Photographed by Chris Chieco
By Christine Yeh
Music was in his heart, but eyewear captured his soul. For Jeff Press, the road to becoming an eyewear designer was a fortuitous journey. Upon graduating from the University of Maryland, the Connecticut native relocated to New York City with aspirations to become a musician. By chance he took a retail sales position at the Robert Marc store in 1998—a chance that would help cement his acclaimed stature in independent eyewear design.
Like many of his designer colleagues, creating eyewear was not initially on Press’ radar. “Eyewear was nowhere in consideration in my future. I had worn glasses since I was 18 months old, and I knew about it from the personal consumption perspective, but it wasn’t necessarily a direction that I felt was a calling.” His stint at Robert Marc proved otherwise. “When I started working in sales at Robert Marc, I really enjoyed it. At the time I was downstairs from Robert’s office, and I got to know him and learn some things about the business. It was nice as a 23 year old kid, I had real direct contact with someone who was an icon in the industry.”
Press went on to work at NYC-based luxury eyewear purveyor Morgenthal Frederics in 1998, helping to open their new store in the Soho district. It was here where he immersed himself in all aspects of optical retailing and opticianry under the direction of founder Richard Morgenthal. “When I started working for Mr. Morgenthal, he felt it was really important to learn the craft of opticianry, and I absolutely agree. At the time it was just to become a better salesperson but also I became the buyer for the Morgenthal Frederics stores, so it made me a better buyer to understand all of the optical needs.” This also played a role in Press’ growing interest in the creative process of frame design, and in 2002, he approached Morgenthal with a number of design ideas. “Mr. Morgenthal said, ‘Absolutely, you can start coming to factory meetings, and we’re happy to look at your ideas.’” In 2006, Press was named chief designer, overseeing the Morgenthal Frederics collection.
This new role was not only a turning point in his career but for Morgenthal Frederics as well. The company had been working primarily with acetate and titanium frame materials at the time but Press saw a promising opportunity for buffalo horn, a material he was very passionate about. “I love the nature of the material because you can create one-of-a-kind pieces, and because they’re the most comfortable pieces of eyewear in the world. And since it’s a totally sustainable product that’s a natural byproduct of animals, no animals are harmed in creating buffalo horn eyewear.” The horn is sourced from Indian water buffalo—Press assures the animals are not harmed in the process. “The animals live a full and natural life cycle, and their horn is then taken to Germany in our factory where the horn is created. The factory is powered by wind and water energy so it’s as clean energy as can be. All of the waste of the horn is ground up and used as fertilizer, so there is no waste beyond that. It’s actually the most eco-friendly product in the industry.”
As one of the first companies creating buffalo horn eyewear, Morgenthal Frederics now boasts what may be one of the largest collections of buffalo horn eyewear. The flagship store on Madison Avenue may have about 600 to 700 pieces of buffalo horn eyewear on hand at a time, and Press believes this store sells as much buffalo horn pieces as the rest of the world combined. He credits this to strong partnerships with their manufacturing partners. “What we were able to do is really work with our partners on the production side to create colors and treatments that have never been seen before. We use natural vegetable dyes on the horn so we can achieve the colors—we make blues, purples, greens, reds and yellows, all different colors because we use these vegetable dyes to get really beautiful colorations. We also facet horn and do three-dimensional horn—we do all things with horn that we’re able to do with acetate.”
Press’ innate expertise in working with natural materials such as buffalo horn has been instrumental in elevating Morgenthal Frederics as one of the leading luxury eyewear brands in the industry. His innovative designs and keen style sense also caught the eye of the fashion world, earning him membership to the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in 2015, as well as a key member of the Eyewear Designers of the CFDA, a working group within the CFDA aiming to promote and empower eyewear design. Press has also been tapped by designer brands including Oscar de la Renta and Monse to design their eyewear collections, and collaborated on collections with eyewear brands Mykita, Matsuda and Blake Kuwahara.
This past spring, Press was appointed chief creative officer of Luxury Optical Holdings (LOH), owner of the Morgenthal Frederics and Robert Marc NYC brands. In this new role, Press is charged with overseeing design and creative for Robert Marc NYC, Morgenthal Frederics and its designer collaborations. “This has been a really exciting process for us. Obviously, it’s an honor to work with the most iconic New York brands, we believe, in the history of eyewear, so when LOH CEO Tim Mayhew put the opportunity out there for me to oversee the brands, I knew I wanted to put together a team that can really be focused on how we can do this from a full 360 approach—having a great creative agency involved and a great creative team involved on the marketing side, on the design side and on the product development side.” Press believes working collaboratively on all fronts is a key ingredient to product development and successfully telling each brand’s story. “I find the collaboration process to be particularly interesting both internally with my team but also when we do collabs with our fashion partners and with other eyewear designers in the industry. What I love about that whole process is the amount of energy that the different ideas from different partners can bring together to create something that’s really unique and one of a kind.”
Having prior experience with both Robert Marc NYC and Morgenthal Frederics, under his new role Press and his team wanted to make sure they spoke to both brands’ heritage while evolving them in unique and brand appropriate ways. “For Robert Marc NYC, we felt we really needed to speak to our NYC heritage, something that we had really underplayed for a long time, but it’s a real truth to the brand. The brand began in 1981 here in Manhattan, and so much of the design aesthetic, that really clean and modern and beautiful aesthetic accompanied by the hinge really speaks to the city that gave it birth. So we felt like it was a unique opportunity to go back and reassess why we have not been speaking about New York more for a period of time. The brand has always been known for it, and we love the use of color and the use of treatments and acetates, and pairing that with titanium to create something that’s really unique and special, and modern and clean really speaks to the design aesthetic that has made the brand a favorite of so many people throughout the country and in the world.”
