Sunglasses Market Monopoly

A new eyewear startup, L’appel, is trying to change the sunglasses biz and the monopolistic way it operates. And, like many trying to disrupt fill-in-the-blank market, the brand launched a Kickstarter last week, which serves as a forum for its elevator pitch — and, of course, to raise funds to make its dream of (relatively) egalitarian sunnies a reality. Warby Parker pioneered this direct-to-consumer eyewear concept back in 2010, and has been very successful doing so, though L'appel's focus is, at the moment, solely on sunglasses. Is there room for another specs gamechanger?

L'appel was started as a school project by four students at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA. They all worked together at the same company post-grad, and they worked on L’appel (which means “the call” in French) on the side. “What started innocently developed into obsession, as we became increasingly aware of how corrupt the eyewear industry truly is,” Kidong Kwon, L’appel’s product designer, told Refinery29 of the brand’s start. “It was simply impossible to find top quality, durable, comfortable, and stylish sunglasses that we knew weren't ridiculously marked up.”

Most designer brands are made by the same industry dominating manufacturers, and pairs rarely dip below the $200 mark — and often climb far north of that, reaching well into the $400s. By contrast, L’appel sources from an indie manufacturer (they’ve kept mum on its name) that handcrafts each pair; prices range from $129 to $159. They’re not cheap — these aren’t your $5 street fair knockoffs to scratch up in your beach bag. They're also steeper than than Warby Parker's pricetags, which start at $95, though you'll run the risk of wearing the same exact frames as multiple people around you, given the OG glasses disruptor's ubiquity at this point. And you’re obviously not getting (or paying for) the status-symbol clout some may seek from designer shades. But the materials and detailing are thoughtful: titanium hardware (including the nosepads on certain styles, which, for anyone who's been grossed out by discolored, gunk-covered clear rubber pads, is a major upgrade), as well as gorgeously patterned, expensive-looking plant-based acetates, plus three different UV-blocking lens types used in various styles.

“There is no magic formula that we use to make our frames more affordable — our competitors simply choose to unreasonably up-charge customers,” said Andrew Kim, also a product designer at the brand. “Nothing is stopping them from offering you a fairer price, bar the fact that the general public is willing to pay those prices. We're here to change that.” L’appel will sell direct to customers for the foreseeable future — and while that’s a pretty common approach for new brands these days, it’s particularly key in the eyewear space. “Retail is one of the steps that our competitors use to manipulate prices — to put it bluntly, our competitors own the major retailers,” Kwon said. But never say never, as Kim points out: “As long as they don't manipulate our prices, I think we wouldn't be opposed to it.”

As for the crowdfunding aspect, L’appel has already raised nearly 90% of its $50,000 goal in the first week of its monthlong campaign, so it looks like the team's onto something. “We view Kickstarter as a grassroots platform, and L'appel is a grassroots movement; it was a natural marriage,” Kwon said. Rolling out a Kickstarter also, of course, can save a bit of cash in the pursuit of raising it. “Other than our own time, our costs were relatively low because all of our eyewear — including our prototypes — are handcrafted,” Kim explained. “There are no mold costs, and low minimum-order values.” And yet: Each pair is made via a 20-step handcrafting process.

Eventually, L’appel will also offer optical frames (in addition to shades) as well as prescription lenses, if all goes according to plan, creating more jobs in the company’s L.A. home turf in the process, particularly for millenials, Kwong said. So, do you think L’appel can truly shake things up for the eyewear industry?