The Ins and Outs of Independent Eyewear

Partnering with privately owned eyewear companies can help ECPs stand out from the competition.
One of the handcrafted frames from LFVR Eyewear.

This month, Independent Strong reached out to leaders in the custom, small-batch eyewear space: Travis LeFevre from LFVR Eyewear, Kevin Count from Optical Kitchen, and Blaz Oberc from Laibach & York. In this roundtable discussion, the experts explore what independent eyewear means to them, the benefits of ODs partnering with privately owned eyewear lines, navigating patient concerns, and more. 

IS: Can you tell us how you got started in the eye care field? 

Travis LeFevre: I was born and raised in the optical industry. My grandmother managed various stores for my mom’s entire life, and when I was only a few years old, my grandmother opened her own store and eventually teamed up with my mom, who had worked for other opticals in the area. Growing up, I always thought I would end up in the medical field in some capacity but never expected to be where I am now. When I started working for my grandmother while I was going to college, I never expected to be doing this 12 years later. I’ve now worked in many facets of the industry, including online opticals, as a sales rep, as an optician, and now as an optician that owns my own store along with designing and crafting frames.

Kevin Count: I started in 1988 as a frame stylist at Eyelab, which was a direct competitor to LensCrafters at that point. It would later be bought by Cole and become part of Pearle Vision. I learned quickly and found I had a knack for selling and servicing eyewear. I spent time watching and talking with the older lab guys, and although I didn’t know it at the moment, I was learning foundational pieces of what would later become a career. 

Blaz Oberc: My mother is an ophthalmologist, and my stepfather used to manufacture diagnostic and surgical ophthalmic machines. During summer breaks, I worked part-time assembling them. As I grew older, I pursued degrees in Industrial Design and Opticianry. My aim in creating the line was to use my diverse background to design a product that would appeal to fashion-conscious individuals as the ultimate fashion accessory.

IS: What does independent eyewear mean to you?

Travis LeFevre: I think the overarching meaning of independent eyewear in the industry means the brand isn’t associated with the larger corporations. In my eyes, it’s so much more than that. Independent eyewear represents brands that are much like independent optometry offices and opticals, in that we are small businesses, too. We care about the people selling and wearing our frames and want them to last for years to come instead of only until the clients’ vision benefits re-up. Although I also think there are levels to independent eyewear too, some brands prefer to only handle their design work but outsource the manufacturing and import their frames. Others use a mix of importing and some manufacturing in house, and then there are what I consider the peak of independent eyewear, which is having all of the design and manufacturing done under the same roof while creating unique and high quality eyewear.

Kevin Count: That is a frightening question. Independent eyewear at its most basic would mean eyewear created, marketed, and sold by a company that’s not affiliated with a larger national or international group. In reality, I think it means a frame line that is not made by a large international company. Rather, a company whose products are created with craftsmanship, quality, and design being the focus.   

Blaz Oberc: Independent eyewear is a reflection of individuality and creativity. It defies stereotypes and resists being categorized. Independent designers devote meticulous attention to each design decision, resulting in more innovative and trendsetting frames compared to standard options.

IS: What sets your eyewear apart from other ‘name brand’ eyewear?

Travis LeFevre: The brand is yours. I know that sounds funny, but we give you the ability to offer eyewear that is your own brand and even your own design. You’re no longer selling eyewear that can be found anywhere else. Aside from that, I’m very passionate about working with only the best materials. Our acetates are sourced from Italy and Japan, and all of our hardware comes from Germany and Italy. This allows us to turn out frames that last much longer and feel so much better. We also do a mix of private label eyewear that allows our customers to customize portions of each frame (colors, hinge types, matte vs polished finishes, and we’re working on a system to be able to change frame names too). Then, we also have our small batch production where we work from concepts to create a finished frame or collection, and this gives our clients creative control while being able to fall back on my optical background to make sure the fit and function work as well.

Kevin Count: Optical Kitchen offers the wearer an opportunity to create their eyewear. Using a palette of acetate granules, they can mix a pattern of their liking. Acetate is placed in a mold which is then pressed into a plate from which the frames are then created. Our partnership with Ronchini, SRL has also brought the ability to modify frames sizing in the A, dbl, and temple length by using the Be Your Glasses software. The software shows a 3D rendering of the client-selected style, and the optician makes the appropriate selections.

Blaz Oberc: Passion, creativity, engineering, sustainability, and quality are the values that distinguish us. Our eyewear collections feature unique designs that are not mass produced, ensuring that the wearer will stand out in any crowd. Our products are designed to help individuals embrace their individuality and personal style, rather than following the latest trends.

