Alain Mikli - optician to the rich and famous
Alain Mikli made specs desirable, but his customers bring them to life, he tellsGemma Soames
Eyewear designer Alain Mikli smiles at me from behind a pair of his signature frames in his store on Stanley Street in Central. "The thing that drives me is freedom," he says. It's not the sort of proclamation you'd expect to hear from an optician, but Mikli is no ordinary maker of glasses.
French-born Mikli, who is Armenian-Lebanese by descent, sits at the helm of a business that has a presence in 70 countries. He has 27 own-brand stores, four in Hong Kong. His shades have been seen on everyone from Elton John to Kanye West and Catherine Deneuve. Last year, he posted net sales of €60 million (HK$613 million), and this year Luxxotica Group announced it had bought his company for €90 million in a deal that will see him stay on in design.
After nearly 35 years in the business, what makes him most proud is his reputation as the man to go to when you want a bit of rock'n'roll from your eyewear. It is his customers who really bring his glasses to life, he explains. "What interests me about eyewear is that I do maybe only 70 per cent of the job. The design is only complete when somebody chooses the frame and wears it," he says.
According to Mikli, it was a mix of chance and necessity that landed him in the world of glasses. "By accident, I found this optical school close to my home - and that was my lucky thing. I wanted to have five minutes more in bed every day. So I studied to be an optician, and in the end it was a great job. I still don't want to do anything else."
For Mikli, making glasses was always about more than just delivering frames to people who needed them. "When I started, glasses were a necessity. They were mostly a medical product. They didn't involve any pleasure, so slowly I tried to change the attitude of people." He noticed the negativity that used to come with wearing glasses, and resolved to try and change that.
"Why should you be sad or stupid because you can't see very well? For me it's not logical. You can be very pretty because you are unique and wear glasses."
In offering his consumers a chance to tick both the practical and fashion boxes, Mikli has erased that negativity. "It's very funny - today even people who don't need glasses want glasses. I never expected that," he says.
The reason so many people want to wear Mikli's frames is because he offers something unexpected. His designs make use of colour, print, construction and shape to produce something out of the ordinary.
He is careful to point out that his glasses are not just about trends. "I don't like fashion. I prefer to develop a timeless product. Because when you need glasses, it's something you need from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed, seven days a week," he says.
He provides plenty of choice. There is the classic Alain Mikli range, and Mikli par Mikli, which offers a younger take, with bright frames in retro shapes. He has also been collaborating with Philippe Starck for 15 years for the more minimalist Starck Eyes collection.
Mikli also designed the "shutter shades", made famous by Kanye West in his video, Stronger. "He loves to wear aviator-shaped glasses, and I can do that shape very well. But all the other rappers wear them, so it's not so interesting. Then we came up with these. When we sent them to him, the manager saw them first and said, "Oh no, it's not possible, he cannot wear that." And I said we'd wait for an answer from Kanye and see. Everyone was surprised because he loved them."
Mikli has some advice on how to choose frames in his stores. "First of all, people have to smile. That's the most important thing. If you look at your face in the mirror and you don't enjoy yourself, then where do you find the pleasure?
"Second, to go small or large, who cares? If you like to have large frames to cover your face and be secret behind your glasses, then why not? And if you want small ones, also why not? Nothing has to be logical. We want to be free."