Features: Big Eyewear Coverup


La Magique of La Roche

Robert La Roche muses on eyewear’s magical spell

By Gloria Nicola
For the past 30 years, Viennese-born Robert La Roche has been a key figure in the transformation of eyewear into a genuine fashion accessory. His “eye-art” is characterized by classic understatement combined with original flair. Renowned for reviving the clip-on, original combinations of plastic and metal, aluminum frames and extended temple designs that are standard today, his introduction into eyewear in 1973 was purely by accident.

After receiving an MBA in economics, La Roche worked for a decade in marketing and advertising such diverse products as cigarettes, Skippy peanut butter and packaged soup. Then in 1973, he was employed by the Austrian eyewear company Optyl/Carrera to market eyewear. “When I first started working with eyewear, it was just another product—like peanut butter or soup. But eyewear has magical qualities. Once you begin with it, it’s hard to get out from under the spell,” says La Roche.

So after marketing eyewear for two years, La Roche started his own eyewear design company—Lunettes Robert La Roche. “I was lucky,” he notes. “It was the right industry at the right time. There were lots of opportunities. It was the Middle Ages of eyewear—very few materials, colors or shapes. In a relatively short time, the entire optical industry has made tremendous improvements on all levels—from style to manufacturing techniques to new materials.”

La Roche feels many of the improvements were the direct result of small innovative eyewear companies. “The small companies couldn’t fight the guy who was offering the cheapest frame so they did the opposite,” he says. “They started feeding distinctive products to the optical boutiques that were just beginning to thrive. The large companies watched and realized what they had to do to reach the boutiques. This brought the whole industry forward very quickly.”

Although La Roche thinks the optical industry has reached fantastic levels of development in the past 30 years, he believes there’s room for dramatic changes in the next decade. One of the major challenges he sees is in pricing. “We can’t expect consumers to buy a wardrobe of frames at such high prices,” he says. “Optical needs to take its direction from the rest of the fashion industry. Look at stores like H&M [the low-priced Scandinavian clothing store]. They sell fashion at moderate prices. If eyewear were half as expensive, consumers probably wouldn’t buy twice as many frames, but at least they would buy more than one frame every four years, which is what a lot of Europeans do now.”

Another challenge is the optical retail environment. “If I were an optician, I would read articles in 20/20 and get ideas on how to change my shop,” says the designer. “Make it look like a living room, add some comfortable chairs, some palm trees. Get rid of the plastic. What optical requires to move forward is a good fashion image at reasonable prices.”
Optical shops should show fewer collections and go deeper with individual lines, says

La Roche. “Optical shops should not be supermarkets. If I go into a store and see one Joop! jacket in two colors, I don’t get the feeling of Joop!,” he notes.
And La Roche advocates opticians building relationships with their customers. “Opticians need to interact more with their clients, so they can help them choose glasses that will complement their appearance and their lifestyle,” he emphasizes. “It’s one thing to choose a hair style or a winter coat, but people are often quite helpless when it comes to eyewear selection. If you take the time to assess your customers’ needs and make them look wonderful, they will blossom.”

Still another change La Roche expects to see in the next decade is more freedom. “Individual style will probably take on much broader dimensions in the future and people will be freer to mix styles—to mix the old and the new, and not insist on a certain product just because it’s a hot designer name.”
To La Roche, individual style has always been essential. “Style is hard to teach. Style is your own taste. It goes beyond clothes. It’s what gives you personal satisfaction,” he explains.

In designing eyewear, La Roche tries to follow his own sense of style. “To me designing eyewear is something that does give me great personal satisfaction,” he says. “It’s a symbiosis of combining clean lines and a perfect fit (that’s essential) with good looks and wearability. And it should make a definite statement. I think rimless is terrible. Don’t hide eyewear. Either wear contact lenses or make a statement with bold designs. And I don’t like the feel of metal on my face.” However, La Roche does acknowledge he has, because of popular demand, created successful rimless and metal collections, but the La Roche name is largely associated with plastic.

In addition to designing the Robert La Roche line, he worked for four years as an eyewear consultant for Calvin Klein when the license was held by Sàfilo’s Starline division. He’s also done sunglass collections for Escada and lines for Essilor. “It’s fun to take other people’s ideas and translate them into something different,”

La Roche notes. “When I’m working for someone else, I treat the collection as completely separate from my own line, but just as important.”

In the past few years, the designer has had more time to devote to the creative side of his company. In 1999, he sold his trademark rights to Uniopt, an Austrian eyewear company founded in 1949. “I wanted to stay involved from a directional standpoint, but at the same time I am very happy to be released from the concerns of day-to-day business,” he says. “I have a wonderful relationship with Uniopt. I’m happy to have found a partner with such insight into fashion trends and the eyewear market.”

When designing eyewear, La Roche doesn’t look at eyewear collections to get inspiration. He steps outside the box. He’s very interested in fragrance and cosmetics bottles and packaging, and he keeps an eye on developments in other accessory categories. For example, small rectangular watches were popular at the same time small eyeglass frames were en vogue, he notes. “Now watches are getting bigger and eyewear is heading slowly toward larger sizes. The same thing is happening with handbags—they’ve gone from very small to larger,” he explains. “The optical field is slower to pick up on trends than other industries, but there’s an interconnection. For instance, we’re seeing African themes on the runways. This is being loosely translated into reinterpretations of tortoise-color frames.”

If La Roche were not an eyewear designer, he says he would be interested in interior design or creating other fashion accessories, especially footwear. “Shoes are very similar to eyewear. Like eyewear they have to be functional. And just like eyewear should complement the individual’s appearance; shoes should make the foot look slim and beautiful.”

La Roche has also contemplated writing a book. “Writing gives you total freedom to follow you inspirations. I have very vivid memories of my youth in Vienna during World War II,” he says. “But you will have to wait for that book,” he laughs. For now, La Roche remains firmly under the optical spell.