I’ll Take Manhattan
Selima Salaun reflects on eyewear, animals
and the deep love of her “town”
By Gloria Nicola
As her five-month-old puppy, Sama, a sharpei, snores loudly, Selima Salaun talks about her love of animals—in addition to Sama, she has Salsa, a Border collie she found in Puerto Rico, and Cici, a cat rescued from the streets of Manhattan. She also reveals her childhood dream of becoming a veterinarian. However, her mother, who has a lens manufacturing facility in Salaun’s native Algeria, had other career plans for her. “My mother encouraged me to go into the optical business.”
So after finishing school in Paris, she began an optical course in Morez, France. She admits she didn’t like the studies at first and as a result returned to Paris to work at Royal Optique, an exclusive optical shop catering to international celebrities and diplomats. “I did everything,” she says. “I cut lenses. I gave eye exams. I dispensed frames. I worked with real tortoise shell and gold and created customized frames. It was there I realized if I was going to be in this business, I should really focus on it.” She then completed her studies, becoming a licensed optician, optometrist and contact lens fitter. “This has always been my way. Once I decide on a goal, I put all my energy into it,” Salaun adds.
After spending three years at Royal Optique, she was discovered by eyewear designer and retailer Alain Mikli, who hired her to work in his Paris boutique. In 1988, Mikli invited her to the opening of his New York store. “I immediately fell in love with New York,” Salaun says. “I’ve lived in Algeria, Tunisia, Paris. I’ve traveled extensively. But in my heart, I’ve always felt I’m a New Yorker.” Back in Paris, Mikli asked if she would move to New York to manage his store. She agreed without a moment’s hesitation. “Alain came into the store on Saturday and asked me to go to New York. I went immediately. My family packed up for me. And I’ve never left.”
She now lives in a SoHo loft with her husband, a sound designer with an avid interest in architecture (he designs her shops), her nine-year-old son, her seven-year-old daughter and, of course, the animals.
Her love for New York has continued. Salaun recently did a commercial promoting New York, sponsored by American Express. “Only in New York would the head of a major company shake my hand and thank me for being here,” notes Salaun. “I love New York. It’s a creative town. It’s also very challenging. It doesn’t allow you to be lazy. You have to keep going and doing more and more—even after 9/11. In other places, people would have been depressed. But New Yorkers have so much strength. They just keep going.”
And Salaun has kept going, doing more and more. In 1993, she opened her first boutique, Selima Optique in SoHo. She now has seven shops in New York City, including one in-store boutique at Barneys, the prestigious New York department store, one on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles and one in the Marais area of Paris. In 1996, she launched the Selima Optique eyewear collection, available internationally.
Her objective has always been to set herself apart from the competition. “I could do eyewear just like everyone else. I could open a regular optical shop, but then why would people choose me?” she asks. Instead she introduced bright, fun colors into her first collection at a time when the optical market was still cautious about color. “I actually started designing eyewear because I wasn’t finding what I wanted for my customers.” Salaun explains. And her stores are not only different from the competition, they’re also distinctive from each other.
Her first shop, which opened under the watchful eye of Elvis, her original sharpei, is furnished with antiques she and her husband found and a crystal chandelier. The product mix includes handmade hats, scarves and vintage and contemporary eyewear. “It appeals to people because it makes them feel comfortable and secure. It looks like it’s been there forever—without appearing old-fashioned,” explains Salaun.
Selima Optique Bond O7 in New York’s NoHo section features an eclectic mix of eyewear, lingerie, handbags, clothing and vintage toys. Lunettes et Chocolat, also in SoHo, pairs handmade chocolates and candies with eyewear, hats and jewelry around a small bar where customers sip cappuccino and nibble on scones. In her East Village store, she sells her extensive personal collection of vintage eyewear dating from the ’20s through the ’80s.
One of the reasons Salaun opened her own shops was to expand on the idea of fashion. “I wanted to express myself and my ideas. I wanted to mix scarves, hats and eyewear without people thinking I was crazy,” she says. “I like the idea of selling chocolate and frames. I really believe selecting and wearing eyewear should be a sensual experience, just like eating chocolate. I enjoy creating environments that tempt all the senses. It has worked very well for us.”
