MODO – The Global Perspective
In New York with Giovanni Lo Faro
Text: Dirk Vogel
Photos: Holger von Krosigk
Stills: Raphael Schmitz
On paper, New York-based eyewear company MODO not only looks impressive, but downright intimidating: Founded in 1990 by entrepreneur and design aficionado Alessandro Lanaro, the style-driven brand with offices in Soho, Milano, and Stockholm is home to house brands MODO and ECO – together with upcoming labels DEREK LAM, JASON WU, and 7 FOR ALL MANKIND – distributed in over 50 countries, and cherished by celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio, Sheryl Crow, Reese Witherspoon, and Jessica Alba.
Not exactly the Little Leagues, right?
But instead of lording it over the eyewear industry from high upon an Ivory Tower, MODO maintains a humble outlook and respect for the craft, as we learn upon meeting the company’s managing director, Giovanni Lo Faro at their sleek Soho headquarters. “We want to be a brand that’s not out of this world, but connected to the everyday lives of people. Yes, we are design-oriented and into sophisticated things, but we don’t want to be the guys that are to cool for school,” said the native of Northern Italy who joined MODO as a partner in 2006, and now divides his time between New York and Milan with deep hooks into all aspects of the company. For this issue’s interview, here’s the soft-spoken Italian about MODO’s ecological and social mission, innovation with a sense of purpose, and the importance of designs that “whisper” rather than shout from the rooftops.
Hi Giovanni, the title “managing director” sounds a bit broad in such a multifarious, multi-national company. What exactly is your role at MODO?
I am a partner in the company, involved in all sides of the business, and primarily in expanding it outside of North America. I met MODO founder Alessandro [Lanaro] in 2003, a time when I was in Milan working in a consulting startup and exploring projects in furniture design with some friends. When Alessandro told me he was looking into expanding the company outside North America, I was intrigued by the idea. We stayed in touch and I joined the company in early 2006 in New York, after spending some time in Madrid for a Master’s in Business. Two years later we opened our office in Milano. Alessandro and I work with the design team and make decisions with them, so I’m directly involved in brand identity and marketing aspects. And although I’m not a designer, I’ve always craved to have something design-related in my life. The main reason why I joined MODO really was my interest in design.
Speaking of design, when was the very first time you looked at a product or object and realized the importance of design?
Probably when I was a very small kid, at age 3 I could already recognize all the different types of cars on the street and point them out to my dad and grandfather. That was perhaps the first time I was struck by design. It always remained a side passion in my life.
Now this side passion has brought you to a pretty plush office in New York. Are you fully based here in the city now?
Officially, I am in between New York and Milano, but it fully depends on the season. My family is here in New York as of recently, so we are spending more time here. I love both cities, though. I was born two hours south of Milan on the coast, so when I initially joined MODO and we talked about launching the company in Europe, Milan was just a logical choice.
And MODO now also has offices in Stockholm, what is the connection?
The three cities are really part of the company’s evolution, and I think a strong competitive advantage. The design office we now have in Stockholm was opened because Alessandro moved his family there after 25 years in New York, since his wife is Swedish and he wanted his kids to grow up in Europe as well. But it’s also a story of three cities that are very much connected to design. This is what we live and breathe every day. We are both entrepreneurs and Alessandro is a big inventor. So the fact that we move between cities that are so connected to design allows for a very spontaneous connection.
You must really be racking up some miles in between offices and visiting shows…
Yes, we have to travel a lot and it is painful sometimes as it costs time and energy. But at the same time, we constantly get to breathe this fresh air in these three very different cosmopolitan cities that are very active in design. I would say it’s a unique advantage we have over other companies, always being connected to new trends and inspirations.
On that note, where do you find inspiration?
Every day! Here in our Soho offices, we share a building with one of the biggest modeling agencies in New York. So just in our building every day, we get to see the beautiful models and how they dress, which gives us an idea of what is going to happen in fashion over the next seasons. The same thing in Milan and Stockholm – we are in the center of the city and connected to the latest in creativity and design. And they’re also cities with a strong heritage for minimalistic design – which is really what we are about here at MODO.
