A conversation with Akoni designer Jeff Solorio

 

Akoni Designers Jeff Solorio and John Juniper

 

Jeff, thanks for joining us. Can you tell us more about Akoni?


So, when John Juniper and I left Dita, we had some time off and we decided to create a collection for the Akoni group; the CEO, Rosario Toscano, is a former colleague of ours. It was starting off from scratch. We had a blank canvas to start from. So the idea was, “well, let's design a collection that's for the optician.”


Something that they're going to be comfortable selling. Something that has an ease of use that they could feel confident to sell to their customer. Something that the customer will be very happy wearing. And then if there are any issues with components or parts or anything, it's really easy to fix. We want it to be a product that you could be confident to sell to your best clients and know that they're going to be happy wearing it. And, and they'll just come back to purchase another one, opposed to be like, you know, “I have issues with this, or this is breaking” because nobody wants those issues. So that was our main focus of this collection – offer a high-end collection made in Japan, all custom components, to give you the best top quality you can do in a frame.


Tell us about the inspiration for the collection. 


As far as inspiration, we're a huge fans of high-end watches, writing pens, and lighters. We've always loved the details of those accessories. Besides the little details that make their accessories beautiful, they also can represent an accomplishment. So, we wanted all those details, but also that whole feeling that our eyewear would be lovely to sit right next to your prized possessions every night. That's what our vision was for this line - that it fits in and encompasses that world.

 

It shows with the hinge detailing your temple tip, even down to the nose pads, you know. You can tell that there's a lot of thought and care put in each of those elements.


Just to go into detail on that, like you mentioned the nose pads. We didn't want to do titanium nose pads. We wanted to find another material. So we found that we could use ceramic. I've always been interested in ceramic because they're on the bezels of watches and it's been used on other components and it's a great material to use, especially for nose pads. It's heat resistant. It's lightweight, hypoallergenic. But also too, it feels innovative. It's an old material that's been modernized.


For the hinges we wanted to go with a threaded tube system, rather than a normal screw system. So it's a tube that's threaded and the screw goes in underneath. So from the top, you don't see a screw, so it still kind of has a nice, beautiful finish.


What do the tubes do?


I mean, the whole idea was I would add more threads. Because on a traditional hinge you only have the bottom hinge that usually has the thread. So with a threaded tube, we can get more threads. It makes it less likely for the screw to fall out. But from the inside, you don't see any rivets or any screws or nuts and stuff. So it was kind of to keep that surface nice and clean.


It’s Interesting that you bring up the nose pads moving to ceramic. If I remember correctly, when you designed for Dita, you were the first designer to introduce titanium nose pads on frames, whereas before, everything was silicone vinyl or acetate. So a little detail that most eyewear designers kind of use as a castoff, you've turned that into the starting point for each of your frames. 


The number one goal for us is to try not to use catalog parts so that we’re a custom brand. So everything that we do should be custom, every component, even something as small as the screw heads. It’s a way to innovate and kind of go forward rather than stay where we are. And that's our goal now. So it was a kind of combination of never using catalog parts and also the drive to innovate. So what we're doing is putting more time and effort into all the innovation and new ideas and maybe more iconic styles, I would say. Something that's not flashier, but a little bit more detailed.


So we built the core collection, and now we're able to kind of go in and innovate. We’ve been messing with textured surfaces on acetate, we’ve been pushing and talking about bio-plastics, we’ve been trying to do a coating they use in the watch business called DLC, or diamond like coatings, which means they’re less likely to scratch.


Would that go directly on the frame, or the lens?


It would be a plating, actually. It's limited to a variety of colors, so we're trying to figure out how we can do beautiful golds and all these materials’ colors at a plating level. But it's a plating that won't scratch. Which would be a really beautiful offering for high-end frames because I know I beat up my frames and drop them. And once you drop them, you get big scratches and everything on your frame. So it would be something that I would like to have personally.


How do you go about ensuring that the balance is always right on the ears, the nose, the way it rests on the bridge, the way your eye is framed; ensuring that the proportions and the comfort always seems to take precedent? What's that process like for you? 


