By Gloria Nicola
At the age of 21, Tom Davies, a student of film and TV at the University of East Anglia in the U.K., decided it was time to travel. He packed his backpack and purchased a ticket to Hong Kong. There he supported himself with a variety of design jobs, including toys. But what really captured his imagination was a job in an eyewear factory. “The pay was very low, but the guy I was working with was so enthusiastic his excitement spread to me.” While there, Davies helped build product from scratch, designing frames for many international brands. But he started to get frustrated. “Frames often didn’t fit as well as they should have so I started adjusting sizes and selecting specific colors for friends and family,” he notes. “Soon I realized there might be something in the customized aspect of eyewear.”
In 2000, Davies moved back to London and started a bespoke optical business. “I found people were actually willing to pay 5,000 British pounds (about $8,000 U.S.) for a customized frame,” he notes. “I did on the average of four styles a month and my waiting list sometimes ran to 12 months. I started to get good press so I decided after 18 months to add ready-to-wear.” Harrods, the luxury U.K. department store, was the first to sell Davies’ ready-to-wear collection. “That was fantastic for the brand,” he notes. “I used to go to the store and pretend to work there, directing people to my eyewear. Before I knew it, the product was being sold in 40 shops. Then I was asked to go to Rome to do a private fitting. From that one client I made 175,000 pounds ($280,000 U.S.).
Afterwards I went to the Coliseum and sat there drinking lager, plotting what to do with my money.” He decided to open a workshop in China (At that point his frames were being manufactured in Japan.). In 2008, Davies opened his own factory with 20 employees. He now offers a full bespoke service under the TD Tom Davies name through a global network of exclusive opticians. His staff has grown to 165 employees.
When asked about his design philosophy, Davies says, “I like making people happy. I always think about the customers. How old are they? What use are they going to make of the eyewear? Technical excellence is essential and so are interesting details, but not design for design’s sake. I like simplicity, clean lines and good fit. Just today, I was on a train with a man about 45 years old wearing a Tom Davies frame. The frame was slipping on his nose. I debated approaching him, but I finally did and adjusted the frame so it fit properly. I also like to push boundaries. And I like product that sells.”
His major focus, however, is on the opticians. “They are the ones who make the decision on what’s going to be sold 93 percent of the time,” he explains. “I’m pleased with my products. I think what the industry needs now is more service. I want to make more tools available to opticians so they can do more designing and tweaking the frames to suit their customers.”
Davies feels the time is right for bespoke eyewear. “People are becoming more interested in customized eyewear than in the past. They are no longer clones. They like to look a little different, and customized eyewear is a great way to look a little different,” he notes. He has also noticed that women are becoming more interested in couture eyewear. In the past, bespoke was associated with made-to-order apparel for men. But now Davies says 55 to 60 percent of his couture customers are women. As a result, he has recently introduced a six-style limited edition women’s collection.
Other recent additions include a natural horn collection that debuted in January, followed this fall by a second horn collection. Davies also recently introduced 3D clip-ons, designed to be used with any TD Tom Davies Bespoke frame. The bespoke clip-ons feature passive polarized lenses utilizing the latest 3D technology. And he developed a Double Bloc Titanium collection with a style for Prince William that sold out quickly. “I like working on limited edition collections,” he notes. “It’s like doing test marketing, and as a result, it’s possible to take more risks. Limited Edition collections also help set trends for the market.”
Davies emphasizes he does not open business everywhere. When deciding on whether to open an account, he looks for a key ingredient: enthusiasm. “That’s essential for selling my product. I give them the tools, but they need the enthusiasm. Enthusiasm forgives a multitude of minor shortcomings and it has a lot of rewards.” He especially likes working with American opticians because of their enthusiasm. “They are the most enthusiastic of eyecare professionals anywhere in the world.”
Switzerland is another major market for Tom Davies products because “the Swiss appreciate the preciseness of the product,” he notes. In the U.K., he sells more ready-to-wear than bespoke products. He has also recently opened business in Thailand (“The Thais like the Englishness of my styles.”) and in Singapore. “Fortunately business is booming everywhere.”
Davies would like to see more competition in the bespoke category. “It would help educate the market,” he explains.
Davies’ biggest source of inspiration for his eyewear designs comes from the customer’s face. “It’s easy to look at other brands for ideas, but that’s dangerous. It’s the beginning of the end,” he says. “Because styles change so quickly, it’s essential to be very creative. Eyewear needs to continually evolve.”
As for his own sense of style, Davies says he likes quality. “It doesn’t have to be an expensive label. But I do like to dress for the occasion. For example, I always wear a suit at trade shows. I design my own suits as a hobby,” he notes. “And I like shoes. I have more shoes than my wife. I also like subtle twists and I like to look smart.” He designs belts, cuff links and wallets for himself and used to design watches. “I loathe going to department stores.”
Do his plans include adding other consumer products to his design repertoire? “It would be a pleasure for me to design other items for the consumer. I would do that if I had my own shop,” he explains.
Although Davies doesn’t need glasses, he has four or five pairs he wears. “I think glasses make me look cool. I like wearing a large acetate design when I travel. It keeps me from looking so tired.”
Asked what he would do if he were to change careers, Davies answers immediately, “It’s never crossed my mind. That’s not an option. I can’t stop thinking about eyewear. I will be in a restaurant, think of a particular shape, sketch it on the back of a receipt and send it to the workshop. I love eyewear.” ■