Blink Interviews: Jason Kirk of Kirk Originals

I first met Jason Kirk when he had just launched his business, Kirk Originals- we were both very young! I was at Whistles and he came in to show us the collection. I recall seeing some really amazing frames. Brilliantly innovative shapes and materials that were super desirable. They made a great impression on me and I have been keeping a watchful eye on how Kirk Originals has been developing since then. I recently had the fortune to make contact with Jason again, through the wonder that is Twitter. I was delighted when Jason agreed to be interviewed by us. There are some fascinating insights into Kirk Originals and his approach to business. Thank you so much Jason.

Now over to Jason for some background on how Kirk Originals came to be, and then the inquisition…

Sidney (my grandfather) and Percy (his brother) Kirk were great innovators in the optical industry. In 1919 they turned a sewing machine into a lens cutter and within a few years they had factories in London and helped other people around them open factories so that London became a world centre of optical excellence. At the time, they were in Hatton Garden. My father was an optician, along with all his brothers and cousins but none of my generation was into it at all. It all seemed very dry and conservative until I discovered a stash of glasses that Sidney and Percy had designed in the ’50s and ’60s, beautiful upswept blues and greens. At the same time, I got made redundant by L’Oreal and used the small amount of money they gave me to make some new frames. It was around then that I met my future wife and business partner Karen, who is a graphic designer by trade, so we launched Kirk Originals together in 1992…..so next year is our 20th anniversary!

Tell us about your current design crush

Design can take itself too seriously sometimes so I enjoy the humour in say Ron Arad’s Rover Chair or Paul Smith‘s creativity.

Which comes first for you, personal style, the brands handwriting or trends?

Personal style, without any hesitation. A good designer’s handwriting should be obvious without any effort to make it so. It is always so dangerous to attempt to move with trends. Perhaps sometimes a personal interpretation of a trend but even that should happen naturally if you are tuned in to your target audience. We design what we love and what feels right to us. Usually we find some sort of parallel with the direction the market is taking but, more often than not, that is coincidence.

Do you think commerciality or creativity is the most important?

Creativity of course, but it is fascinating how commercial aspects impact on creativity. The obvious symptom is seeing design become banal because of commercial pressure to sell. We have always resisted this whatever the pressure. Our store on Conduit Street is not designed to sell ‘as many frames as possible’. We know it could be more commercial. It is designed (by Campaign Design who are superb by the way) to reflect our attitude to eyewear, to our profession and to creativity in general.

People come to Kirk Originals for something different. If we did bow to commercial pressure and design the same frames as everybody else then we would be relying on our brand name to sell our products…..that is just not our style. We have built up a great following that we value and appreciate but I doubt that any of those people buy our glasses because of our name. What we hope to achieve is enough loyalty for them to be interested in what we are doing each season and then, if our work merits it, they will buy from us again……and again……and again.

How does the idea of sustainability impact on your collection?

We study our products and our packaging very carefully for sustainability issues. Our chosen medium or the one in which we have the most experience, is plastic and, specifically in eyewear, this tends to be acetate. Re-cycled acetates are very limited at the moment, largely because production is dominated by a few giants but things will have to change.

Our SS2012 collection will be produced entirely in acrylic (shhhhhh, don’t tell anyone). This brings a whole new wealth of possibilities, especially in the ‘green’ arena. I believe we are the only people to be hand-making acrylic frames so this is a very exciting new venture.

What are you currently working on and how is it shaping up?

The next launch for us is a collection called BEAM and its sister collection SUNBEAM. They will be launched at London Fashion Week in September and at the SILMO optical show in Paris at the end of the month. We have been working on this for several years; frames hand made entirely from acrylic which is very light, easy to adjust and it has an amazing range of colours.

This bucks the trend of black and tortoise shell frames that has been stagnating for a while and, if I may loop back to an earlier question, this reflects a response to the economic environment. When things stated getting tough, eyewear went ‘simple’. “Retro” was all we heard for the last few years. I would visit opticians in Germany and Holland and see shops full of black and tortoise shell frames all looking like variations on the Wayfarer. Lazy design. Safe design.

I love retro styling and some of the most beautiful frames were designed in the 50s, 60s and 70s but STOP. How about that personal style that we were talking about before?

So getting back to the point, Sunbeam is our innovation to celebrate our 20th anniversary next year. Colours are bright. Shapes are big and bold. The finish actually looks like glass – very Kirk Originals.

What’s currently inspiring you?

Colour. It is often about an attitude or a state of mind than an object or movement for us. We need a little brightness in our lives, some celebration. Looks at the colours of an Ozwald Boateng or a Richard James suit, soak in the ambiance of Sketch. When you are dressed or surrounded by uplifting objects then you feel great. Our conversation with our clients is partly about how they look in their glasses but, more importantly, also how they FEEL in their glasses.

