The Spectacle Surge in SoHo: Eyewear Brands Thrive in Lower Manhattan

NEW YORK—Optical is no stranger to downtown New York City. With its rich history of small businesses, style trend-setting and optical pioneers, lower Manhattan has seen evidence of eyewear for over a century—the Moscot’s started their family business by way of an Eastern European immigrant’s pushcart in 1899 in the Lower East Side, opening their first shop in 1925; J.F. Rey founder Joel Name brought eyewear expertise to SoHo from France 1984; Robert Marc and Morgenthal Frederics, though established on Madison Avenue in the 1980s, eventually expanded their businesses to include stores in SoHo and the West Village.

In the ‘90s, Selima Salaun set the scene downtown in SoHo with her first boutique, Selima Optique, in 1993; in NoHo with her second store, Bond 07 by Selima, in 1997; and in the West Village with another shop in 2005, reopened in 2007 as Sucra.

The list goes on, and brands and designers aren’t the only ones who have established themselves here—optical retailers have followed suit. Facial Index, part of Japan’s Keneko Optical Co., Ltd., opened its only U.S. location on Grand Street in SoHo in 2000; Silver Lining Opticians opened its independent eyewear shop on SoHo’s Thompson Street in 2007; high-end eyewear chain Ilori, originally arriving in SoHo as a luxury sunwear concept launched by Luxottica Retail in September 2007, now offers full optical and prescription services at its SoHo store and other locations since July 2010.

The existence of eyewear sellers downtown is not new. What’s changed is its reputation. Eyewear has moved beyond the status of sight-saving prescription to an accepted fashion accessory. A combination of media attention, eyewear “wardrobing” and new branding is underscoring the role of eyewear as a style item and not only a prescribed medical device worn by those with refractive error—and the frame fashion surge has taken SoHo and proximal neighborhoods by storm.

Brands from around the world are putting themselves on the downtown Manhattan map, planting flagships in SoHo that range from sparkling new shops to catch the eyes of modern shoppers to strategically placed showrooms where brands can leverage their U.S. growth.

In the past year alone, VM has seen no fewer than six eyewear brand shops open in the area, a sudden migration that has significantly added to the optical presence here and evidencing eyewear’s advancement as a concept, as a commodity and as a necessity.



Just entering the scene last month is Retrosuperfuture, also known more simply as “Super,” the latest spectacle shop to hit SoHo’s eyewear scene. The futuristic brand was founded in 2007 by Daniel Beckerman in Italy, where the collections are handmade, and it is most known for its acetate sunglasses carved in contemporary, cutting edge shapes and more recently, its growing optical line.

Boasting customers such as Kanye West, Beyoncé, Yoko Ono, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Daft Punk, Snoop Dogg, A$AP Rocky, Jessica Alba and Valentino Rossi, the company prides itself in providing interesting and innovative pieces to clientele of the same nature.

According to a statement by Beckerman, “All the companies that were in the market were developing boring eyewear. I kept looking at all the experimental independent clothing brands and wondered why no one had yet dared to develop a quirky, bold line of eyewear. I wanted to design sunglasses that all my friends would love to wear: fresh, hip and stylish, without necessarily compromising the quality.”

Beckerman attributes his success, and success in general, to collaboration—he lists his brother, Simon, and artist Sean Beolchini as top influencers in his career. “Business is never done by a single person but with the collaboration between talented people, and I have been so lucky to be surrounded by many.”

In addition to the brand new flagship, Super by Retrosuperfuture is distributed in shops such as the nearby Ilori in SoHo, Barney’s New York in Midtown, Fred Segal in Los Angeles and in shops in Paris, Berlin, Milan, London, Hong Kong and Korea.



Mykita announced its arrival on the SoHo scene with a party in its first U.S. store this summer. “Since the U.S. accounts for around 20 percent of our international sales, it was always our aim to be present with our own store here,” said Moritz Krueger, CEO and creative director of Mykita. “We wanted to be able to offer our American customers the full Mykita brand experience, from the high end product to the best optical solutions.”

The location is truly a one-stop shop, offering optical frames and sunglasses, an in-house optometrist for exam purposes, staff for frame fittings and a Zeiss Relaxed Vision Center that includes state-of-the-art precision instruments like the iProfiler, a device that can measure and correct higher order aberrations.

“You can have the best eyeglass prescription and the best lenses, but inaccurate measurements can interfere with optimal performance,” said Vanessa Tilley-Christopherson, OD, the optometrist at the New York location. “Mykita is committed to optimizing the optical experience on every level.”

