Keeping a close eye on fashion

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 November, 2008, 12:00am

Eyewear, once considered nothing more than a necessity, has evolved into a major fashion statement with wearers valuing design and functionality in equal measure.

'Most people own an average of two to three pairs of glasses,' said Kevin Ching Wing-sing, general manager of Wing Fung International, a Hong Kong optical manufacturer. 'Eyewear is becoming more fashionable and even more popular than watches. People may, for example, choose to wear certain pairs of glasses during the week and others on the weekend.'

To meet the demand for comfortable, trendsetting eyewear, more optical manufacturers are adjusting their business models, and shifting from a manufacturer which makes the product, to be branded and sold by another firm, to the manufacturer which designs and produces eyewear for its own brand.

Wing Fung plans to promote its own eyewear brand at this year's HKTDC Hong Kong Optical Fair. As the region's largest fair, the event is a hotbed for identifying new trends and styles.

More than 520 exhibitors from 24 countries and regions will showcase their latest products at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai from today until Saturday.

The fair will also host the Hong Kong Optometric Conference, the ever popular forum enabling industry professionals to discuss the most important ophthalmic issues of the day.

Speakers will include experts from Australia, the mainland, Hong Kong, Singapore and Britain. Topics to be discussed will include lasers, orthokeratology and contact lenses, the main theme this year.

One of the highlights at the fair is the 10th Hong Kong Eyewear Design Competition, which has been an effective way for young designers to display their talent over the years. The theme this year is 'Style of Vision', and the final entries and winning pieces will be on display at the fair.

This year's event will feature two core display areas.

Visionaries of Style shows the latest trends and outstanding designs backed by strong brand recognition in the high-end market. Brands featured include Japan's Less Than Human and Yellow Plus, iTrix from the United States and renowned French brand Alain Mikli. Ten of the brands in this year's fair are first time participants, including Germany's MYKITA and Arm Deco from Japan.

The other display highlights are Retail and Shop Design, and Equipment and Technology. From appealing shop designs to layouts and fittings, the major exhibits in the section give visitors insight into how eyewear can be sold effectively in a retail setting.

Guests can visit exhibits ranging from furniture and fixtures, illuminations and point of sale to equipment and technology; essentially any product that assists retailers to achieve the best solutions in order to remain competitive.

This is especially pertinent in today's business environment with the economic downturn already dampening demand for consumer goods in the retail sector. A key concern for optical manufacturers is how the global economy will fare in the coming months.

'Retailers will put in smaller orders because they don't want to be stuck with too much inventory. They want more cash right now,' Mr Ching said.

'This will have an impact on us because it means lower production volumes. We will have to do more business to compensate for the smaller order volumes.'

Stanley Kee, commercial director at GfK Asia, a research company specialising in the technical consumer goods sector, said he expected the economic slowdown to have the greatest impact on branded eyewear products.

'Non-branded and lower-end eyewear will remain stable because consumers who wear glasses will still require them,' Mr Kee said.

Demand for lighter eyewear frames made of titanium, renowned for its functionality and sophistication, is the latest trend. 'Titanium is more functionally focused but the design still complements peoples' lifestyles.'

The free form progressive lens is another optical innovation, prized for its flexibility and convenience.

'These lenses, which have become popular in Europe, allow for customisation in the optician's store. For consumers, this means a faster turnaround time because opticians can carry out all the relevant work on the lenses and fit them into the frame in the store,' Mr Kee said.

The optical market is buoyant on the mainland and India where the rapid growth of a middle class is fuelling demand. Projections point to these economies becoming the world's biggest eyewear markets in the future.

Last year, the value of the mainland's eyewear market, including prescription spectacles and contact lenses, reached US$1.94billion, according to GfK Asia, of which consumers spent US$280million on contact lenses and US$1.66billion on spectacle frames with ophthalmic lenses.

Despite the growing popularity of lasik vision correction surgery, momentum in the eyewear market is expected to continue given the demand among younger wearers.

'Even if the technology behind lasik surgery matures, the eyewear market will remain stable, particularly as the number of children needing to wear glasses is increasing. We believe that the market focus could shift towards children,' Mr Ching said.