Insights: Chicago | Business Spotlight | Fall 2017

Building a luxury eyewear brand

Impossible vision: How Europa International created an American-made brand of luxury eyewear

Europa eyeglasses
By Anthony Castrovince

“Why does everything say, ‘Made in China,’ or ‘Made in Italy?’”

Jerry Wolowicz and his distributors heard the question often from retailers purchasing Europa International’s high-quality eyewear and sunwear.

“There used to be eyewear factories here in the United States in the 1970s,” says Wolowicz, president of Europa, an international eyewear distributor and manufacturer. “But when I got into the business in 1982, there were only a couple left, and they were on their way out. They were making price-driven products, not high-quality products.”

In 2012, seeing the untapped demand for high-quality eyewear that’s “Made in America,” Europa’s executive team made a bold decision. They would pursue the market themselves, doing what numerous vendors and industry professionals told them was impossible: Launching an American-manufactured luxury eyewear brand.

Bringing spectacles stateside

It started with a vision, as you might expect from a company that specializes in eyewear.

For 35 years, Europa was in the business of distributing high-quality eyewear and sunwear to retailers from its hub in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago, first to the Midwest and eventually across the United States and internationally to 20 countries. Husband-and-wife team Alan and Cynthia Shapiro founded Europa International out of their garage in 1977, and as the company name implies, it imported all its products.

“China and South Korea were making frames at 10 to 20 percent of the cost of what it would take to be done here, and American factories weren’t hanging their hat on innovation or quality or style or fashion like in Italy or Germany or France,” Wolowicz says. “The United States went 25 to 30 years without any frames being made here.”

In 2010, Alan and Cynthia Shapiro’s son, Scott – Europa’s current COO – joined the company and brought new focus to answer the question, ‘Why aren’t eyeglasses typically made in America?’ What he discovered was a labor-intensive process to create quality frames.

Because it is lightweight yet strong, cellulose acetate is the material of choice for high-quality eyewear. The material must be imported, and so must the equipment used to mold it into a fashionable frame. Due to these market conditions, frame creation was not a commonly learned skillset in the United States.

“Made in America gets their attention. Now it’s up to us to build a desirable brand.”
— Jerry Wolowicz, President, Europa International
Europa upper management team
Scott Shapiro, COO, Cynthia Shapiro, Founder and Jerry Wolowicz, President, Europa International
(Photos by Sara Stathas)

Some of Europa’s overseas contacts also were skeptical of the economics. They cautioned that an American workforce couldn’t produce luxury frames at a price point that American consumers would embrace. The process is costly and time consuming and there was no precedent of success to which anyone could point.

“We told a couple of our vendors overseas that we had this idea and we had the capital,” says Wolowicz. “We asked them if they would come and partner with us and open a factory. They all said no. They told us, ‘You don’t understand, the American workforce is not going to be able to do it at the price you want to do it.’”

Its partners abroad didn’t seem especially interested in exporting their expertise, either.

“We felt like we were striking out,” Wolowicz says.

The breakthrough arrived unexpectedly – not from overseas, but in California. At a trade show, Wolowicz and Scott Shapiro met entrepreneurs Marc Franchi and Jason Stanley, a couple of self-proclaimed “gearheads” who had taught themselves how to make frames and were in the infancy of creating a small brand in Ventura, California, known as “Frieze Frames.” After several meetings and much discussion, Franchi and Stanley decided to relocate their families and two of their factory workers to the Chicagoland area and join forces with Europa. In 2014, the partners founded State Optical Co., a new, U.S.-manufactured luxury eyewear brand under the Europa umbrella.

Building a luxury brand

The phrase “Made in America” is stamped on every State Optical Co. frame made in the Vernon Hills, Illinois, factory. And Europa’s goal from day one has been for that phrase to signify quality.

The blueprint for the frames, which run in the high $300s to low $400s price range, comes from Blake Kuwahara, a renowned American designer. Each style is named after a location or landmark in Chicago, and a pyramid of 21 drilled holes is located on the tip of the frame’s temple to signify Illinois’ status as the 21st state in the nation.

Beyond the sense of style is a sense of place, says Wolowicz.

“When you go into restaurants in the trendier areas where younger, successful people are hanging out, you’ll read the storylines on the menus explaining where they’re sourcing their produce and fish and meat from,” Wolowicz says. “They tell a story, because that’s what those consumers want. It’s our goal that this brand will resonate at the consumer level. ‘Made in America’ gets their attention. Now it’s up to us to build a desirable brand.”

Hand-crafted quality

When Franchi and Stanley were building their company in California, they were able to manufacture a few hundred frames per month at the most. For the large-scale operation envisioned for State, they would need a factory filled with skilled craftspeople to shave down and carve the 6-millimeter thick acetate, secure the tiny hinges and hand polish and bevel the frames for the company’s eyewear. There are approximately 75 steps involved in manufacturing one pair of State Optical Co.’s glasses, and about half of those steps are done by hand.

After purchasing equipment from overseas, rewiring it to operate on the U.S. power grid and gaining occupancy of its factory in April 2015, Europa held working interviews on the factory floor to interview CNC operators and other applicans who had experience working with their hands. About 40 percent of applicants didn’t make it past this stage, demonstrating the difficulty of the task.

“At first, our production was slow,” Wolowicz says. “We held our brand very close to the vest. We did not want to launch until we could support the demand that was going to be there. We started amassing inventory, and we didn’t put it in our salespeople’s bags until June 2016.”

Today, State Optical Co. employs 50 workers who have mastered the complex handiwork. The handmade portion of the process takes about three days to complete.

“Now we’re in about 785 locations across the country,” Wolowicz says. “The results have exceeded our expectations.”

Europa warehouse
Jerry Wolowicz, President, on the Europa factory floor
(Photos by Sara Stathas)

A model for manufacturers

Due to the size and scope of the initial investment, it will take time for Europa to reap the rewards of this venture. The State Optical Co. brand is financially protected by Europa’s 40 years of relationships built up in the distribution of imports, which is “still paying the bills,” Wolowicz says.

Still, the initial success of State Optical Co. is encouraging. And that success may provide a model that others in the eyewear industry will want to follow.

The company never intended to be the lone manufacturer of American-made luxury frames, says Wolowicz. In fact, it sees the benefits of a scenario in which multiple factories spring up across the country, which might increase the incentive to produce the raw acetate and metal parts in the United States.

“Opticians in the United States had never seen a frame being made,” Wolowicz says. “We now offer tours to anyone, including consumers. We’ve designated two days a week for tours, and we’re booked out for months for people to see what’s involved in making quality eyewear.”

Seeing eye to eye

With its State Optical brand produced in the Chicago area, Europa International has upended the notion that luxury eyewear cannot be made in America. But doing so required an initial capital investment that would not have been possible without Huntington.

“We had this wild idea,” Europa President Jerry Wolowicz says. “It was really viewed as such, as far as manufacturing frames in the United States. But the bank was there for us.” Europa had a solid balance sheet, but not the kind of excess cash flow it would take to build a factory and import the expensive equipment needed to manufacture high-quality glasses.

“We needed outside participation,” Wolowicz says.

Europa executives presented their plan to Huntington passionately and with precision – and the bank believed Europa could deliver. The now 3-year-old State Optical Co. brand has become a model for quality and risk taking in the eyewear industry, and it has Huntington to thank for the financial support to make it happen.

“We had multiple meetings where we discussed our business plan and why we thought this would work,” Wolowicz says. “They were a very encouraging partner.”

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