Former investment firm director Mark de Lange was on holiday when his girlfriend bought him a new pair of glasses from a London-based luxury brand. Back home in the Netherlands, he had his corrective lenses fitted to the frames. “The whole process took three weeks and cost €400,” he explains from his home east of Amsterdam. “I just didn’t understand why it would take so long – and why it would cost so much.” The experience led de Lange to found Ace & Tate in 2013. The premise is simple: free eye tests, high-quality frames and corrective lenses from £110 all-inclusive. “We didn’t want that trade-off between quality and style on one side and price on the other,” he says.
De Lange’s founding story is not unique. As consumer-focused tech companies such as Uber and WeWork were born, entrepreneurs applied the same logic to the eyewear market: take something a lot of people use (69% of the UK population wears glasses, a number that should increase as the population ages) and make it simpler and cheaper to access – but keeping the style. The first online eyewear brand, Warby Parker, was founded in 2010 by four MBA graduates, offering eyewear from $95 including Rx lenses. 2011 saw French brand Jimmy Fairly, which offers free eye tests and prescription glasses for £129, and Dutch online-only brand Polette entered the market. In 2012, British entrepreneur Tom Broughton launched Cubitts with the ambition to make wearing glasses more enjoyable, offering an eye test, handmade frames and corrective lenses for around £150. BlooBloom was an ethics-focused addition in 2017.
A decade later, this business model of selling stylish eyeglasses directly to consumers at lower prices has completely changed the market. Both Cubitts and Polette posted double-digit year-over-year revenue growth. And many of these online-only spaces are now asserting their presence on the high street. Cubitts has nearly doubled its number of physical stores in the UK in the past two years, Ace & Tate has opened 16 stores across Europe in 2020 and seven more in 2021, and Jimmy Fairly will open 8 new stores in London this year. This in a market where traditional opticians are generally seeing their commercial footprint shrink; David Clulow, for example, operated 70 stores in the UK in 2010 and has now reduced to just over 30.
“I created Jimmy Fairly after identifying a problem, not only experienced by myself but by eyeglass wearers around the world”, explains its co-founder and CEO Antonin Chartier. “How can an essential product that so many people rely on and need to survive cost the same as Apple’s most extravagant iPhone?” (The retailer’s markup on the cost price is usually around 280%). Cubitts was launched to make buying eyeglasses less of a chore, like going to the dentist, and more of a pleasure. “I really liked wearing them and realized most people didn’t like them,” Broughton says. “The vast majority of people seemed to wear them with regret.”
True to this intent, the shopping experience at a Cubitts or Jimmy Fairly store is more boutique than clinical optician. And the frame designs range from classic chic to statement. Marmalade orange, moss green and tortoiseshell acetates, peony pink tinted flat-top models, simple silver wire frames and chunky black librarian styles are all bestsellers at Cubitts. His creations have now won over Madonna (who wears the classic rectangular Calthorpe acetate frames), Emma Thompson, Idris Elba and Cynthia Erivo. At Jimmy Fairly, worn by the likes of Kendal Jenner, favorites include speckled blue and brown acetate and ’50s-inspired tortoiseshell oval designs. £10 a pair. So why pay £500? – the brand’s directional frames include geometric shapes in Klein blue acetate and clean lines in round gold threads (from €15 including lenses, up to €70 for more complex models). “We design them and then put them online at cost price,” explains founder and CEO Pauline Cousseau.
A high level of service – in-store styling advice, rigorous visual testing – is built into the business models. My own Cubitts eye test lasted 50 minutes, including an eye health checkup, and was performed by a practitioner who worked part-time at an eye hospital. She informed me that reading outdoors is much better for your eyes than reading indoors; reading on a screen is as bad as reading a book, it’s because we blink less when looking at a screen that our eyes suffer. She advises regular breaks during work to limit the effects, suggesting the 20:20:20 technique: look 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes.
Despite their origins from the tech boom, most of these brands remain committed to brick-and-mortar retail. When Warby Parker saw its profit margin drop from 59% in the second quarter of last year to 57% this quarter due to rising cost of goods, its response was to announce the opening of 40 more physical spaces. this year, because “the unit economics of our stores have remained strong,” as co-CEO Dave Gilboa said during an earnings call in August. Cubitts lost £1.2million due to lost footfall during the pandemic regardless of the AI software he introduced that allowed shoppers to see which frames would suit them digitally. “We opened in Leeds last year,” says Broughton, “and we have people who come from Newcastle just to try out frames. It’s so important [thing]. I mean – it’s in the middle of your face! “.