Warby Parker is largely credited with disrupting the eyewear market, which hadn't changed much since eyewear first started being produced in large quantities and distributed to retailers in the 1960s. And while that company did inspire a whole new crop of affordable, online-native and direct-to-consumer eyewear brands, the way in which established fashion brands create their own optical and sunglasses remains largely unchanged. About five companies own the licenses to produce and distribute for just about every big, global brand you've heard of that has branded glasses. The biggest licensee is Luxottica, which fully controls the eyewear businesses of everyone from Chanel to Persol to Sears and has been criticized for monopolizing the market and charging high markups for glasses that are relatively cheap to produce.
Few alternatives exist for companies that are too small to sign licensing agreements with a global company like Luxottica, don't have the resources or connections to produce and distribute it on their own and/or don't want to relinquish all control of a product that bears their name to an entirely separate entity. Enter Eponym.
Launched in 2010 by Andrew Lipovsky, a former financial analyst, Eponym aims to be a new, more modern and collaborative alternative to Luxottica, and a go-to option for brands that are a little more niche. And the company is off to a good start: it was responsible for the launch of Steven Alan Optical, which the New York-based retailer told us has become a "significant growth driver." In addition to e-commerce, there are now four licensed brick-and-mortar Steven Alan Optical stores in New York. "Our customer was looking for a thoughtful eyewear line that was effortless and timeless – core elements to the Steven Alan brand," says Alan, via e-mail. "Eponym takes a collaborative approach to our partnership that is truly novel in the licensing partnership space. Because they sell direct to our customers, they are only interested in creating a product that matches my vision and speaks to the Steven Alan customer."
Eponym's in-house team of 30 takes care of production, customer service, e-commerce, other retail and back-end structure and co-markets with the brand, for whom there is no financial risk. Unlike the companies mentioned above, it works with brands on creative and pricing decisions and sells the eyewear directly to the brand's consumers through e-commerce (and brick and mortar in Alan's case). "They have the tools and systems to run a stellar white-label e-commerce experience dedicated to eyewear that is consistent with our brand," said Alan via e-mail. "This helps to extend the visibility of Steven Alan brand nationwide."
With Steven Alan as a benchmark for Eponym's viability, the eyewear company just signed a nine-year licensing agreement with Alice + Olivia and a long-term agreement with Jason Wu, whom it lured away from its former eyewear licensee Modo (a New York-based competitor of sorts which launched in 1990 and holds licenses for Derek Lam and 7 For All Mankind, according to its website). Eponym plans to announce three more designer contracts this year. On the heels of these announcements, we spoke with Lipovsky about how he started the company with no eyewear experience, his interesting approach to retail and what's next.
What inspired you to start Eponym?
Right out of school, I was a financial analyst and I quit that job right around the time of the financial crisis around 2009. And one of my friend's father was an optometrist and I went to this big show at the Javitz center called Vision Expo East, which is a huge trade show. Luxottica's there, Safilo's there, Marchon, Marcolin — and this was my first time getting exposed to eyewear and [I thought], wow this is massive. The spark [happened] when I walked into my own closet I realized that of all of my favorite brands, none of them made any eyewear: Steven Alan, Rag & Bone, A.P.C., Nike, Jack Spade. I did some research and figured out that Luxottica makes all the eyewear for all the billion dollar-plus brands, so I looked at the organization of the fashion space. E-commerce brands are smaller, they serve more niche audiences, so why wasn't there someone that does [eyewear] for them?
How did you get started, having no eyewear background?
We knew that before we could approach any of these brands to make eyewear, we'd have to figure it out for ourselves. So we started a business at the Brooklyn Flea with our own brand [called Classic Specs] as a a way to figure out how to make eyewear, how to sell it, get customers and get their feedback. We did that for maybe a year or two years and it was great because we would go on Saturdays and Sundays and we would have 16 to 20 hours of customer feedback every week. Then one of my friends introduced me to Steven [Alan] and I had lunch with Steven and I said, "Hey Steven, this is what we've been doing so far and I'm a big fan of your brand and I'd really love to make your eyewear" and Steven said, "I've been wanting to make eyewear for a really long time but I haven't been able to because companies that are in the eyewear space don't really want to work with companies of my size, and let's do it." Steven has a reputation for being a supporter of many, many different businesses and designers and he said yes the first time I met him, which totally spoiled me. I thought everyone else that I would go and talk to, they would all say yes the first time I met them too.
How did you figure out how to actually make glasses?
We would go to Italy where we source the acetate from a 150-year-old factory that was the first factory to make a synthetic alternative to tortoiseshell — so before these guys, people killed turtles to make glasses. They don't anymore. The glasses are actually made either in China or Japan or Italy depending on the price point and the designer. We started in China and that involved going to all the factories and visiting them. We would just buy a one-way ticket to Hong Kong and walk the streets there. When you're starting out, not a lot of people want to talk to you because you've got questions and you probably don't have a ton of volume and it was [about], on the manufacturing side, getting those partners that really believe in you. After we launched Steven Alan, we made a key hire, her name is Kristen. She has been in eyewear for 15 years so she's made eyewear for Phillip Lim, Derek Lam, Oscar de la Renta [and] Jason Wu with another licensee. She's the creative director and she manages our team of designers.
How do you figure out price point?
Typically what happens in eyewear is, because there are so many middlemen, all eyewear becomes expensive. With our direct model, we have the choice of making it expensive or making it closely correlated to the brand's core product. For Steven, for example, his eyewear's $195 and that includes prescription lenses. We tied that to one of his core products which is a shirt. So our thinking is, for the folks that are buying the shirts, they're gonna see a ton of value in the eyewear.
It depends on the brand and how they want to position it. We don't come with prices in mind; we work collaboratively with the brand to create it. Most licensees want the product for their customers, which oftentimes are not the same customers as the brand, so there's sometimes misalignment when it comes to pricing. Since we sell directly to the brands' customers, we have to be really closely aligned with the brand.
How did you go about approaching more brands?
First and foremost we had to build a really great business with Steven Alan and prove that was successful. We've made a lot of friends in the industry and people who are very supportive of what we're doing and how we're doing it and those folks are the ones that introduced us. Jason's investors at Interluxe, for example. Friends, investors, advisors who helped us.
Do these brands tend to already be thinking about launching eyewear?
They were thinking of it, but the model and the offer of any of the companies that wanted to work with them was not aligned with what the brand was or wanted to be. A lot of these brands are thinking about the future and what their brands are going to be in five years and they felt that what we were doing was going to help accelerate that for them.
For Jason, he already had another eyewear license and he was not happy with that player and they chose to partner with us instead of that player, so I feel proud that we, even early in our life, got to beat out an incumbent.
One of your big differentiating factors from other eyewear companies is you create an e-commerce platform to sell directly to the consumer, but you also do wholesale?
We view wholesale as marketing rather than a way to build a big business with high margins. We view associating ourselves with great retailers as a way for customers to find out about our product. For us to be successful we only need 10 or 20 or 30 percent of their business to be wholesale, not 100 percent like everyone else.
The reason we love digital so much is the feedback loop is so quick that we’re actively spending money to build a brand’s business on a website that we run for them. It means if something works, then we can double down on it tomorrow.
Where do you see the brand going in the next five to 10 years?
We’re signing some of the best partners in the world and that's something that's really, really exciting. We want to become an alternative to Luxottica for amazing brands. I wake up every day thinking about that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.