Factory Tour: Chicago's State Optical Co. Is Forging a Market for Handcrafted, Luxury Eyewear in the U.S. - Fashionista
A look inside the pioneers' bright, shiny and state-of-the-art Chicago factory.

Welcome to our new series, Factory Tour, in which we're taking you inside the manufacturing facilities of some of our favorite brands to find out how the clothes we buy are actually made. Next up: Chicago-based handcrafted, luxury eyewear company State Optical Co.

In 2010, four business school students had a wild idea — to take the old-school, monopolized eyewear industry and bring it direct-to-consumer — and Warby Parker was born. Now, eight years later, with that business swelling into an at least $1.2 billion company and having distributed more than 2 million pairs of glasses, it's safe to say the idea wasn't quite as wild as was initially thought. For many on the outside looking in, Warby Parker is what kickstarted the optical disruption in earnest. While that's not untrue, many other players have been building up unique business models that are each changing the way we think of the eyewear marketplace today. 

State Optical Co., a handcrafted, luxury eyewear brand based in Chicago, is looking to change all that. In 2012, Scott Shapiro and Jerry Wolowicz — executives at a family-owned, independent eyewear company, Europa — set out to create the planet's first truly luxury label of American eyewear. Timing was on their side: At that same time, a pair of entrepreneurial cousins from southern California, Marc Franchi and Jason Stanley, were looking for a way to manufacture high-quality eyewear here in the United States, traveling the world, researching machinery and eventually building their own equipment in Ventura, Calif. The Midwesterners and the Californians' paths crossed, and in 2014, Franchi and Stanley moved themselves, their families and their key employees to Chicago to give State a real shot.

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The State folks — including Shapiro and his wife Amanda, the company's VP of Marketing — have been on my radar for some time, firstly because they're a business that, in my book, is doing all the right things, and secondly because State and I share a hometown. The company has real, genuine Chicago roots, so much so that the city is incorporated into the design of every one of State's frames.

A State Optical Co. factory employee hand-polishes a pair of frames. Photo: Courtesy of State Optical Co.

A State Optical Co. factory employee hand-polishes a pair of frames. Photo: Courtesy of State Optical Co.

When I arrive at the brand's factory for a proper tour over the holidays, I'm surprised to see that their production facilities are just down the road from my late grandparents' house. It's an area that represents home to me in a lot of ways, not least of which is because it's where I spent a significant part of my early life doing stereotypical Chicago things, like watching the Bears lose and following Phil Jackson around the grocery store. By the tour's end, I was even more surprised to learn that such innovation existed somewhere that, kind of, counts as my backyard.

Even by expansive Midwestern standards, the factory space is enormous. It's bright and shiny, and while it's filled with machines — more than 60 of them, actually — whirring in ways I don't understand, it's also populated by a not insignificant number of employees crafting the glasses by hand at various points throughout the production process. That's exactly the way State likes it, because Franchi's team had to come with its own manufacturing from scratch. "We took components of Asian production and components of European production and created a unique process for the U.S. that would work with our skills and advantages and labor, our disadvantages and cost, as well as our environmental impact," he explains.

The quality control process itself can take up to three days. Photo: Courtesy of State Optical Co. 

The quality control process itself can take up to three days. Photo: Courtesy of State Optical Co. 

Europa, Shapiro's family’s business, has been importing eyewear for 40 years and has accordingly built relationships with manufacturers overseas in both Asia and Europe. Every year, Shapiro, Franchi and the rest of the team meet with those manufacturers and take them on a tour of the factory, just like the one I took with Franchi. "Every one of those people that has toured through our factory, and some of these people have been making frames for generations in their respective countries, at one point has said, 'Wow, I didn’t think to do it that way,' or, 'How did you come up with that process?'," says Shapiro. "I think one of the things that makes our story so unique, and Marc's factory so unique, is that they really had to learn this on their own."

Because the vast majority of the world's eyewear is produced in either Asia or Europe, Franchi and Stanley were tasked with not simply finding high-quality machinery, but also with customizing every piece so that it's compatible for U.S. use. The factory's pièce de résistance is undoubtedly its "Tron"-like Monofast CNC (or, computer numerical control) machines, which take a block of acetate and spits out the near-final shape of the frame. (The appliances even have nicknames, Mason 1 and Mason 2.) The machines are computer-programmed with hundreds of thousands of lines of code for each of State's specific styles, and are insanely impressive to watch. They're also the only of their kind in the Western Hemisphere.