Good point, let’s talk about the company history and heritage. What makes MODO what it is today?
The key concept has always been functional, minimalistic design. Style always connected to function, but not necessarily going beyond it. We’re still very much true to MODO’s original tagline from 1990, “Eyewear for the Individual.”
How does that kind of philosophy differentiate you from, let’s say, a fashion brand?
With a fashion brand, it’s very much about being part of a group that defines a certain style. We rather want to be a brand in which you define your own individual style and use our glasses to express yourself, with their unique combination of style connected to function. It’s really minimalistic, inspired by architecture that always serves a purpose rather than just decoration. And we also want to be easy to wear and approachable, which is also reflected in our communications.
Recently you have been pushing innovations and patented technologies, like the Paper Thin titanium collection. Is that the next step in the positioning?
Research and development is really one of the latest evolutions for our company. When we started MODO, the concept was very much about offering an unparalleled level of quality for this type of price point. And with a sartorial approach, based on individualism – not the fashion brand telling you what is cool, but the consumer finding their own styles and offering them the best possible quality and craftsmanship. So with our next evolution in R&D, we continue our focus on classic and traditional constructions, but now moving into innovations that make a functional difference to the user.
So Paper Thin is really the start of more innovations to come?
With Paper Thin we found that we can mix retro style with high technology, with a concept that is more functional – the form and color and warmth of a plastic frame with the lightness and flexibility of a metal frame. MODO LAB and our R&D has evolved the Paper Thin constructions into additional technologies, like last season’s Metal Core Acetate (MCA), an acetate frame that looks traditional but with the support of a high-technology core. Essentially it’s a thin sandwich of plastic with a thin layer of metal inside it that achieves the thinnest acetate frame we know about at only 2.8 mm instead of the usual 4 mm. But with the necessary resistance to keep its shape.
Your current “baby” is the VS1 collection in cooperation with Italian industrial designer Sommella Valerio. What is the story?
It’s a capsule collection with a bit of a different approach, because the usual collaborations are with other brands and famous names. Valerio Sommella, hence the name VS1, is also working with well-known design brands like Alessi. He never designed eyewear before, so he is outside the box we work into every day. We told him take the Paper Thin concept and play with it as much as he likes, and the result is a capsule collection that is still an evolution of our brand DNA, but a bit more directional in terms of design and with a strong color statement and design language.
When it comes to retail, how do you help shops and boutiques tell the VS1 story?
With a very selective distribution model, working with the top opticians and boutiques and a slightly different marketing strategy. But it’s still a capsule collection that’s very much part of the MODO brand (see sidebar with models). It shows the technology on the inside in a very subtle way, like on the new Model 6605 is our new construction featuring a metal core that is visible in the “nude” colorway. Not obvious but more “whispered.”
A gentle touch, if you will?
We prefer to whisper more in what we are doing and not shouting about it. Our design is less “in your face” and more about subtle details. Many times we get criticized for being too delicate at what we do. But I kind of like it this way and think our customers, the ones who are more discerning, really understand what we are after.
A lot of big name celebrities are apparently hearing the whispers. Do you find them or do they find MODO?
Well, to drop just two names, Leonardo DiCaprio and Sheryl Crow both paid for their glasses. We are very proud of saying that, as we are not just gifting celebrities day and night, which we sure have done, but these two important people well-known for their tastes actually came and bought our frames.
That must feel great. And beyond the products, you also pursue a sense of mission with your company?
When we launched the ECO brand, we pledged to plant a tree for every frame purchased. So far we have reached almost 1.5 million trees planted around the world, which is a strong achievement, and later we brought the same way of thinking with MODO’s “Buy a Frame – Give Frame” and have now given several hundred thousand frames to people in need. We don’t want to be too cheesy or intense about it, but feel it is important to have mission in the world apart from just having a business. And making a tangible impact beyond it.
And finally, what will you be doing five minutes after the interview?
Nail down a few more projects, because it’s an intense period as we are fully in the season and growing strongly. Then go home and pick up my son. We also like that time outside of work, you know, when we can.
Thanks for the interview, Giovanni.
VS1 »Stendahl« & VS1 »Vetra«