Features: Artist of the Frame

Mar
2003

Marc of Excellence

Robert Marc on the long, but focused  path to designing
By Gloria Nicola

For the past 20 years, Robert Marc has been energizing the optical market with his innovative retail strategies and more recently with his distinctive, signature eyewear designs. In fact, energy, along with enthusiasm and focus, are key in describing Marc, especially talking about his love of optical from an early age.

While still in high school in New York’s Westchester County, Marc became inspired by a local optical shop. “I was interested in retail and fashion. And I liked the idea of the mix of retail, fashion and professionalism in eyewear,” he explains. He decided to take an opticianry course in New York City. But wanting to learn even more, he approached an eyewear store in Manhattan while still in school, asking if he could work for free. Fortunately, one of the staff was on maternity leave so he started immediately. When she returned, he continued working there on weekends and found another shop where he worked Monday through Friday.

After three years, he became frustrated. “Even though I was doing all the buying and the displays by that point, I wanted to do more. I wanted to redecorate. I wanted to do all sorts of things,” he notes.

So in 1981, Marc opened his own store in a 288-square-foot space on Columbus Avenue under the name of Robert Marc Opticians. Marc now has seven stores in New York City. The most recent opened in SoHo late last year. He describes the initial store as the first optical boutique in Manhattan. “I wanted to do a whole new take on eyewear—from the product to the presentation to the dispensing,” says Marc. “Up until that point, optical stores used vendor-supplied [point-of-purchase items] and filled the windows with as many frames as possible. We created pedestals showing six or 12 frames in innovative displays, elevating eyewear to the position of jewelry. Instead of dispensing from a counter, we had tables and chairs. It was a new concept.”

“People need to  look at my frames 
and say this is a  Robert Marc frame”

The first problem he encountered in his new store was product. “We didn’t have eyewear available that reflected the boutique look,” he notes. “So from the very beginning, we had to think about eyewear and design because we wanted to offer new things to our customers. We reconditioned antique frames. We took side pieces from one frame and put them on another. We rediscovered old ArtCraft and Wayfarer frames. I dyed frames on my stove and put interesting lenses in traditional old men’s styles, selling them to new and younger customers.”

He also found young designers from around the world and brought their product into his store. The designers began asking Marc what type of eyewear he needed. “I actually started designing by proxy, with the goal of bringing good designs to my customers,” he says.

Marc’s relationship with international vendors led to the formation of his wholesale company in 1993. He began distributing such collections as Lunor and Freudenhaus to similar boutique-style shops. “It was a way for young designers to gain entry into the new American boutique world,” Marc explains.
Marc also became involved in consulting for fashion eyewear brands, which he still does, and in working with costume designers on film sets. Working on movies is not just a matter of picking a frame from the store for an actor, Marc notes. “I did a lot of work with Woody Allen. His characters are such characters, you need something distinctive to personify them,” he says. So he had to modify and design specific styles for them.

Although always interested in designing his own collection, plans were put on hold as he became involved in the expansion of his retail, wholesale and consulting businesses. Then in 1997, Marc made a firm decision to design his own collection, launched in Fall 1999. “Before I even started, I thought very carefully about what I wanted. There’s enough eyewear in the world. No one needs another collection, but you could say that about shoes, cars, clothes, anything. If I were going to do a collection, I needed a very clear, focused vision, not just a bunch of frames. People need to look at my frames and say this is a Robert Marc frame,” he emphasizes. “Then I had to figure out what that meant. I knew I wanted eyewear that was a luxury accessory. To me luxury is handcrafted. I also wanted people to be aware of the craftsmanship, like they are in the finest leather goods.”

Marc therefore created his signature hinge, a function-integrated design cue. He researched the type of hinge he wanted—one used to give strength to actual tortoise shell frames. “I saw this as a design with staying power—a design that could be reinterpreted with modern materials and technology. The result is classic, but truly modern,” Marc says. “And it has my signature, without my name being there. That’s what our customers want. They don’t necessarily want everyone to know what they’re wearing. Those that know, know. That’s our customers.”

“The idea behind all my design is making the ultimate customer happy.”

The first Robert Marc collection was zyl and consisted of five ophthalmics and five sunglasses, all featuring customized colorations. Recent styles include titanium and stone accents. All of his zyls still feature exclusive colors. “My first customers didn’t realize how far I could take the collection,” he says. “Being focused doesn’t mean you are limited. Focus gives you guide posts to keep on the right highway—but it doesn’t have to be a short highway.”

Marc’s overlying philosophy: “Great design is great design if it’s serving the purpose for which it was intended. I could design frames that might look fabulous in a window, but are not wearable,” he explains. “The idea behind all my design is making the ultimate customer happy. We want the wearer to have a special relationship with the product. That’s what true luxury is all about. It’s a gift to yourself. Even our cases are handcrafted from leather. We expect our customers to feel the case, take out the glasses, admire them inside and out, and be happy. It’s all part of the total package.”

For Robert Marc, the future of eyewear is bright. “When I first started in this business, I constantly heard people saying ‘I can’t believe I have to wear glasses,’” he says. “That’s shifted radically over the years. People now see a change in prescription as a great excuse to get new eyewear. I have no fear. Eyewear has a great future.”

 

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