By Jillian Urcelay
James Kisgen’s love of travel plays a deeply interwoven part of his story. In fact, it’s directly how his career in eyewear began. To the relief of Matsuda Eyewear fans around the world, Kisgen initiated his title as CEO in 2012, and successfully relaunched the brand—which had previously disappeared from the market. But, back to travel… it has influenced many of Kisgen’s career decisions throughout his life and is a major reason the Matsuda brand is flourishing under his guidance and reign.
After growing up in Atlanta, Ga., Kisgen spent some time in Europe—specifically France before starting college. He went on to complete his undergraduate degree at Georgia Institute of Technology where he began as an engineering major. His interests and goals changed, and he later decided to major in international affairs in French with a minor in finance. Kisgen was a part of one of the first classes at his university to graduate with this degree, which began as a pilot program during his time at Georgia Tech. Ultimately, his goal was to find an opportunity to travel internationally and get back to Europe.
A month after graduating, Kisgen was hired as a fresh-faced regional sales manager at Cartier. This is where his career in eyewear began over a decade ago. At the time, Cartier grouped everything that was not a piece of jewelry or a watch into a collection called the Accessories Division. This division was made up of leather goods, writing instruments and eyewear. “Eyewear really appealed to me because I got to balance my creative mind with my scientific mind,” says Kisgen. He often comes back to this idea as it seems to shape his thought process and the way he can blend the two sides to his persona.
After spending some years at Cartier and ultimately being promoted to director of sales, Kisgen left to pursue other initiatives—specifically Matsuda. He traveled to Japan and presented his vision for the brand. Matsuda had always appealed to him because of its technical side and the historical influences that formed Mitsuhiro Matsuda’s direction when he was creating the collection. “When we first relaunched the brand, the goal was to bring Matsuda back to what it was in the past,” says Kisgen. “We did that very successfully, and that allowed us to step into where we are today, which is very much a forward thinking mentality. We are going to continue pushing forward in terms of materials, designs and style.”
While Kisgen works as a “creative director” of sorts and spearheads the design process, he certainly doesn’t do it alone. Many key members of the original Matsuda team have returned and contribute to the final designs as they work together to create the collections. He works with an accomplished team that includes Fabrice Commelin (U.S.), Stephane Jalouzot (Europe), Eigi Ogawa (Japan) and Hitoshi Nakamura (Japan). “Our focus has really been keeping the DNA of the brand in tack while also moving it forward. I think a lot of that is possible because we have original DNA with us. We have a best in class team—not just from the design side, but from the business side as well,” says Kisgen.
Matsuda produces four different collections—each of which have their own message and air to them, and all are handmade in Japan. The Heritage collection is comprised of original Matsuda styles that Kisgen has relaunched. This capsule collection has been updated for today’s market in terms of fits, but it’s the core of Matsuda in terms of holding that original DNA. The Precious collection is made of very fine materials produced in limited quantities. “I came from Cartier so I wanted to have a very high-end collection in the line because I knew there was a market for it,” he says. “It set the tone for us being a luxury brand, and it was the first collection that we sold out of.” The Optical collection is made up of very intricate frames that are designed to make the wearer feel credible and confident. The Sun collection is a bit more whimsical. “We can really push the boundaries here,” says Kisgen. “I hate to call us avant-garde—it’s probably a little gauche to call yourself avant-garde, but I would say that is very much what we are. It’s a very forward thinking collection. It’s not a ‘me-too’ collection, we aren’t doing what everyone else is doing.”
Kisgen and Mitsuhiro Matsuda’s lives have a running parallel, which has kept the design inspiration common and continuous. Matsuda moved to Europe after graduating school and traveled to France only in search of inspiration. “While he was there he fell in love with the gothic cathedrals and the artistic movements that he witnessed,” says Kisgen. “All of the different stylistic influences he saw helped give him direction when he created his first line.” Kisgen also fell in love with being in France when he was a young person and uses those same influences when designing current frames. He aims to blend a futuristic aesthetic with some old- world details just as his predecessor had in early sketches. While there has been an evolution in designs over time, the brand’s focus on filigree, metal work and engraving has always been at the forefront of what’s being produced.
“The first time I saw Matsuda frames, they totally blew my mind,” says Kisgen. “All of the intricate engravings, the side shields and the lacquering… It was just from a whole different world. My engineering and technical mind instantly fell in love with them.” Up until that point, Kisgen’s world was filled with Cartier’s designs, which are very clean and focused on precious materials, but less detailed. “They were still very intricate designs, but they didn’t have as much engraving or filigree. When I saw those Matsuda pieces and started understanding what could be done with eyewear, my mind just started turning.”