Last year she further expanded her creative horizon, entering into a licensing agreement with hair stylist Frederic Fekkai. Under the Selima for Frederic Fekkai signature, she designed a line of Hollywood-inspired sunglasses. She also sells his beauty products in some of her shops. “It makes perfect sense to combine cosmetics with eyewear,” Salaun notes.
Although she loves developing ideas for opening and marketing new stores, Salaun plans to spend more time in the future designing her eyewear collection and focusing on the American market, which is her second strongest market. (Japan is the strongest.) She expects to tour the U.S. this year, just as she does every year in Japan, doing trunk shows for retailers who do not have time to attend trade shows.
In designing her eyewear, Salaun works exclusively with a small workshop in France for her zyl collection. The shop is owned by a woman who primarily does custom work. “Everything is completely handmade. She even customizes colors for me,” says Salaun. “If I want to combine purple (my favorite color) and pink, she will do it.” For her metal collection, Salaun uses a factory in Japan.
For inspiration, the designer turns to many areas, including French and American movies from the ’60s and ’70s. “My metal collection was inspired by the movie, “Easy Rider”—the styles are reminiscent of motorcycles—strong, sexy and full of attitude,” notes Salaun.
However, she gets her inspirations primarily from people. “I don’t like sitting in an office all day. I have to react with people and see what they’re wearing. It helps me in my designs. I’ve always enjoyed styling and helping individuals select clothes, accessories, even perfume. And I love to help people look better in eyewear,” she says.
She has noticed that fashion is becoming more romantic and nostalgic, with an emphasis on softer colors and shapes, lots of lace and “House on the Prairie” styling.
Salaun has translated these trends into her eyewear, with an emphasis on plastic for a warmer feel and softer shapes. “I’m not using as many sharp angles and rectangular designs right now,” she notes.
Salaun has also noticed other changes in fashion. “People are beginning to care more about what they like and less about brands. They realize they can mix old and new and various seasons and styles for a more distinctive look,” she says.
But Salaun does feel there’s still too much obsession with fashion and designers. “Just look at the Oscars,” she says. “Everyone is obsessed with what actors are wearing and who the designers are. We don’t have this type of obsession with other artists—writers, painters, musicians. I think we’re giving too much importance to designers. I hate it when magazines compile lists of the best dressed and the worst dressed. I don’t judge anyone by what he or she wears. As a designer I feel when I go out I’m expected to make an effort to be fashionable. So I do just the opposite. I make a point of not being fashionable.”
Those who know her might beg to differ. She may not follow fashion trends, but whether it’s her hair color of the moment—perhaps a bright blue that coordinates with a beautiful scarf or an elegantly draped cape and beret—Salaun always appears very stylish. And she admits sometimes what she is wearing does happen to be in fashion. “But I was wearing vintage before it was a trend. I wear what makes me feel comfortable,” she notes, adding she expects quality in all of her clothes and accessories.
Salaun also expects interesting packaging. “It’s not just about design,” she says. “The way you present product is extremely important. Just yesterday I received a beautifully wrapped package of sweaters with a handwritten note in elegant manuscript. With all the computerized messages we receive, that made an excellent impression. After all, it’s always been the packaging that sells perfume. There’s really not much difference in scents.”
Designers she especially admires are women entrepreneurs who take one idea and run with it. “Look at Vera Wang. She’s an amazing woman,” says Salaun. “She took an idea for sophisticated wedding dresses and built an empire. And Kate Spade, a friend of mine, went so far with a simple handbag. They are driven, focused individuals and I have great respect for them.”
As for the optical business, she feels it’s growing stronger. But she would like to see more young, independent designers with new ideas that might challenge the industry. “We need competition from small companies,” Salaun notes.
For her own part, she recently introduced a small collection from a young designer into her stores. Her advice to designers just starting out: “Stay focused and keep your identity.”
When she’s not working, she likes shopping with her kids and loves traveling in the U.S. “I would rather vacation in the United States than in a Caribbean island. There’s so much diversity.” Among her favorite spots are Santa Fe, New Orleans, Arizona, especially Sedona and the desert, and Palm Springs, with its mid-century architecture.
In the near future, in addition to focusing on her eyewear collection and expanding her U.S. market share, Salaun would also like to expand her animal family. With that she has a major challenge. Cici, the cat, is not receptive to other animals.