In China, myopia — or short-sightedness — has reached unprecedented levels, with up to 50 percent of the population requiring prescription eyewear, according to market research provider Euromonitor. The excessive use of electronic devices for long hours of studying, including smartphones, PCs, and tablets, is likely to be behind the growing prevalence of myopia in China, in particular among young people, according to the research firm. For fashion-conscious youngsters, luxury eyewear is viewed as a reflection of one’s personality, with millennials motivated to buy multiple fashion frames to suit different occasions — and brands are taking note.
This boom in demand has led to a surge in sales for the luxury eyewear market in China. Safilo Eyewear Group, that boasts a portfolio of brands including Fendi, Kate Spade, Moschino, Hugo Boss, Givenchy, Dior, Marc Jacobs and Jimmy Choo, saw a huge 44.3 percent rise in sales in the Asia-Pacific region for the first quarter of 2018, equaling $16.1 million. In contrast, North America saw a decrease of 5.5 percent.
China’s rise in myopia is social rather than genetic, according to a report by The Economist. More time spent studying indoors, reading and using electronic devices has led to the markedly higher numbers than elsewhere in the world. In Shanghai, 15-year-old students spend an average of 13.8 hours a week on homework — the highest amount of time in the world — according to data from the International Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In comparison, students in the U.S. spend an average of 6.1 hours a week studying and are being increasingly encouraged to get active and spend more time outdoors.
In 2014, 80 percent of China’s 16-18-year-olds needed to wear prescription glasses, according to The Economist. In 2018, these consumers are now in their 20s, and demanding luxurious, fashionable frames.
However, according to analysts, high-end international powerhouses have been slow to jump on the eyewear bandwagon. Despite high sales for Safilo in early 2018, for the past few years, homegrown Asian luxury brands have been firmly establishing themselves within the millennial market.
Sam Waldo, is CEO and co-founder of Mantra Eyewear, based in Beijing, “Young Chinese customers are really looking for a combination of bold and classic style. Some of the Western brands tend to be chunkier and add a lot, but the Asian brands tend to be subtle but still unique.”
Mantra Eyewear is a social enterprise — learning from brands like TOM’s and Warby Parker — and for every pair of frames sold it donates one pair to a school child in rural China. “So we didn’t start our business from the same angle as our luxury competitors in the eyewear landscape,” explained Waldo. “Young Chinese consumers do care about socially conscious consumption; they just don’t have many channels through which to support it.”
Korean luxury eyewear label Gentle Monster has quickly become a top seller in China. Boasting immersive shopping experiences at their various global stores, the hip brand is considered “the eyewear brand you need to know” by U.S. Vogue. Their Hong Kong store is a train platform and Beijing boutique inside a secret apartment — offering millennials the unique luxury shopping experience they crave. Gentle Monster has expanded hugely since its launch in Seoul in 2011, opening their New York store (inside a mirrored aquarium) in 2016.
“Gentle Monster is an ideal example of clever design and marketing,” says digital marketing agency Emerging Communications CEO Domenica di Lieto, “Its unique designs attract consumer attention, and it has been hugely successful in leveraging celebrity placement from K Pop and Korean TV and film stars, such as an endorsement from the popular female actor Jun Ji-hyun, from the TV series My Love From The Star, which achieved a major following in China.
Unlike clothes, shoes, and bags, which are usually produced or commissioned in-house, designer eyewear is licensed by corporations that specialize in making and marketing glasses for the masses. In 2017, Gucci eyewear production was given to Kering Eyewear, which is also in charge of the eyewear collections for brands including Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, McQ, Boucheron, Pomellato, Brioni, Tomas Maier, Christopher Kane, and PUMA.
For the first half of 2018, Gucci saw a rise in sales from royalties (products sold on the brand’s behalf), totaling $4354.6 million. According to Gucci’s H1 financial report, this was, “primarily due to the solid sales growth reported by Kering Eyewear, fuelled by the new offerings it put in place when it took over the Gucci eyewear license.”
However, for many millennial consumers, they want to stay loyal to local niche brands like Gentle Monster. “I love the Asian styles and frames,” explains 22-year old student — and spectacle wearer — Joy Lee, from Beijing, “I don’t mind paying a bit more for them, because they’re unique. I know not everyone will have them.”