Rosario Toscano on launching Balmain eyewear in an industry in huge flux
Few luxury sectors are in a greater stage of flux than the eyewear industry, where luxury giants like Kering and LVMH have both radically redrawn the business model in the past few years. Kering, by creating its own eyewear division – grouping stellar brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta – and LVMH, with its joint venture with Marcolin, an Italian giant in eyewear.
The latest brand to take this type of approach is Balmain, with a far greater focus on long-term brand equity; high quality rather than mass quantities and an aesthetic that hones closely to the house’s DNA.
Historically, the vast majority of fashion runway brands and luxury marques generated revenues in eyewear by signing long-term licensing deals with specialist producers – the vast majority of whom where based in the Veneto region of Italy. Balmain has taken another direction, inking a deal with a brand new Swiss company: Akoni.
Which is why we caught up with Akoni’s CEO, Rosario Toscano, an industry veteran, who in the midst of this sea change is leading Balmain in its novel approach to launching its debut eyewear collection.
Balmain’s designer Olivier Rousteing actually unveiled the eyewear back in January, during its menswear runway show in Paris (since the collection is largely unisex). Rousteing also created a bold tableau during Balmain’s womenswear show on February 28th. Every model was dressed in black, double-breasted, signature Balmain coats – and wearing the new frames.
The mood captures the codes of the historic Parisian house: gutsy, bold lines, signature medallions and gold trim. All in step with Rousteing’s Balmain Army. In late April, Balmain donated a dozen pairs of the Wonderboy style to a charity auction (Bono’s "Red") to raise funds for the global fight against Covid-19.
Since, then the eyewear began rolling out carefully internationally in late May; with a tight distribution and high price point. A strategy many runway brands will follow in the future.
Toscano was born in Sicily, and educated in Ireland, from where he obtained an MBA at the country’s greatest university: Trinity College Dublin, founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth 1. Previously, Toscano was also the Global Managing Director of Dita Eyewear, as well as responsible for creating eyewear for Thom Browne - also based in Dublin, since Ireland is so fiscally advantageous. In conversation with FashionNetwork.com, Toscano, a veritable expert, explains Balmain’s special strategy and the rapidly-changing face of a fashionable element that defines each and all of our faces.
Q & A
FashionNetwork.com: How did this deal with Balmain come about?
Rosario Toscano: We’d been in contact with them for several years. Balmain has always been on my mind, as it's one of most interesting luxury brands that did not have a license in eyewear. Their last license expired in 2016. They understood that there are real dangers venturing in the the wrong license. I've always enjoyed Olivier’s work. It’s a strong statement that is very exposed in digital world. And I believe that Balmain has become a highly relevant brand name. With my 20 years of experience in eyewear, I co-founded Akoni in Switzerland last year. And I brought on-board two designers from Dita and took them to Paris to Olivier’s office. And it all started there.
FN: What was the design brief?
RT: The design idea came one day as the four of us got together. Olivier did not believe in men’s sunglasses and women’s sunglass. ‘I believe in unisex, gender-free,’ he insisted. So it's unisex – except for one model. We opened with a quite small capsule collection – only five models but with many key categories: aspirational, straightforward fashion and iconic pieces.
To me, luxury is a term misused in many ways. A lot of brands sell their souls for a few million dollars in royalties. But to me, brand equity means so much more, especially in eyewear. We have seen that many people are realizing that. That’s why Kering is buying back licenses and creating Kering Eyewear. Why LVMH has linked with Marcolin. Now, fashion and luxury brands are much more careful. Eyewear is something that goes on your face, and is very easy to promote in fashion shows. So, brands want to replicate the same values, quality and distribution in eyewear that they have in accessories and fashion. That’s what we believe at Akoni. Also, we are the first company to fully manufacture in Japan – or one of the few.
FN: Why did you unveil the collection first during the menswear season in January?
RF: Why launch in January? To be honest, when Olivier received the samples late last year, he fell in love with them and said: "I cannot wait for the women’s season." And I said: "you are crazy. No way we can pull this off for January!
But you cannot say no to the crazy creative creator. So, we managed to produce them in time, and in the end, out of 90 different runway passage, 85 had glasses. It was a complete eyewear show. Which we then replicated in the womenswear show. The important thing is that no look "screams" or is embellished with a logo. Yet the identity is clear. They are very clearly Balmain. There are nonetheless some similar embellishments for bags and jackets so Balmain fans can appreciate that. You have to understand that it’s not enough to stick a logo on sunglasses, as they are so small and sensitive and sit on the face.