IS: How can ODs benefit by partnering with you to create their own eyewear brand?

Travis LeFevre: The benefit of owning my own optical is I get to see both sides of the process. One thing I think we can all agree on is we spend so much time trying to get our brand to be more easily recognized by using creative marketing, word of mouth, and being active in our communities. But you can take that one step further by utilizing our private label eyewear or collaborating to create your own line. Now, when a patient’s glasses are complimented and somebody wants to know what brand they are, they’re referred directly back to you because they can’t be found elsewhere. When I began making frames, I never planned on working with other businesses. My entire goal was to offer something different in my own store, but once I experienced the benefit of being able to leverage my brand with my own eyewear, I knew it was something that needed to be shared.

Kevin Count: First, by leveraging Optical Kitchen and the systems we have developed over the years, our office can offer a made-to-order frame collection that sets ODs’ offices apart from their competition. Further, we can assist offices to create their own designs, which gives them the ability to replicate favored frames their clients want to continue to wear.

Blaz Oberc: Private labelers collaborate with Laibach & York to create and sell unique products that differentiate themselves from established brands, store brands, or other private-label brands. Optical businesses can pursue innovative product ideas without worrying about what the competition is doing. Smaller businesses can develop high-end products that they wouldn’t be able to produce on their own. As a result, private label products often have higher profit margins than resale products. Retailers can choose to set a premium price for their exclusive private-label products or leverage their existing brand power to reduce marketing costs for private-label product lines. 

Optical businesses also have more flexibility and adaptability. They can select marketing campaigns to promote their branded products and don’t have to follow outdated campaigns run by national brands. If a product isn’t selling well, they have the data to make changes quickly. National brands may take months or years to modify their product formula, pricing, or marketing strategy. On the other hand, private-label sellers can pivot quickly. They can respond to negative feedback or low sales and adjust to create the best product at the best price.

IS: Do you make, design, and fabricate your line?

Travis LeFevre: In short, yes. I handle and work with our clients from the conception of a new style, through the CAD design to produce 3D models and prototypes, and then I craft every frame from start to finish in my studio. I also have an apprentice who has started to learn the craft and help as we have become busier. The only thing we don’t do is produce the raw materials. Everything else is done in my studio in Northern Utah.

Kevin Count: Yes. All our frames are made in our workshop located outside of Chicago. 

Blaz Oberc: Yes, our eyewear is crafted using traditional methods by exceptionally skilled artisans. Each frame undergoes a precise and meticulous 40-step process to ensure it is a true masterpiece that meets the standards of even the most selective wearers.

IS: What makes your materials and designs unique?

Travis LeFevre: I’m very big on quality, fit, and finishes. Having a background in optical has helped me keep an eye on the things I always had problems with while I was dispensing. I tell almost everybody I talk to that my goal is to make frames that are going to last for decades. I have dealt with cheaply made frames that are constantly breaking and not backed by the company who sold them. As for designs, so much of our work is a collaboration to bring somebody’s eyewear visions to life, so every project we work on ends up in unique frames.

Kevin Count: We use plant-based acetate from Mazzucchelli. The acetate is biodegradable and recyclable. Our designs are proven winners. Each is selected for its wearability and sell-through. We’re not interested in the idea that 80% of sales come from 20% of the styles. We’re interested in finding the 20% and capitalizing on that.

Blaz Oberc: We meticulously choose unique acetates to guarantee that every item is a masterpiece. Whether from our main collection or our exceptionally rare pieces, each is carefully crafted to be well-balanced, assembled by hand, quadruple polished, and fitted with three to five-barrel hinges made from the finest steel. We aim to establish a meaningful connection between our brand and customers by showcasing traditional techniques, utilizing regionally sourced materials, and reducing our carbon footprint.

IS: Who is your ideal partner?

Travis LeFevre: Visionaries and disruptors. Whether it’s an OD, optician, or an artist, I want to work with people that have a vision, know what they want, and they’re open to feedback while working together to take a concept and turn it into incredible eyewear.

Kevin Count: An independent optical or optometry office looking for a turnkey solution to custom or made-to-order eyewear.

Blaz Oberc: Our ideal partner is an independent spirit who values time and quality in producing a line like ours. They resonate with our story of sustainability and are passionate about serving their clientele’s needs and desires. They are true eye care professionals at heart.

IS: Why should more optometrists/opticians consider having their own eyewear line?

Travis LeFevre: What better way to express what you have to offer than selling your own brand? The bigger companies are doing this in some form, but they’re trying to cut corners and costs. Opticians and optometrists see glasses all day every day, and we always hear how there is something that they can’t find, or they want to change. This is where you get that chance. You finally have the control to change that temple length, tweak how the bridge fits, and so much more.