Blocks of acetate that get fed into the Masons, as described above. Photo: Courtesy of State Optical Co.

Blocks of acetate that get fed into the Masons, as described above. Photo: Courtesy of State Optical Co.

"They had never worked with it before — nobody in this country had ever worked with it before — so they were totally on their own to figure out how to use it," says Shapiro. "You know, we use the anecdote that they couldn't even plug it into the wall because it didn't work on American electricity. And to this day when a piece breaks down, or we need a replacement part, that becomes a very difficult process. Somebody in our factory has to figure out how to fix those machines, because nobody's maintaining those."

Both Franchi and Shapiro have expressed just how much of an investment, financially and otherwise, this particular appliance was, but that State even made it in the first place is a true testament to the company's broader commitment. "Being that we're the largest acetate eyewear manufacturer in North America, there aren't too many other facilities that require such a robust machine that's capable of producing such large quantity and high-quality parts," says Franchi.

Despite utilizing the Masons and other pieces of state-of-the-art technology, more than 50 percent of State's production process is still done by hand. As of June 2016, State had hired more than 45 employees to work in the factory, all of whom had to pass a working interview on the floor; traditionally, 40 percent of candidates do not progress beyond this stage. The average State frame requires a minimum of 75 steps to complete, which takes an average of two weeks from start to finish. In fact, the finishing process alone — hand-polishing, tumbling, buffing and quality control — itself takes more than three days. (Production standard for acceptable tolerance is a quarter of a millimeter, just barely thicker than a piece of paper or a human hair.)

Mason 1 or 2 in action. Photo: Courtesy of State Optical Co.

Mason 1 or 2 in action. Photo: Courtesy of State Optical Co.

Everything throughout production, and I do mean everything, was developed for a reason: Franchi and Stanley spent more than two years working to formulate their proprietary mix of tumbling elements and materials that give State frames their luster. "Oftentimes when companies are developing a brand, they're trying to hit a target or price point, and they say, 'Okay, we're looking for this price range on this product, so this is what we have to do to get there,'" says Franchi. "We kind of reverse-engineered that, or we did it a little bit differently, and we said, 'We want to make the finest eyewear we can, with the highest-quality components, cutting zero corners when it comes to production and labor, and see where we end up, cost-wise, making a product like that.'"

State's current product range includes 30 optical styles, 18 of which are also available in sunglasses form. As a tribute to the company's roots, each item is named after a street in Chicago, from Addison Street adjacent to Wrigley Field to Taylor Street in the heart of Little Italy. "If you go to our website, you'll see that we really try to incorporate the spirit of the city, and even specifically each street, into the styles of the frames," says Shapiro. Indeed on StateOpticalCo.com, each product page features a photo of the street the style is named after, as well as a brief description as to how the cultural relevance of that street inspired the style of the frame.

A factory employee hand-polishes a pair of frames. Photo: Courtesy of State Optical Co.

A factory employee hand-polishes a pair of frames. Photo: Courtesy of State Optical Co.

Chicago is represented elsewhere in the aesthetics, too, particularly in State's logo — 21 dots, to represent Illinois being the 21st state in the U.S., forming a triangle — that gets drilled into each temple. It was important to Shapiro that every aspect of the frames speaks the language of the city in which they're being made. Chicago toes a fine line between being incredibly cosmopolitan, yet also being what Shapiro described as "very working class, very blue collar," and the brand was created to straddle the two. "We consider State to be a luxury brand, of course, because we think we're manufacturing the product as high-quality as anything else in the world. But it's not like most other luxury brands. It's still very much about the everyday people that commit their careers and their lives to making it," says Shapiro. "We really feel like the city of Chicago is symbolic of what the brand is all about."

It hasn't been easy to carve out a marketplace essentially from scratch, but State has made real progress. In September, the brand linked up with Creatures of the Wind to create what it called the first-ever "Made in America" luxury sunglass collaboration, which debuted during New York Fashion Week. In fact, it's that same Made in America quality that Shapiro hopes will allure other eyewear manufacturers stateside.

"Our goal from the beginning goes well beyond just making frames here in the U.S. and being able to stamp them 'Made in the USA,'" says Shapiro. "We have some pretty lofty, visionary goals for what this could mean in the long-run. And our number-one goal right now is to prove that there's a market for handcrafted, luxury eyewear made in the U.S. — something that really has never existed before."

And if that happens in my hometown? Well, that's even better.

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