FN: What’s the difference between working with Thom Browne and Olivier Rousteing?
RT: I love them both. Olivier is younger and has a much more open approach to today’s world. He is very interested in listening to other people's opinions – even if he makes his own decision in the end. He is a citizen of the world, and very humble. He texts you at 11 at night and asks how things are going, and sends photos as a signature move for those of his generation.
Thom is very reserved. And he knows immediately what he wants, therefore making it very hard to change his opinion.
When you look at their shows, they are both are unique. Thom has more the artistic element, whereas Olivier is also very good at what is important for sales, as well as being artistic. Now Thom has joined forces with Zegna, and I see a certain elevation. But he never really changes.
FN: How large a distribution do you plan for Balmain eyewear?
We will never sell Balmain in more than 2,000 stores worldwide. Let’s consider at how distribution works worldwide. In Italy, there are 11,00 possible shops that sell eyewear. A very broad and old school industry, full of opticians who never want to change their business. They are maintained historically for medical reasons. But a new differentiation is shutting them down, half of them closing even before Covid affected them. Eyewear will become like food: very big chains of supermarkets and small indie boutiques selling high-end product.
To me, there is Red Ocean – bloody wars and low price point - versus Blue Ocean, where you hope to be one of only a few sailing, catching lots of wind. We want Balmain’s position to be totally in that latter area. Too many fashion brands are still stuck on quantity and not quality.
Globally, there are about 500,000 doors. We want the glasses to be in less than one percent. Ever ask yourself why Hermès or Louis Vuitton haven't bought into licensing? That’s because their brand equity is more important to them than just a royalty! The most successful licenses today are Tom Ford and Chanel. Chanel can dictate their license to Luxottica. It has also helped close many doors. I reckon Chanel retails in less than 3,000 doors. While Tom Ford built his entire company out of two licenses – eyewear and perfume. If you look at Luxottica, which is gradually losing fashion house licenses, they are very clearly focusing on their own brands – Ray-Ban, Oakley and Persol.
The reason why it took so long for Kering and LVMH to change their strategy is due to the distribution channels in eyewear. Bags and shoes essentially go through the same channels as fashion – like luxury boutiques and department stores. But 90% of eyewear stock is sold to optical stores, so it is hard to set up your own distribution model.
FN: What are your sales goals for Balmain?
RT: We began by only making 8,000 units worldwide – 500 pieces in each style. So, we will only sell in 500 doors worldwide. Next year, hopefully post-Covid, our maximal goal is 2,000 doors; along with our own Balmain boutiques, as well as online, which should add up for 25% of sales. Especially if we include sales to online players, like YNAP. If we sell 50,000 units next year, now that would be a fantastic result.
FN: You stress how unique is Japanese craftsmanship. What did you mean?
RT: Made in Japan eyewear stands for quality. Like a watch made in Switzerland means quality. Two cities in Japan are key, as both were places that made materials for the army and boast an expertise working in metal – Sabae and Fukui. Actually, they are like very small villages, both being a few hours away on a fast train from Osaka. They are the best machinery and expert craftsmans, and that, for the past 50 years. They are also specialists in titanium, which is light, strong and non-allergic. Japanese culture is very detailed-orientated. Plus, they also use Japanese acetate, which is cotton-based and not petrol-based, since most eyewear is made of plastic – from petroleum. Manufacturing in Japan takes as long as three times more than, say, Europe. Luxottica has only one small factory there. But the result is a very high quality product.
FN: Why did Balmain link with you, and not with a more established producer such as Luxottica or Safilo?
RT: It’s true that this is not so obvious. But I think Balmain saw a trend in the industry that shows Kering, for instance, pulling big brands out of Luxottica and Safilo. Plus, I think lots of brands are scratching their heads today and asking "when is my license over?"
Moreover, if your brand is worth below a billion dollars, well, Luxottica is not interested. So, lots and lots of things are changing.
FN: Who owns Akoni?
RT: I do, alongside a partner who is a representative of a private equity fund. We are based in Lugano, in Switzerland. Ireland is actually much better off fiscally. In Ireland, the tax rate is a flat 12%. In our canton in Switzerland, it is of about 20%. Plus, the cost of operations is nearly three time more. The Swiss franc so high! But Switzerland is a very stable country and close to our key markets - France and Italy.
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