Frames from Laibach & York showcase traditional techniques, utilizing regionally sourced materials, and prioritizing sustainability.

Kevin Count: Three primary reasons: profitability, differentiation, and increased patient loyalty.

IS: For those who may think there is too great a cost/too high of a minimum to work with you as a small practice, what do you say?

Travis LeFevre: From day one this is something that I have been mindful of. A conventional factory has such high inventory minimums that it doesn’t make sense for somebody that only has one or two stores. I have been sure to avoid any equipment that requires a large amount of downtime to change styles or retool machines. This creates the ability to make one frame or 100 frames, so you can forget about having to order 300 pieces of one style when you only have 900 pieces in your store. Let’s start small and grow it the right way.

Kevin Count: Our frames cost no more than most high-end frames. Our minimum frame order is one frame. We can’t get much lower than that.

Blaz Oberc: There are several benefits to investing in independent eyewear brands, even if they may come with a higher price tag. One such benefit is the support you receive from the designer and company. Large brands are often unable to cater to your individual needs, whereas small companies place a greater emphasis on customer satisfaction. Supporting independent small businesses means that your voice is heard and your opinion matters. It also allows for more personal connections.

Another advantage to independent eyewear brands is their innovation. Independent designers help push fashion forward, ask important questions, and bring fresh ideas to the optical community.

Independent eyewear also offers a more personalized touch. You can meet the designers behind the creations, learn about their unique production methods, and discover the stories behind each frame. This connection with the brand allows for a deeper appreciation of your purchases and a sense of pride in supporting a more sustainable optical industry.

IS: Some doctors/opticians say their patients only want ‘name brand’ eyewear. How do you suggest practices navigate that?

Travis LeFevre: Why do your patients choose to come back to your practice? They can find the name brand eyewear that they’re looking for pretty much anywhere, whether it’s a corporate-owned optical, online, or their nearest discount store. The reason they keep coming back is they view you as the expert and trust what you have to say and show them. When you can show them eyewear that is tasteful, well made, and it’s something your staff can connect with and stand behind, then your patients will follow suit.

Kevin Count: I would ask, ‘How often does someone walk in and say they only want a Calvin Klein frame, really?’ I have a small office, and I can count on one hand how often I get asked for any name brand frame.

Blaz Oberc: Purchasing trends are changing, and name brands are less influential than they once were, especially for the younger generations who value authenticity, transparency, and individuality. Unlike previous generations, they look for brands that align with their values. The optical industry needs to adapt to these changing trends to attract the buying potential of the younger consumer. Opticals need to tell the story of the products they carry and highlight their ethical practices. 

In addition, name brands are often not committed to the exclusive distribution of their products through practices. These products are also available in other areas, online, and in mass retailers at lower prices than wholesale, which creates a challenge for practices to maintain profitability. Though practices may sell more products, their profitability significantly reduces due to the lower profit margins.

IS: What do you see as the financial benefit to partnering with an independent, handcrafted eyewear line?

Travis LeFevre: Your margins will improve, and you’ll remove any ability to be showroomed. If you’ve already transitioned to carrying predominantly independent brands that can’t be found anywhere nearby, this is your next step. You can create your own original styles using the same or better materials than many of the high-end brands. 

Kevin Count: An office can command a much higher price tag for made-to-measure products, which increases profitability. It’s not just another frame that company X makes. It’s a unique, one-of-a-kind product offered in your practice only. You can market frames from companies such as mine, made in the U.S., plant-based, old world craftsmanship, etc. You’re stacking your marketing with unique and interesting topics. Unique and interesting brings in people. People means sales and profit.

Blaz Oberc: Small businesses play a crucial role in providing more options beyond the big brands. Although we may struggle without economies of scale, we press forward so that the independents can continue to survive in this environment of ever-compressing supply chains. By doing so, we can keep the independent spirit alive and ensure a better future for all small businesses. This means more options for future shoppers and a greater chance of success for independent businesses.

IS: Anything else you’d like to add about your experience as an independent eyewear line?

Travis LeFevre: I am beyond grateful to have worked with such amazing people over the years. This has become more than I ever dreamed of, and I’m excited to see where we go in the future. Whether you’re looking to create your own independent collection, add some unique styles that you design yourself, or utilize private label styles to start using your own brand to sell frames, we’re here to help every step of the way. It’s time for private label eyewear to be more than a solution to compete against a budget-oriented brand.

Kevin Count: This is probably the most fun thing I have ever done in my career.

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