Similarly for Morgenthal Frederics, Press wanted to highlight what makes the brand so unique, and that is primarily the materials story. “Our use of buffalo horn, which is really a retail product because it really does require that expertise of opticians, carries through our entire message as an organization, and that is, we believe that our great strength is our opticianry, and the ability whether it’s through our own stores or our wholesale partners to sell great product to clients and have it serviced by true professionals. We believe there is the opportunity for sustainable and long-term growth because we want people to understand that they’re buying great eyewear for a reason, and that truly comes through working with great optometrists, ophthalmologists and opticians, and having the entire service experience be at the highest level in the marketplace.” Each horn piece is handmade one at a time and can take months to make, and is touched by at least 100 different people. The frames consist of eight to 18 layers of laminated horn, making them extremely strong and light. A refurbishment policy is offered to ensure they continue to fit well and retain their beauty. “You can consistently refurbish horn frames so that it looks new. Unlike an acetate frame, horn frames have a really long life cycle because of our refurbishment process, and the fact that it’s a natural material allows it to be resealed so that it can stay beautiful for a really long time. We actually call our customers to remind them they should bring their frame in to be serviced. We are a service provider so that after service when you’re buying a statement piece and an investment piece like a buffalo horn frame is really important to make sure our clients are having the best optical experience.”
The buffalo horn collection makes up a significant portion of Morgenthal Frederics’ sales, turning what the brand once considered a niche category into a “day in, day out” business, according to Press. “Using natural materials and sustainable horn has given us an opportunity to create a collection in the luxury space for our own stores that we feel is really unparalleled out there. It has created one-of-a-kind custom pieces that have really made our stores that much more special.”
The retail experience and service Press so highly touts are not only limited to Morgenthal Frederics and Robert Marc NYC stores. Partnering with ideal retailers in the country and throughout the world is also essential. LOH currently operates seven Robert Marc NYC stores in Manhattan and has over 400 wholesale optical partners. There are five Morgenthal Frederics locations in NYC and nine throughout the country including Palm Beach, Aspen and Beverly Hills. Its wholesale business has been more of a recent addition, but Press believes between the brand and great wholesale partners, the premier retail experience is also carried out by their retail partners. “We really do love the idea of being the premier retailer throughout the country, we feel there’s a great opportunity out there to make sure that message is resonating through our own stores and also through our retail partners.” For Press, that includes honoring his early retail roots by staying actively involved in the stores. “I learned so much from the retail experience and working with clients. I love the one-on-one interaction and seeing how people react. I love to see how my staff reacts, but I also love to see how the client reacts so I think it’s invaluable to understand how the final product really works for the end consumer.”
Like most artists of the frame, Press draws his inspiration from numerous areas including fashion, architecture, music and his love for NYC. But in terms of his use of horn and natural materials, he is most inspired by what is possible. “When I’m working with buffalo horn, wood and slate, my goal is to stretch the boundaries and do things with the material that no one else has ever done before. They are at a higher price point so that means the client expects us to blow their mind, and we want to make sure we’re doing that both with the way the frames look and with the way they feel. My goal, and I say this a lot to my team, is people are taking their glasses off at the dinner table when they’re at a party and passing them around saying, ‘There are 12 layers of natural buffalo horn, there aren’t any more like that… this is a one-of-a-kind piece... feel how light it is, put that on!” And it’s that whole excitement that people can get from eyewear that I strive to get to, and THAT is true of whichever brand we’re working on. We want to make sure we’re getting people excited about their eyewear. There are choices out there—you can be obsessed with handbags and shoes or watches, but we believe you should be obsessed with eyewear because that’s the most important accessory.”
Press humbly credits his mentors and designer predecessors for carving out eyewear’s place in the fashion world and helping to put it on the map as a viable accessory piece. “I think for too long, eyewear has been considered a function item and not so much a fashion accessory when it really is both—eyewear is the convergence of fashion and function at the highest level. I’m thankful to all of those designers—Richard Morgenthal, Robert Marc, Christian Roth and Larry Leight, so many people who came before that worked so hard to make eyewear a fashion accessory. When Robert Marc and Richard Morgenthal opened their NY stores in the ’80s, eyewear was a completely different business at that point but they really believed that eyewear could be something that truly was a fashion accessory. It’s the vision of those people and so many of the designers that I mentioned who have made it possible to make eyewear so amazing today, and so many people have realized nothing transforms your look like your eyewear does. You can have so many different looks and personas as you change your eyewear, and to me that’s always been the dream—if we can get people to have a wardrobe of eyewear the way they have a wardrobe of shoes, handbags and every other fashion accessory, that’s a huge win because there’s nothing more prominent than what’s on your face.”
With his new role in overseeing the same brands responsible for cultivating his creative talent, one might say Press’ career has come full circle, but this is only the beginning. “I definitely have other ideas for designing different things since I just love creating things, but I think there’s a lot more to do in eyewear so for now, that’s where I’ve been focused.” In his opinion there has never been more great eyewear in the marketplace at one time than there is today, something he believes is an advantage for emerging eyewear designers. “For people who have been in the industry for a long time as I have, you can romanticize the good old days and think about how great Oliver Peoples and Alain Mikli and Optical Affairs were, and they WERE, but there are more great brands now than at any time, and the reason for that is because people have gone down their own paths and their own roads to make real innovation happen.” His advice to new designers is to always be yourself in the way you go about designing your own collection and go down paths that other people may not have tried. “To just be repetitive of what you already have seen isn’t that interesting or exciting, and as you see great new brands coming to the forefront, it’s because they actually take their own paths to get there. Always have a point of view that’s your own, take inspiration from the past, but be original with your concepts. I think that brings people to the best place.”■