s perception of it from something they need, to something they desire and treasure? Cubitts is just one part of the story and that’s why other brands like Cutler and Gross and Goldsmiths were so happy to be a part of this, because it’s good for everyone if people appreciate and care about them more. The exhibition is a great form of succinct storytelling, making people see something in a new light, a new perspective.

Cubitts is named after the Cubitt brothers, three Victorian engineers who revolutionised the building industry. How do you hope to revolutionise the world of optics?

We’re called Cubitts because we wanted to take their principles and apply them to another market. They completely changed the building industry, which is as old as humans are, but was very dysfunctional at the time. Extremely time consuming, expensive, poor quality. But in the early 1900s they created a modern system of building work, streamlining it, improving on the craft. It’s why their buildings still endure today. Companies like Specsavers were based on cost and convenience. The frames themselves were crap, the environment’s sterile, plastic everywhere, a green-yellow light tinge to everything – an eye test that felt like you were at the dentist! The sales staff are clearly on individual commission and you could be selling anything in that space. When I was 20 years old, living in Leicester, I got my first pay check and bought some Cutler and Gross frames. Sent from London, all 100 miles, I remember getting them out of the box and was so excited. Why can’t everyone have that feeling?

How has our relationship to glasses changed over the past century?

If you ask the esoteric question, what is a pair of spectacles, it’s essentially some form of corrective lens. For a long period of time they were an object for doing, ‘I’m going to read this book, write these legal documents, watch this chariot race’. Because of Edward Scarlett’s work in the eighteenth century they morphed into supplemented living, you could have frames on all day. It was still seen as a medical device and even in the golden age of glasses, they were described similarly to a prosthetic limb. It’s a sign of disability, and myopia is in fact the most widespread disability in the world. It wasn’t until Michael Birch and the glamour movement of the 1950s, 1960s, when you’ve suddenly got Michael Caine and Peter Sellers wearing glasses, that things changed. This slowly eked into the public consciousness and they began to be appreciated for accentuating the face, changing not only how you see, but how you’re seen. Really though, it feels like the last five to ten years have seen the most change compared to the previous fifty, because now spectacles are finally cool.

You’ve said in the past that your rivets are directly influenced by butterfly rivets, in which form follows function, why is this an important principle for Cubitts?

We want to celebrate our spectacles, so our frames don’t pretend to be anything else. When Lewis Cubitt designed Kings Cross Station, arguably the world’s first modernist building in 1847, he didn’t pretend it was anything else other than a train station. Compare that to St. Pancreas by Gilbert Scott, fifty years younger, and it’s a Neo-Gothic structure, gargoyles all over it. It could be a hotel, it could be residential, who the fuck knows what it is? We want to be functional. In Granary Square you can still see those Lewis Cubitt butterfly rivets in the ground. Their shape bonds and holds together the granite blocks, structurally holding the frame together. The butterfly rivet has endured since the earliest examples of Ancient Egypt, and they’ll be found 300 years from now, assuming we get through Brexit.

How do you negotiate the changing consumer attitudes to online shopping and physical bricks and mortar?

We still find online tricky because it’s so flat and value driven. Many online levers are things we just don’t do as a company, like discounts, sales, Black Friday or influencers. As a consequence, it’s been a difficult relationship, but it’s just another channel to tell our story. How can we, in a digital world, accurately convey the look and the touch and the feel? We want to grow into a genuinely global brand, and we often discuss how we can be egalitarian as we grow.

What will the future of spectacles look like? Built in AR / VR?

Google Glass launched, closed, and now they’re coming back, but the constraint isn’t the technology for things like AR or VR, it’s our brains. We just can’t process that much information at once. There’s a really interesting study by MIT that showed if you tried to quantify the amount of data and information that’s going around you at any given time, it’s close to 2 billion bits per second. They estimated that the subconscious of a human being can process about 2,000 bits per second and that our conscious state can process roughly 120-150 bits per second. To have a conversation takes up about 60 bits per second. So the question for any future development or digital integration is ­– how can we overcome the limitations of the human brain?

