It is no secret that for luxury companies, glasses have always been big business.
Projected to reach a value of $136 billion (€128 billion) by 2021, according to data from research firm Euromonitor, eyewear brands are on the lookout for further opportunities as competition in the market heats up.
One opportunity that eyewear brands are exploring are celebrity partnerships. Once a sleepy sector, the eyewear industry has transformed into a hot bed of corporate activity because it is the convergence point of fashion and health trends, favourable demographics and the internet, says Katharine Carter, a retail analyst at Edited.
According to data from Edited, the global eyewear market grew 4 percent over the past three months compared to last year.
Currently, the global eyewear market - which includes frames, contact lenses and sunglasses - is dominated by two companies. There’s EssilorLuxottica, which formed last year from the merger of French lens maker Essilor and Italian eyewear group Luxottica. It owns labels including Persol and Ray-Ban and has the licensing to produce frames for luxury brands such as Chanel and Prada. And there’s Safilo, which holds the licenses to Max Mara, Jimmy Choo and Hugo Boss.
But a curious shift has been happening across the industry. Earlier this year in February, model-turned-designer Alexa Chung partnered with Sunglass Hut to launch her first eyewear line. (It’s not the first time Sunglass Hut has teamed up with a celebrity. In 2018, the Luxottica-owned firm collaborated with Virgil Abloh and his fashion label Off-White.)
Then in May, David Beckham signed a global 10-year agreement with Safilo for the eponymous license of his first eyewear collection, which will be available in stores from January 2020. Angelo Trocchia, CEO of Safilo Group, said in a statement that he hoped to “create a top global male brand in the premium segment” and tap into “the extraordinary power of David’s global audiences to further strengthen the presence of Safilo in the digital universe.”
The launches come at a time when celebrity branded items, such as perfumes, don’t have the pulling power they once did. Figures released by market research group NPD show sales of celebrity fragrances in the UK declined 22 percent to £57 million ($69 million), while the US saw a drop of 66 percent to $50.6 million between 2011 and 2014.
But the fragrance market as a whole actually grew by 1.4 percent — so it's not that people stopped buying perfume, just that they're less drawn to celebrities. NPD numbers indicate that consumer preference has shifted towards niche fragrance makers, like Le Labo and Byredo, which added nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to the market from 2015 to 2017.
So, if celebrity perfumes aren’t faring so well, what opportunity is there for celebrity eyewear? And what’s driving this shift?
Part of the reason is down to the disruption in the eyewear market. Monoliths like Luxottica and Safilo now face competition from buzzy direct-to-consumer labels, such as Warby Parker and Gentlemonster, which have a more personal relationship with customers.
The industry is also carving out a niche in the luxury products sector. Annual sales of high-end sunglasses and spectacles — those priced at €200 and more — were estimated to be worth €13 billion in 2016. No surprise, then, that everyone wants a slice of the pie.
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Luxury conglomerates like LVMH and Kering are seeking to cash in and bring their brands back in-house. In 2014, Kering chose to buy back much of its eyewear licensing from Luxottica in order to take control of approximately £40 million that 11 portfolio brands — including Gucci and Balenciaga — generated that year. Meanwhile, Safilo will lose its license at the end of 2020 to use the Dior brand, which accounted for 14 percent of sales in the first half of 2019 and is expected to go to LVMH’s eyewear partner Marcolin.
Carter points out that the rise of Instagram’s popularity played a significant role in the death of the celebrity perfume.
“The product was once a way of buying into a celebrity’s lifestyle, but now consumers can see and access this first-hand via social media,” she explains, noting that certain categories, such as cosmetics and skincare, have benefited from this. “More celebrities are launching their own beauty lines, with Rihanna, Kylie Jenner, Victoria Beckham and Lady Gaga all entering the market.”
Similar to cosmetics, eyewear is “the perfect type of product to showcase in an Instagram post [because it] has clear visual impact [unlike] fragrance, says Lauren Price, vice president of luxury and specialty retail at Gartner. “Yet because it’s an entry level product, it’s something consumers can collect and rotate to continuously showcase a fresh look to their followers.”
The growth of these categories also “reflects the popularity of selfie culture,” says Nafia Islam, a research specialist at Gartner. “Unlike wearing a fragrance, sunglasses allow consumers to easily show who and what they are wearing via a bold or subtle branding.”
But the real vantage of a celebrity collaboration is that they allow eyewear companies to target a new audience, or for smaller niche brands to enter the mainstream by increasing brand awareness.
Victoria Beckham has built a loyal customer based for her sunglasses range, which she launched in 2009 in partnership with Cutler & Gross. Today, eyewear is estimated to account for 25 percent of the business. This year, Jennifer Lopez collaborated with Australia eyewear brand Quay while Kim Kardashian West worked with Berlin-based designer Carolina Lemke. “Both ranges are currently experiencing low or no discounting, which is a positive indication of success,” says Islam.
While a celebrity driven strategy can help brands scale to the next level, Steve Olenski, a marketing consultant and contributor for Forbes, Adweek and Business Insider, warns that credibility is more powerful than celebrity.
“There has to be a commonality between a given celebrity and a given brand,” he says. “A brand can’t just take the most popular celebrity at a given time with the hope of increasing sales. If there’s a disconnect, the public will recognise it immediately.”
Jennifer Lopez's collaboration with Quay. Photo: Courtesy.
But when it works, there are rewards to be reaped. When J.Lo promoted her collaboration with Quay on her Instagram stories with the hashtag #QuayXJennifer, Quay’s site traffic jumped 30 percent from February to March when the collaboration was released, according to metrics from Gartner.
Meanwhile, Google search volume for “Off White sunglasses” was more than 10 times the volume of “Sunglass Hut sunglasses” in March 2018 when the collection launched. In the months following the collaboration, though, searches for Sunglass Hut grew by 50 percent.
Cover image. Alexa Chung x Sunglasses Hut. Photo: Courtesy.