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Colours back in style, as optical industry targets children's market

It's all cyclical, say exhibitors and buyers at this year's Milan Mido event, with 1970's style again wooing consumers, while style-conscious kids are offering new opportunities and 3D printers threaten to revolutionise frame-making.

Photo: A big spectacle: Mido, one of the world’s leading optical events.
A big spectacle: Mido, one of the world's leading optical events.

From brightly-coloured flexible silicone for funky infants to natural wooden frames for their more style-conscious parents, Milan's Mido optics event proved a truly spectacular show of all things spectacle-related. Its six halls played host to a wide range of optical-related ephemera, from cutting-edge automated cutting and edging machinery, to mass market manufacturers, as well as every conceivable brand extension.

One trend clearly apparent at the show was a definite resurgence in the preference for vibrant colours. Summing it up, Nicolas Saumur, European Brand Manager for Spy Optic, a California-based extreme-sports fashion company, said: "This season it's colours, colours, colours.

"I used to work for Oakley [Oakley Inc – a global leader in the sunglasses sector]. At the beginning of the 2000s, we decided to stop applying any colours to mirror coatings. At the time we had a lot – blue iridium, red iridium – and it was all becoming too much. Now, with the 70s and 80s trends back in fashion, everybody's using colours again. So now, in our range, we are offering things like 'afterglow' – the colour that follows sunset – on both the lens and on the temples."

The cyclical nature of the business and the return of bright colours was also noted by Mark Kearney, Area Sales Manager for Continental Eyewear, a UK-based branded frame distributor. Acknowledging that few things are genuinely new, he said: "This year it's more about vibrant colours coming back in. Everything goes in cycles, it's just coming back to what it was years ago. The darker colours are still there, but now they are more vibrant. For us, this year is about vibrant colours and the growth of the kids' market."

This growing demand for children's eyewear also proved timely for another Mido debutant – GVO, a Madrid-based frame maker, specialising in 'dual-use' eyewear for children and infants. Explaining the company's presence at the event, Oscar Paulet, GVO's Technical Director, said: "It's our first time at Mido and it's been fantastic. We're from Spain and our product has tested well there, so we decided to broaden our market.

"What we offer is two frames in one concept – we say 'from School to play'. You can wear them to go to school, but then go into the playground, put the elasticated band on, and it becomes a more sporty type of frame.

"The product has deep bevels so, even if you add a prescription lens to it, you still have flexibility in the frame. It's a mixture of materials – silicone's not all that strong. The idea was to find something flexible, something that adapts to kids.

"We're covering from zero to four or five-years-of-age with Silicone Baby. The Nano Vista then covers up to 14-years-old, but with the same concept."

Another first time exhibitor at the show was Dasa Communication, a South Korean branded eyewear manufacturer. As with GVO, the company was in Milan to expand its consumer base beyond its current territory.

Yunah Kang, a marketing representative with the company, said: "This is our first time at this particular show and it's the first time we've promoted our products to the European market. It's an important move for us as we need to expand our business.

"We have particularly high hopes for our A-Kurtz product. It's a street, military-style brand and has already proved popular with many of our existing customers."

For many exhibitors at the event, it was clear that key differences were emerging among the buyers representing individual markets. Thomas Ng, General Manager of one Kowloon frame maker, Ocean Optical Manufacturing Co, said: "Our customers are mainly in Europe and America. I'd say that European clients are more fashion-oriented - they always want new styles.

"In the American markets, they buy products that are a year or a year and half behind the trend. Their quantities are bigger for sure, though. That's the main difference for us."

Relatively conservative though the North American market may be, it seems to have a considerably greater appetite for sports eyewear. Spy Optic's Saumur said: "Generally speaking, the sports sector is bigger in North America. So we tend to sell more goggles and sunglasses in the US and Canada than we do optics."

As always, all buyers were on the look out for something new, obliging manufacturers to demonstrate ever greater levels of innovation. One company keen to prove its merits here was China's Wenzhou Lianyi Titanium Glasses Co Ltd.

Explaining the company's approach, Ethan Wong, its New Generation Representative, said: "Buyers are interested in new things and they're also interested in good quality. This season, our collection has a new temple design and uses new materials, notably carbon fibre. The frame is titanium, with the temples in carbon fibre, making it very light."

