20 20 — March 15, 2013 - What's Brand New
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
The first words spoken by Thomas Lafont upon entering Lafont’s New York office and U.S. headquarters after “bonjour” of course was: “Our story continues. You are here again, and I am here. And we will talk about Lafont because we are all part of the frame landscape.” That story started 90 years ago in 1923 when Thomas Lafont’s great-grandfather Louis Lafont opened a Lafont eyewear boutique in Paris. Today there are five shops, all in Paris. The story continued with Louis’ son Jean and into the 1970s when Philippe Lafont, the grandson of the founder, married Parisian-born Laurence Lafont. At that point, the Lafont boutique only retailed products from other manufacturers. But Laurence, who had a graphics background, saw a need to design interesting eyewear for her generation. The first collection sold so well opticians throughout France began to call the boutique to purchase frames. This led to the couple’s decision in 1979 to go into eyewear design in earnest and eventually led to the opening of a U.S. office. Last year, Lafont celebrated its 25th anniversary in the U.S.
Now Thomas Lafont, the fourth generation in the optical business and the second generation of designers, is continuing and evolving the design legacy his mother left when she passed away in 2008. Although he officially joined the business in 1996, when Lafont is asked how long he has been in the eyewear business, the 39-year-old quickly and in all seriousness replies, “39 years.” Not only was he born into the family business, but his mother brought him to the design studio when he was an infant. “She taught me about taste, about product, about glamour.”
It’s this continuity that’s so important to him and the Lafont brand, and is doubtless key to the longevity and success of the company. “We do everything ourselves in our design studio, and we always try to connect the whole story, from the frame designs to the merchandising materials, to the shops and trade show booths. We want everything we do to be consistent and reflect the Lafont image,” he emphasizes.
“We introduce two collections each year— spring/summer and fall/winter, much like the fashion industry. With each new collection, we also update our graphics. Our booths at trade shows [always worth a visit—20/20] are extremely important to the company image. They reflect our boutiques, which are warm, friendly and cozy. We don’t just put frames on display boards, we create themes that tell a story,” he continues. “We like to show all the elements and inspiration that goes into creating our products—from objects like pottery, garden furniture, flowers [he goes to the flower market and selects the flowers himself] to vintage eyeglass reference to books and fabric swatches.”
But as much as Lafont believes in continuity, he realizes evolution is the key to lasting success. “We continue the Lafont tradition, but we also add our own taste and style. We are always looking for something new. It’s in our blood, and that’s what our customers expect from us.” Lafont has long been known for its strong women’s brand. “It’s very pleasant to design a women’s collection because women like more unusual styles and variety. Men want strong designs, but with minimal details,” Lafont says. But the company has been developing its men’s offerings and has added collections that appeal to a broader clientele: Lafont Reedition, based on vintage styling and Issy & La for younger consumers. The brand is also known for its extensive children’s collection, which includes styles for infants and toddlers as well as older children. A children’s sunglass collection will debut in the fall at Silmo. “We realize it’s essential to reach all ages and price points,” Lafont stresses.
When designing a new collection, Lafont notes fit is the most important factor. “Once fit is achieved, we have the opportunity to make the collection as sophisticated as we like. We work with shapes, look for new ideas and sometimes try to add something a little crazier than normal. We are also always on the alert for new technologies. We do a lot of laser technology because it’s possible to make precise patterns.” Lafont begins the actual design process with sketches and then colors the sketches by hand in two-tone treatments to get a sense of volumes.
“A lot of influences go into any collection,” he notes. “For example, for the latest collection, we took inspiration from patterns used on the windows in the Lafont boutiques. And just yesterday, I was in Denver skiing. The landscape is incredible. Today I went shopping in New York and saw a lot of materials with sparkles. I can see these elements influencing future collections. My mother introduced me to the idea of being open to everything I see,” he adds.
One of the things the company has always been open to and known for is its wonderful range of colors. As Laurence Lafont said, “A frame is a frame, but the color is what makes the true difference.” Thomas adds, “Essentially people’s wardrobes consist of navy blue, black or dark brown. My job as a designer is to escort both the optician and the consumer to a new idea of color and offer them a new story.” The company’s signature colors are purple and green, but Lafont notes he likes to add new colors with each new collection. This year he used yellow for the first time in the booth and in the fabric shopping bags. In the current eyewear collection, blacks, oranges, blues and purples are abundant. Lafont points out a frame design inspired by koi fish in black against an orange background.
Hidden details are also important to the collection. “My mother taught me both the interior and the exterior of the frame are important,” Lafont explains. “Hidden details are as important to the wearer as those that can be seen by others.
“What’s key to our philosophy though is we are a French company based in Paris with 95 percent of our products made in France,” Lafont emphasizes. “It’s important we bring a little bit of the flair associated with Paris to the outside world, but we are more than French, we are global. Creating eyewear is like cooking. French cuisine is great, but sometimes it’s good to add elements of another country, changing the taste a bit, but still keeping the French connection.” Lafont also feels it’s important to be in touch with all aspects of the business. “When I travel, I like to visit opticians. It’s important to see them and their customers, and to listen to what they say. I don’t want to design in a cloud. I want to work in partnership with our customers,” he notes. “Working with independents means everything to our own legitimacy. We are a family company. When you buy Lafont, you buy the spirit, quality and ideas associated with Lafont, and you always buy something new and different. We like to compare our eyewear to fine wine. It’s always good, but like good wine, the taste is a little different with each production.”