RETROSPECTIVE: London, Spectacles, and Half a Millennia by Cubitts opened November, 2018 at St James’s Market Pavilion

MOSCOT: Keeping It in the Family

The father and son team behind the New York eyewear institution reflect on family, tradition and working together

Harvey and Zack Moscot

When, at the turn of the century, Hyman Moscot started selling ready-made eyeglasses from a pushcart on New York’s Lower East Side, he had little idea that he was founding a family business that would continue to this day, five generations later. Having crossed from Eastern Europe to disembark on Elis Island in 1899, Hyman would establish his eponymous brand on Rivington Street in 1915, before, in 1936, moving across the block to Orchard Street where MOSCOT would stay, the company being handed down through the generations: from Hyman to Sol to Joel to the current CEO and doctor of optometry, Harvey, and his son, chief design officer, Zack.

With the eyewear industry today dominated by the Luxottica Group, MOSCOT offers an enduringly intimate experience based around the quality of the products, an expert understanding of the science of eyewear and a tactile, physical encounter with the brand. Though they do sell online, their shops have become destinations in their own right – a central part of the family’s offering is in their ability to test your eyesight, proscribe and manufacture bespoke lenses on site. It’s an approach that has made the brand an institution in the market – patronised by the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jake Gyllenhaal –  as well as, with their yellow-fronted corner store, an institution in their neighbourhood.

As MOSCOT launches their new collection for AW18, Port asked Harvey and Zack to reflect on the heritage of their brand, the evolution of New York, and working together as father and son.

Zack: What’s the secret to success when running a family business with over 100 years of heritage?

Harvey: The secret is to stay true to what our predecessors have always preached: provide a memorable experience to our loyal customers. It’s always important that we do things for the right reasons, and that we are a place that our customers want to come back to and enjoying being a part of. 

Zack: I remember Grandpa Joel always told me how we’ve been known for some of the most classic designs since the Grandpa Sol days. People from around town always came to MOSCOT for round shapes and I really feel that I have captured some of our most timeless round silhouettes in our new models, giving them some MOSCOT character with subtle accents using detailed filigree, unique bridge designs, or intricate temple features. 

What’s the legacy that you want MOSCOT to be known for in years to come?

Harvey: I want to ensure that our brand message and our ethos is properly conveyed as we continue to tell our story to the world. We must never forget where we came from and if we can do that we will always know where we are headed! It’s also very important to me that our level of customer service is maintained and held to the highest standard. My father, and your grandfather, Joel, and my grandpa Sol, always strived to make all customers’ visit to MOSCOT memorable and special. I would expect the same legacy to be carried out by you.

Zack: I really see an opportunity to tell our story through new channels. We’ve always been known for our expertise in the optical field and our timeless designs and through direct to consumer strategies I want to inform existing, new and future fans about our heritage and expertise.

How do you think New York has changed in the last 30 years and how has MOSCOT evolved in this time too?

Harvey: With our roots deeply planted on Orchard Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century from a pushcart we certainly have seen lots of changes to the neighbourhood… and not just in the past 30 years! Orchard Street’s gentrification, like in other parts of Manhattan, is evident. Once a hotbed of artists, musicians, poets, we now see many new developments – hotels, restaurants, and upscale condos. Despite this the Lower East Side still retains a lot of its authenticity and we like to think we help contribute. MOSCOT has had to adapt to these changes by looking at digital initiatives but we are so thankful we still attract customers to our shop for eyewear, music, and a fun experience for whatever you visit us for.

How do you feel about working close to your father in a family business with a legacy like ours?

Zack: Honestly, it’s a true honour. I’ve wanted to be in the business my entire life, the trouble was just finding my way in. All my predecessors were opticians and you are an optometrist, but I was never intrigued by eyeballs or optics. My passion has always been design and relationships between humans and objects. Eyewear represents something truly special because its fashion but also a needed, functioning medical device that helps one see. To be able to build on this emotional connection through design and my namesake, with you by my side, is one heck of a ride to be on! Here’s to the next five generations….