Maintaining a high level of innovation represents a serious investment for any company, making many keen to defend the rights of their latest Giant Leap Forward. One company that has more to fear than most is The Aspec Group, a Canadian high-tech eyewear manufacturer. The company was in Milan to showcase its latest series of innovations, as well as its new range of BMW-branded eyewear.

Photo: Spy glasses: colourful return.
Spy glasses: colourful return.
Photo: GVO’s kid-proof frames.
GVO's kid-proof frames.

Explaining its proposition, Company Director Karen Ifergan said: "We only sell 'technology' frames. Our turboflex hinges move through 360 degrees. We also have magnetic clip-on sunglasses. If you add 'memory' metal into the equation that's three technologies in one frame.

"It's difficult to protect, but we're very aggressive. We now employ lawyers all around the world to protect our patents."

As well as copyright and colour concerns, the apt use of materials remained a topic of considerable comment at this year's event, with titanium seeming to have perennial appeal.

Assessing the current state of play, Kearney said: "The plastics, many of which have been around for a while, are much thinner now. Wooden materials are being used a lot more too, with many more people opting for the natural feel.

"Going from one extreme another – our classic pure titanium is still very popular. It never ages and this type of product always does well. It's a nice leveller, never changing too much. It's a good product to have, largely because there's not much quality Japanese-made titanium out there.

"For the rest of the range, we import from Hong Kong and China, largely because of cost reasons. That said, the cycle's changing, with sourcing moving to Bangladesh. It's going full circle – the Chinese have had the market for so long now that, with wages increasing and working conditions improving, it has added to their costs and – ultimately – to our costs. It's a knock-on effect."

Natural materials were also proving popular for Heyro Optical Co Ltd, with the Kowloon-based company also benefiting from its innovative use of new manufacturing technology. Jackie Leung, the company's Marketing Manager, said: "People are thinking more about natural materials, such as our buffalo horn frames. It's something that appeals to buyers from every region.

"We're also showing 3D printed eyewear here. We design the 3D printed frames in-house. At the moment, privately-owned 3D printers aren't really a threat to conventional frame makers, as these items still need to be designed properly, allowing for sufficient strength."

Innovation in manufacturing techniques was also in evidence in the Mido Tech Zone, which featured exhibits from several leading plant and equipment makers.

As with Heyro, Germany's Schneider has been investing in automation, but with its focus more on lenses. Explaining what the company sees as a unique asset, Marketing Manager Ulrich Boelcke said: "The Modulo is a unique innovation on our part. We believe we are the only manufacturer in the world to have such a system. Basically, it's a fully automated system for producing lenses, all the way up to the edging process.

"It's a system that controls itself, with adaptive machines. As a result, there's only one operator needed. Put the lenses in and the edged lenses come out. It's highly efficient with the machines managing themselves.

"Any company that purchases one from us should recoup their investment within a year, depending on their throughput of lenses. There are actually no limitations as to exactly what kind of lenses the machine can produce. We see ourselves as the pioneer of freeform lenses, and these machines offer freeform of the highest quality."

Pitching manufacturing equipment at the right quality point for any given market was another common theme at the event. Bernard Lacave, Project Manager for France's SCL International, a hardcoating system manufacturer, said: "Our customers in China, for example, are those labs making lenses for export. They are only interested in high-quality lenses.

"Universe Optical, one of the exhibitors here, is an excellent Chinese lab and they only use our machines. All the labs we supply in China are always at the higher end. We can't compete at the low end, so we have to work on providing quality. If they want to achieve a similar quality to manufacturers in Europe, then they're happy to buy our machines."

Photo: Hong Kong: a mighty presence at Mido.
Hong Kong: a mighty presence at Mido.

The 44th Mido International Optics, Optometry and Ophthalmology Exhibition took place at Milan's Rho-Fiera Milano exhibition centre from 1-3 March. The event attracted 1,100 exhibitors from 49 countries. The show organisers reported a 5% increase in visitor numbers compared to 2013, with some 45,000 attending the event, including 25,000 overseas attendees.

James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Milan

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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