Well, it starts with the design. Knowing the measurements, respective of design, male, female round square, the temporal distance, the nose distance, the angle of the nose pads and all that. We've been doing this for 25 years, so when you design a frame and develop a frame that doesn't fit, it hurts because it's in your inventory and doesn't move, or people buy it and return it. So it's kind of like, “man, we'd better get that fit right.” I've never been an optician, so all this was a huge learning process and it’s been years of just talking to opticians about fit. It was the professional opticians that gave us this knowledge. They would say, “I love this frame, but it just doesn't fit in the nose. But this frame in your collection has a beautiful nose that fits perfectly for everybody.” So then we took that nose and said, okay, this is the nose that we use for the next reference. And it was that kind of learning process. It wasn't so mathematical. As we went along, people shared their knowledge and our product got better from that. 


Well, it's rare that designers listen to opticians. So we are grateful that you listen and respond.


Exactly. And it needs to fit. I mean, you have to wear it all day long, right?


Talk to us about the sustainable approach to materials and design for Akoni


One of our goals is to be sustainable, but we don't want to make it our branding. Like we want to be there, but we don't want to say that encompasses our brand. When we talked about it in the beginning, starting the brand – it should just be something that you do. You just do it, but you don't really, like, base your whole brand on it. So if you could do something more sustainable, you do it for that purpose. Not for branding points, I guess. 


You see that with our case, too. It's recycled leather, actually. I found a company in France that basically takes scraps of leather gloves and they mesh it up, grind it up, and they mix it in with natural rubber. And then they extrude this leather material and it ends up being really beautiful. It just makes more sense than to use real leather. It comes in large squares and you're able to cut and get a consistency out of it for a collection.

 

We all got to see your Balmain collection, and it is beautiful. What was it like to work with them?


It was exciting. It's also exciting to work with Olivier Rousteing, too. That guy's a genius when it comes to how to create interest and get people motivated behind a brand. He gave us a really strong point of view on exactly what he wanted. And when that happens with creative designers, you're able to really deliver on something because they're giving you the box to design in. The first thing he said when we met with him the first time was, “I want to create ‘Mad Max’ styles. I want a mask. I want things that are like shields and things that cover your face.” We know that Balmain is more glamorous than that and it's not so rough. So we said, well, how can we do that in a glamorous way? So that was kind of the inspiration. We try to do them in the most sophisticated way.


It wasn't just slapping the brand on. It was trying to integrate it within the design, doing it in a special way. What's nice about that project is that Balmain let us do it all in Japan. It was our pleasure to be able to design something, develop it, produce it all in a high-end way, and really to show to the world that you can do a luxury brand in a high-end way. A lot of times I feel like you see a beautiful frame online from a luxury designer brand, but then when you actually pick it up, it's like, you thought it was going to be better than that. As far as the quality and the feel and the fit. So we want this to be like a brand where you see it and you're like, Oh, that looks beautiful. And then when you pick it up, you say, “Oh, wow - this is made really well.”


In a way, the eyewear becomes representative of that design house’s other collections – their shoes, their handbags, their clothes. 


It should elevate the brand. Because eyewear has always been that one part that devalues luxury brands. In the ‘90s and the 2000’s, the quality kinda went down. The quality just dropped as the volume increased. The challenge is that people like the product that they get from Japan, but it doesn't fit in their model as far as timing. It takes too long to produce in Japan. And a lot of the big companies just don't have the patience or the structure to handle those kinds of timeframes. 


That's interesting. It seems that maybe it would be price, but it's interesting that it's a timeline issue. 


It is. It takes over a year to start a frame and produce it and develop it. And it just doesn't fit in their model. It's not quick enough. So, you really have to know that if you're designing something 18 months in advance. You really have to be confident in that style to try to do that with a brand’s creative director, because they’re not giving you 18 months advanced notice of what they want. They just don't know that far ahead.


Any other closing thoughts?


Jeff - If your collection is not in Black Optical, then there's something wrong. But if it’s in there, and it’s doing successfully, then you probably have something successful that you could sell throughout the world.


Thank you. We appreciate that.