Scott Shapiro’s family has sold eyewear for over 40 years under the Europa Eyewear label in Illinois, one of the largest independent companies in the U.S. “We prided ourselves on doing things differently in terms of customer service, but the way we produced our product was always the same as everyone else,” he said.
Thanks to poor infrastructure and a dearth of hand-laborers in the country, most (including Europa) still do.
After frames are designed here, they’re typically sent overseas to be produced at one of the largest manufacturers in China and then imported back in huge quantities to be sold.
A study from the Alliance for American Manufacturing in 2015 backs this up: It found that approximately 95 percent of eyeglass frames are made outside of America, with more than 90 percent produced in China, which they deem “the land of inexpensive labor.” The other five percent are likely produced in Italy and France, said Shapiro.
As the chief executive officer of the one-year-old Chicago-based company State Optical, Shapiro has set out to change this with his partners, president Marc Franchi and vice president Jason Stanley, the founders of Southern California–based Frieze Eyewear. “We felt that [this typical] process was leaving our industry really vulnerable to a lot of outside messaging and that people weren’t getting the whole story,” said Shapiro, noting that customers are getting smarter and more aggressive in questioning where their products are made and why they’re paying such a high price.
Inside State Optical’s production facility in Chicago
“Young people especially seem to care more about the supply chain and what their purchases mean to the world economy, but they also want things that are inexpensive,” he said. “The fact is, those things are mutually exclusive. You cannot make very cheap things that seem too good to be true, price-wise, without cutting certain corners and producing them in low-wage-earning countries.”
Realities like eyewear licensing are also not as transparent as they could be. When someone buys a designer brand of eyeglasses, it’s highly unlikely the designer on the label had much to do with their creation, yet people continue to pay a higher price for that name alone.
State’s goal wasn’t necessarily to lower prices, but to give consumers valid reasons to be buying its glasses: excellent, high-quality design that’s produced by well-paid artisans in America.
The company spent a year setting up an eyewear manufacturing plant in Chicago, importing over 50 pieces of equipment from overseas that came without English instructions or any local expertise to rely on. “It then took about six months to get here and, when it arrived, it was machines that our manufacturers had seen once in their lives,” said Shapiro. “No one who speaks English had ever used them before.”
What’s more, the machinery couldn’t simply be plugged in. It wasn’t made for the American electricity grid, after all, so it required tons of customization.
“To this day, when a piece of machinery breaks down in our factory, all of our 50 American craftsmen have to stop their work and wait until it’s fixed,” said Shapiro. “There’s no one on hand from Italy to help us fix it, and, if we need a replacement part, it will take about six weeks to arrive, coming from somewhere like Korea.”
State Optical eyewear
Even when nothing is awry, it’s a process, taking 75 steps to make one pair of frames, half of which are done by hand. Shapiro and his team resent that the complexity of this process is rarely told. “There have been very little genuine storytelling opportunities in our industry, particularly around how the product is crafted,” he said.
If anyone’s telling a story in eyewear today, it would certainly be Warby Parker; it’s founded on the idea that cool, vintage-inspired eyewear can be well-made and accessible. Its production process, however, is suspiciously vague. The brand does not publicly disclose the countries where its suppliers are located, nor does it share its supplier names and addresses. However, its millennial-heavy customer base doesn’t seem too bothered; its glasses are pleasantly cheaper than most, starting at $95.
State’s glasses, on the other hand, retail from $310-$420.
Shapiro doesn’t necessarily blame those companies who need to outsource production for the lack of local manufacturing, but believes America should make a greater effort to accommodate the process stateside. “It’s like a high-wire act. We have to do everything without a safety net, which is incredibly daunting and the reason nobody wants to try it,” he said.
Indeed, he has skin in the game, but there is good reason for the United States to invest in the eyewear market. According to the latest data from Euromonitor, the retail value of eyewear in the U.S. grew from $27.8 million in 2011 to $34.6 million in 2016, a 24.2 percent jump. It’s expected to grow another 12.9 percent by 2016, reaching a value of $39 million.
State Optical’s manufacturing process is done 50 percent by hand
The first step would be developing the infrastructure to create high-quality eyewear locally. “Our big dream is that, someday, the companies who produce the machinery will have enough reason to open an office here to help service it,” he said. Producing the raw materials here, like acetate — which the State Optical team currently sources from Italy — is also crucial.
In addition, training a good portion of the workforce to work by hand would be necessary, especially as far as luxury eyewear is concerned. As it stands, the rarity of workers skilled at hand labor makes it more expensive.
Another setback? The common price hikes that come with American-made goods. “Americans are really not willing to pay significantly more for products made in the United States,” said Shapiro. “Manufacturers, including us and our peers, need to get that idea out of our heads and really focus on justifying the price of our product, talking about what’s in it for the consumer and ensuring that it’s as good as any other product in the world.”