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Kickstarter’s fashion category alone has about 315 projects, and most (by that, we mean almost 90%) of them have a way to go before reaching their goal — a testament to how hard it is to sell your vision for the Next Big Fashion Thing. Clearly that wasn’t the case for L’Appel Eyewear, an Pasadena-bred luxe sunnies brand that began as an art school project.
While working on an assignment at Art Center, the brand’s quartet of founders discovered that most of the eyewear market’s biggest names (like Ray-Ban, Chanel, Oliver Peoples, and Persol, to name a few) are crafted by the same manufacturer. “We saw really cheap quality glasses being sold at twenty times cost,” co-founder Andrew Kim explains. “Alternatively, the supposedly premium brands were made with the exact same processes.”
With that knowledge in mind, the students sought a direct-to-consumer approach for their new line (which translates in French to “the call”), which launches with three high-end, modern styles featuring titanium hardware for $129 to $159. To hit that price point, the brand rounded up the best materials from renowned sources, like different hues of acetate from Italy and China. (More on that later.)
We sat down Kim and Kidong (KD) Kwon, creative directors of product design and half of L’Appel’s founding members. Below, read on to find out how the brand went from assignment to reality, their reservations about manufacturing in certain countries, and more.
What was school project that led you to the brand’s beginnings?
KD: We had a class called "Independent Study", where we had our choice of team and topic for an independent project.“ We wanted to pursue the depth of branding’s effect on a product, and thought eyewear would be perfect.
Being a primarily functional product since the 1300s, only recently has branding made glasses into something truly fashionable. As we did our market research we found out that a huge monopoly was controlling the industry.
We became even more impassioned at the thought of how manipulative the eyewear industry is. We’ve never had this kind of motivation; we’ve never worked this hard.
What happened next?
AK: When it was time to turn our project in, we had accomplished much more than what we had scheduled. We had wearable prototypes, a fifty page lookbook, detailed marketing campaigns, a press kit (with brochures, a commercial video, a formal catalog, etc.), 3D feature product renderings, packaging, packaging inserts, and even a new type of DIY try-on kit.
We had to present our project several times. Traditionally these projects are only for their specific cohort, but our project spread by word of mouth. Suddenly we were asked to present to a group of Art Center professors along with the department chair.
KD: Most everyone saw the dedication and potential of our project, and encouraged us to start it as a business.
AK: Within that first year we faced reality very quickly. It takes so much more than just having a great product to turn it into an actual business. We hustled really hard, but nothing could replace experience.
We were pitching to investors, considering design accelerator programs, contacting manufacturers, sourcing materials, and finding marketers. At every step, there were both those who ignored us and those who tried to take advantage of us. We learned trial by fire, those we could and could not trust.
What were you most surprised to discover about the manufacturing process?
AK: We saw that in general, margins were pretty thin for most industries. Manufacturing had their extra costs due to economies of scale. Middle men required their chunk of the profit margins. Retailers had their lion’s share. Each of the steps required their portion, everyone has to eat, and rightfully so. However, all along the way, competition forced those margins to remain tight.
But we were equally amazed at how eyewear in particular had inflated margins. [...] We quickly realized most eyewear really fell into two groups. Those that were bought out by the monopoly and ended up supporting the inflated margins, and those that indirectly supported the same artificial price by offering things such as “free try on kits” or “buy a pair, we give one to a charity”.
KD: Don’t get us wrong, we like those things too. And every company needs its margins to continue offering products that we both want and need. But believe us when we say that the margins in eyewear are there for that, and you should still be getting a much higher quality pair of glasses. We’re confident with our brand that you will immediately recognize the differences in craftsmanship and style.
AK: Another thing was that when other brands produce eyewear, they don't go through many cycles of prototyping phases. When we saw some of the competitors' prototypes, they were in such poor quality that it almost made us think "what is the point to their prototypes?"
For us, we go through countless prototypes until the we’re confident they’re ready for a mass production level. At one point our manufacturer was incredibly angry because they never had this experience with any other brands.
What is L'Appel's design process like?
KD: Most of the eyewear designs are busy chasing what is currently popular. We wanted to make eyewear that is unique and different in certain ways but keeping it subtle so people are not scared by it. We struggle everyday with finding that perfect balance point between timeless design but keeping our stylistic identity.
AK: Since our core team is all designers, we are very visually driven people. We looked into everything that we had interest in to draw inspiration. Product design, photography, graphic design, or any type of daily object. In the conceptual stage, we really worked hard to translate our definition of design into a physical product.
KD: We do numerous concept sketches, and make that into actual size orthographic. Then prototyping to really see and feel a sample of the final product. The fit and feel is super important to us. At the end it is eyewear intended for everyday use, day long comfort is a huge part of the design too.
Where is the brand made and why was it important to you to manufacture there?
AK: We were amazed how other brands intentionally have certain pieces or manufacturing processes in Japan or Europe, just to get that title of "Made in Italy" or "Made in Japan". But they are actually assembled and predominantly sourced in China. We were disgusted with this tactic. Why are they making such an effort to trick customers? is it worth it?
KD: Throughout our research, we found out each country had their varying strengths. We wanted our product to be at the highest quality yet an affordable price that we could in turn pass on to our customers. We were determined to have them be hand crafted. If we decided to manufacture in Europe or Japan, we would need to either mark our prices up or make compromises in materials and processes to maintain the affordable price point we were aiming for.
KD: So we came up with our own system. We knew Japan had some of the best quality acetate, but realized they aren’t as proficient coming up with good colors and patterns. So we source our materials from different parts of the country depending on the desired colors and quality. In result we are using Mazzuchelli acetate made from Italy and Jinyu acetate sourced from China.
Were you initially opposed to manufacturing anywhere in specific?
KD: We had our reservations, especially regarding China, due to our own personal experience with products made there. But in the end, our worries were unfounded. If you look at the top tier brands such as Ray-Ban, Dior, and Garett Leight — they all are actually manufactured in China. Throughout our experience, we found that they were capable of manufacturing quality through the whole spectrum of quality. You just have to find the right manufacturer.
AK: So we chose the widely regarded number one factory in China. And again we are not making our eyewear cheap, our eyewear actually costs more to manufacture compared to top luxury brands. That is how we could keep the quality of materials and execution but still keeping it at an affordable price. If you try it, you will recognize it.
Who do you see as your competitors?
AK: Garrett Leight, Raen, and Warby Parker, are our competitors. We think Garret Leight has really strong brand identity. Their level of execution in communicating their brand philosophy is amazing. Warby Parker is also amazing in executing their try-on system for everyone and creating stories with marketing strategy. Raen really stand out as being different but still keeping the quality of the product in a very subdued way. We would consider them a very strong underdog.