Mykita, an independent brand focused primarily on sports eyewear, also opened another new store in the Swiss Alps this year in December. According to Krueger, more European cities will follow in 2014.



After working with Urban Outfitters for over two years, Tortoise & Blonde didn’t hesitate when the apparel retailer suggested a pop-up location in their NoHo store. The eyewear e-tailer, which launched three years ago, had not planned on opening stand-alone optical stores but welcomed the opportunity to “learn and grow from the experience Urban Outfitters offered,” Steven Weisfeld, OD, CEO told VM.

“The area is such a strong retail mecca for tourists and locals alike, we knew our customer would find us and enjoy the shopping,” said Weisfeld. “The rich environment surrounding our Urban Outfitters location gives the consumer the ability to see color, texture and styles. As a result, their selection becomes more a fashion accessory than a necessity.”

Tortoise & Blonde created their online business model to offer “a fresh alternative to the way people buy and perceive eyewear,” Weisfeld said, offering “affordable luxury that allows the fashion-conscious consumer to build an eyewear wardrobe” for a fraction of the cost.

After six months in the NoHo pop-up, the brand has seen continued sales growth and an expanding customer base that appreciates the “fun and convenience” of the Urban Outfitters location, Weisfeld said. Additional New York City locations are planned for 2014.



The U.K.-based Cutler and Gross credits New York’s Cast Iron District as its inspiration for a New York flagship. “Being located in SoHo, we automatically attract some of New York’s most highly regarded fashion designers, artists and filmmakers,” said Cutler and Gross CEO, Majid Mohammadi, describing the artistic community as “an important and coveted audience” of the brand.

The store has drawn a fashionable crowd since its opening in the spring which added its more than 4,000 frames, a brand archive housed in a special “Museum & Bespoke Room” and full optometric services to the neighborhood.

But the store is not targeted solely to wealthy creative types—having been a full service optical business for over 40 years, Mohammadi maintains that the brand and its eyewear expertise is accessible to everyone. “New York is a melting pot of culture and people, which means we are fortunate to have a great range of clients,” he said. “Our non-high end consumers enjoy working with an optical professional and a stylist who provide a level of comfort and knowledge that they may not receive anywhere else.”

Mohammadi told VM a New York store has always been on the map and said plans for further expansion are underway. With the lower Manhattan flagship under its belt, the company confirmed further expansion to an uptown New York location (time not yet established), a store opening in Bath, England in summer 2014 and said other cosmopolitan cities have been identified where the business plans to grow.



Millennial-facing eyewear retailer Warby Parker was conceived stateside and in fact, in New York, by Neil Blumenthal and David Gilboa in 2010. The “hip,” literary-themed e-tail company had pop-up locations in the past, but did not exist as a full-service, brick-and-mortar optical retailer until opening their first physical store here in SoHo in April 2013.

The young duo received recognition for Retail Innovation at the Accessories Council’s 17th Annual ACE Awards in November. Their acceptance of the award followed several headline-making milestones, such as the opening of their second full-service store in Boston and multiple design collaborations like those with Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures and lifestyle blog, Daily Candy, as reported by VMail in May 2013.

In addition to the New York and Boston stores, Warby Parker’s digital offerings have taken shape in a shop in The Standard Hotel in Los Angeles, in showrooms in Philadelphia, Oklahoma City, Chicago, Miami Beach, Charleston, Nashville and Richmond, and in the Warby Parker Class Trip Bus Tour which made visits to several cities throughout the country.



Anne et Valentin, based in Toulouse, France with a location in Paris, chose Prince Street as their first U.S. location “because it’s so very French,” said Anne Valentin, partner. Nestled within small streets and an unfrenzied shopping atmosphere, Anne et Valentin found the neighborhood to have a certain “art de vivre” that struck them as “definitely Parisian.”

The New York store has been a point of purchase for Anne et Valentin fans from around the world, many of whom have difficulty finding the brand’s frames elsewhere and remain loyal because the brand aligns with their “free-spirited” nature and willingness to experiment with “different” design.

The brand’s original motto, “no compromise,” was created when the founders made plans to “go against tradition” with their first optical boutique in the 1980s. To this day, the stores adhere to a “very specific customer process,” like having no displays or faces on the walls, and continue to attract “strong-minded individuals who consider culture itself an important part of their lives.”

According to Anne Valentin, the shop has seen sales “above expectations,” stemming from a warm welcome and customers who readily return and recommend the boutique to family and friends.

“Opening this store in New York City gives us a stronger presence and increased notoriety in the U.S. and elsewhere, which is always good for all of our representatives and points of sale around the country,” she said, adding, “New York was the dream to achieve, as it is for many. It’s the place to be.” ■