The Matsuda team designs eyewear for individuals who are curious and confident in who they are. Their ideal customer is someone who doesn’t want to fit the mold and be like everyone else. Kisgen references a New York Times article in which the writer notices the ubiquity of bold zyl styles on the subways of New York City. Matsuda offers an alternative to that pervasiveness. “We are not a mass-produced brand,” he says. “There’s a lot of work and detail that goes into every piece. Every time you turn the frame over and look at a different angle, hopefully you discover something new. We hide engraving and details in places people wouldn’t expect to see.”
While holistically, the brand’s customer is the same around the globe, stylistically there are different trends and markets that the designers are aware of. “We try to make sure that we pay attention to styles in terms of fits and shapes that differ across the Asian, European and American market,” says Kisgen. “We try to not be swayed by trends on the details, but on the fits and local demand in the market.”
“The moment you start trying to become a trend-driven brand, you can fall off at a certain point,” he notes. “When the trend passes and you’ve made this your niche, you’ve got to find a new niche and convince the world that you’re still relevant. In our sense, we try not to do that. Instead, we focus on what we do from a DNA and design standpoint so that Matsuda will be a timeless brand. People today are wearing our frames that they bought 30 years ago.”
That concept is important for a luxury eyewear brand. Consumers are paying high prices for these investment pieces and expect them to not only physically last over time, but to offer a timeless and classic look. Kisgen makes the point that the idea of luxury is no longer about a product. Instead, it’s about a feeling and experience that his brand works tirelessly to emulate. “Luxury is walking out of a store an inch taller than you walked in because you feel good about the way you’ve interacted with the brand,” he says. “It has shifted away from being a product basing and more of an experience-based differentiator.”
Matsuda focuses on its rigorous training process in the hopes of educating its consumers. Kisgen believes that storytelling is key because it gives them an emotional reason to connect with a brand. “High-end is a term that’s used to easily differentiate where frames sit on a wall inside of a retailer,” he says. “Luxury is more… it’s everything. It’s the way you interact with the optician or retailer that is carrying the product. That’s what we have to focus on to earn consumers’ loyalty and trust today.”
In 1996, Matsuda’s chief designer Yukio Kobayashi said, “Mr. Mitushiro and I have always shared the vision of fashion being best expressed as art. From my perspective, fashion and art are inseparable.” This is still Matsuda’s mission today. The brand’s founder is known as being one of the first designers to meld architecture with fashion. “From the campaigns that he did, to the creations, to his runway presentations—everything was focused on the experience just as we are today,” says Kisgen.
It’s interesting to note that Kisgen is not a fan of standard eyewear campaign imagery. He believes it doesn’t allow people to show their creativity nor does it create something that consumers fall in love with. To stray off the beaten path, his team tries to do the exact opposite of “that same three-quarter angle of someone wearing a pair of glasses looking off into the distance.” His goal is to give people something that they would be proud to hang up on their walls. In light of that, Matsuda produces beautifully unique campaign images—most recently in its newest look book, Du Present Au Futur, which explores the stylistic themes of romantic Gothicism, modernism and surrealism. The outcome? Captivating images that look like fine art you’d expect to see hanging in a museum.
It’s clear that Matsuda’s future is in Kisgen’s very capable hands. He intends to stay true to the brand’s core while simultaneously exploring new materials and mediums. “To me, I know that we’ve done the job well when we are showing the collection to someone, and they pick up a new design and say, ‘This is amazing, I remember this frame.’ They think they are seeing something that they saw 25 to 30 years ago, when in reality it’s a new design,” he says. “That’s what we are really trying to do. We think of ourselves as a forward thinking brand with old-world craftsmanship and really cool details.”
Kisgen understands that consumers today are more educated than ever before. In turn, there’s more access to discover independent brands, and he acknowledges this bodes well for both Matsuda and its competitors. “I’ve never seen as much creativity in the eyewear industry as I’m seeing right now,” he says. “I’ve been really inspired by that. I think we will continue to push the boundaries on what people want to see.” Matsuda has accomplished the difficult design task of sticking to its heritage while also creating something original and new. These marvels allow us to see the inner workings of Kisgen’s creative and scientific minds come to life. ■