The Italian Eyewear Mafia Is Robbing Us Blind

For every other Four Pins reader whose sole source of information is the Internet, this is your reminder that traditional media is still thriving. Like a zombie who is not quite buried, there are occasions when the cold, undead hands of the old guard sifts up through the sediment to make all of us newfangled journalists scratch our heads and wonder, "FUCK! Why didn't I write this?!" Last night on 60 Minutes, which I certainly have not watched ever since I got a 28.8 modem or PlayStation (not sure which one was first), Lesley Stahl revealed that Italian company Luxottica Group S.p.A. is pretty much running an optical oligarchy.

It all started in 1988 when the company inked its first designer manufacturing deal with Armani. The premise goes a little something like this: we'll use your brand to influence the colors and frame shape, but we'll manufacture and design everything on our end. Thus began a long series of successful licensing deals with high-fashion houses like Versace, Burberry and Bulgari, to "American" brands like Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren and Ray-Ban. Even Persol falls under their brand umbrella. Pretty much, if you were to make "The Takeover" about glasses, then Luxottica would be the R.O.C.

Beyond owning so many brands, they also own the largest retailers of eyewear: Sunglass Hut, Lenscrafters, and Pearle Vision, as well as run the optical divisions of Target and Sears. You cannot escape these people! CEO Andrea Guerra, who has the slightly stereotypical, soft-spoken Italian accent of a Mario brother, does his best to skirt around this problematic issue of being both the largest retailer and manufacturer of an entire industry, and doesn't really acknowledge that this in effect is price-gouging the shit out of customers. They even own EyeMed, the number one vision benefits company in the United States. What. The. Fuck. People. You would think that this seamless market positioning would translate to cheaper prices for guys like me, who've worn glasses ever since they saw Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters and get new frames every other month, right? Wrong. Instead, we're still expected to pay ridiculous markups, even after we get a hefty discount from insurance...which is probably still owned by the same company. That's kind of fucked.

While places like Fabulous Fanny's in the East Village, as well as numerous thrift stores, have always been a great resource for vintage frames waiting to be repurposed for your face, not even smaller American companies like Moscot or Randolph Engineering could ever really be on par to compete with this kind of market leadership. Perhaps the only types of companies that can pose a real threat in terms of price and manufacturing capability are online retailers who make their stuff in China. Even before Warby Parker combined affordable prescription frames with great design, smart marketing and the business acumen of Wharton grads with hipster tendencies, sites like Zenni Optical offered similar styles and services for as little at $6.95. While you definitely take a huge cut in quality materials with the latter, and the designs admittedly aren't as cool as WP's, I have acquired and lost a couple pairs in my college years without feeling too bad about it. Even before I discovered Zenni Optical, I went through my Rivers Cuomo phase and rocked the hell out of a $10 pair of Urban Outfitters thick-rimmed frames I put lenses in. Those were also made in China.

Yet, thanks to e-commerce, perhaps the Italian eyewear mafia's days are numbered. While living in a city like New York affords frame addicts like myself numerous opportunities to fight the power (like the Brooklyn Flea and the aforementioned Fabulous Fanny's), it might not be the case for people in flyover states. That's why I'm thankful that companies like Warby Parker, Lookmatic and Classic Specs have really stepped up and given consumers a better way to get glasses. Earlier this year, The New York Times put together a great guide on a couple of newcomers to the eyewear game that all provide specs for under a hundred bucks. What's even better, you can get prescription sunnies on many of these sites now too. Granted, they cost a bit more than their clear-lensed counterparts, but I'm definitely much more comfortable supporting smaller startups and mom-and-pop shops like Moscot. And to me, a desire to support these alternative eyewear suppliers is the right frame of mind to be in.
  • kmas

    Just saw this on 60 Minutes a night ago. Kind of crazy how these people run every aspect of the market.

  • Untitled

    I saw this also. I find it crazy, but like everything else in the world. Someone’s going to control everything. Corporations. Greed. It’s a game man. Put your tinfoil hats on!!!!!

  • http://brokehip.blogspot.com Ferp

    “And to me, a desire to support these alternative eyewear suppliers is the right frame of mind to be in.”

    I SEE what you did there.

    • Termz

      Eye see* You’re welcome.