Has your business developed in the way that you anticipated?

Business never develops in the way you anticipate which is what makes it enjoyable. Karen and I still own 100% of the company so we can make our own decisions, right or wrong, and stand behind them.

We plan to open more stores in key fashion capitals and develop our retail strategy but we need to be a little more patient. We are very happy with where we are today and just as ambitious as we were twenty years ago.

How would you describe your brand’s design aesthetic?

Kirk Originals is all about self expression. Everybody is unique and so the challenge is how to express one’s individuality through eyewear. Then on top of that one’s mood is variable so…

By identifying key strands that run through our clients we can create certain key elements in our design that reflect the wearer; they are creative, individual, irreverent, independent, confident…and then we try to translate that into our design.

Interesting though when you compare what people spend on clothing to what they spend on eyewear. Often eyewear is an after thought, which makes no sense because the first and last thing that you see when you are with someone is their eyes. Take a look around you right now. I bet you can see people that spend a great deal of time choosing their wardrobe, investing in shoes but wearing functional eyewear. Bizarre. And so many of them only have one pair……..how many tops do you have? Good eyewear is an investment, like good shoes but it says so much about you (like shoes), not forgetting also the medical importance which I have not even mentioned.

What was your first fashion memory?

When I found Grandpa Sidney’s glasses back in 1992 I did not know much about the world of fashion and design. That was probably an advantage. I had no preconceptions and no hesitation about approaching anyone. In general people were very kind, welcoming, encouraging and willing to help.

As I strolled around London with a hitachi case full of specs, I met Helen Storey, Nick Coleman, Lucille at Whistles and everyone was very supportive. When we opened our store in Covent Garden I wrote to Paul Smith and asked him if I could meet him and just have a chat. He did not have a clue who I was but I got a positive reply and was invited over for breakfast.

This kind of support and encouragement goes a long way and I have never forgotten it.

What is currently tempting you into making a purchase?

I love Moods Of Norway, full of colour and exuberance, great suiting and knitwear.

What has been the biggest challenge for Kirk Originals?

Maintaining our principles when we could have gone more commercial. The very first time we did a show in New York I bumped into Barbara MacReynolds from LA Eyeworks in an antique store. Star struck, I went and introduced myself and asked if she could regale me with one piece of advice. And she did. “Stick to your principles” and perhaps that has been the single most valuable advice we have had.

We started off with £1500 of redundancy money from L’Oreal and we have never had any financial backing. That too has been challenging. We are driven, fiercely ambitious (I recommend  Eating The Big Fish by Adam Morgan) but we have maintained our design ethic and not sold out in order to satisfy any lust for growth or financial reward. Patience. Yes, staying patient is a challenge.

What advice would the you now give to the you who was just launching Kirk Originals?

Tough question. I could make you a long list of things that the text book would have had us do differently but then we are not a mainstream company and I think it is the difference that has contributed to our success. If I was to give advice to anyone starting a business it would be “listen. Listen to everyone”. You do not need to act on what people say but it is far better to learn from other people’s mistakes than your own!

What’s the best thing about your job?

There are so many good things. I work from home with Karen. I see my two boys all the time. I travel the world, work with fascinating people, design, create, set my own timetable and wake up itching to get on with it.

Any future projects that you’d like to tell us about?

We are studying a project to open more retail stores in major fashion venues at the moment. Other than that, we are concentrating on design.

Tell us about your most fabulous fashion moment

Winning a Silmo D’Or award for eyewear design was pretty special. Designing frames for ‘stars’ is always fun too. We don’t name drop but we have had the pleasure of designing for pretty much anyone at the top of the film or music business that you can think of.

Our proudest fashion moment must be when we designed a menswear clothing collection which was featured on the front cover of Menswear Buyer and got a spread inside.

I guess if you want something a little more fabulous how about designing the glasses for Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman’s character) in the Batman films.

Who would you love to work with, past or present?

It is always interesting to work with people from other disciplines who bring a fresh and open-minded approach.

I am often asked who would I like to put glasses on that we have not (yet) worked with. That is a little easier…….it is usually people that you never see wearing glasses like David Bowie – is that because he does not need them or he has never seen any that he likes? There is another challenge.

I feel most creative when…

I am in Japan. Yep. Strange but true. Stimulating, inspiring, amazing.

Any final word of advice?

Keep listening. Keep learning.

Jason Kirk of Kirk Originals

The Kirk Originals Conduit Street store

the 'Aretha' frame

the 'Sculpture' frame

the 'Sunbeam Spark' frame

Thanks again to Jason and also to Karen. Looking forward to seeing you at London Fashion Week.

If you’d like to read more inspirational interviews, just click here. If you’re interested in more posts featuring frames and shades, then click here. Enjoy!

Enjoy! Lucy

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