Claire Goldsmith between family legend and a new generation of eyewear design
As the successor of an 80-year-old family business in the upper leagues of luxury, Clair Goldsmith has inherited a gift and a curse all at the same time. In 1926, her great-grandfather founded the Oliver Goldsmith label, whose innovative sunglasses designs throughout the 1950s–70s became the darlings of icons such as Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Peter Sellers and the Rolling Stones. Oliver Goldsmith single-handedly turned sunglasses into fashion items, and became immortal in the process. After an enchanted princess sleep, the label was brought back with full force by Claire Goldsmith in 2006 to reanimate the vintage spirit of its early days with her first very own collection. Nowadays, the 36-year-old proprietress of CG: Claire Goldsmith Eyewear and OG: Oliver Goldsmith Sunglasses resides in London. In this interview, she explains the delicate balance between continuing a legendary family heritage, and doing her own thing.
Hi Claire! Thanks for taking the time. What’s the most pressing matter on your desk right now?
Basically, we’re always juggling a number of To Do items: shipping orders, quality checks, customer service, planning for the next season, production management, tradeshow exhibits, traveling, pushing the brand ahead – and it never stops. But right now I’m designing the new Claire Goldsmith collection. We release two collections every year and that’s always our main priority. The Goldsmith name carries so many stories and legends, but we still need to work hard to get CG recognition as its own, new label. We’re investing all our energy and creativity into creating a strong brand.
At what point did you realize that eyewear design would be your job?
I always knew that I do not want to work for anyone else. I never wanted to be just a nobody in a large company. That was the drive behind becoming my own boss and working together with people that think like myself. At university, I took classes in retail and marketing and started developing an interest in luxury goods. I developed a huge fascination for putting myself into the shoes of brands; understand how they work and why. I found it fascinating that a brand is really just an condensation of its values, quality guidelines and standards that are injected into the products. At least that’s how it should be.
Do you remember the first time you came in touch with the field of eyewear?
I honestly can’t recall having ever NOT been in touch with this field! My entire life I’ve been exposed to it, because of my family. I still remember when I found out as a little girl that my dad was storing bags full of eyewear samples at home. People would also drop by with their broken glasses a lot, and my dad would pull out a hairdryer to heat up the frames and bend them back into perfect shape.
So you were already noticing the buzz around the Oliver Goldsmith label early on?
Oh yeah, totally! Every time my school would ask for donations for our Christmas raffle, we’d contribute expensive Oliver Goldsmith sunglasses. I remember how my parents were invited to Buckingham Palace for the Royal Christmas Party (we were outfitters of the Royals back then) and my mom came home afterwards wearing a broken pair of sunglasses. She danced around the living room wildly with it, and I asked my dad what was going on: “Oh, those glasses belong to Princess Diana. She brought them to the party and asked if we could fix them for her,” he calmly related.
What was that like for you at the time?
Much like for any other child – except that things really revolved around eyewear! But maybe you’re also more exposed to the passion behind it than in a non-family business. Whenever business was tough, we could feel it at home right away. On the other hand it was really exciting when things were going well – because it’s your own business! Leading a company is always hard, and for me as the successor in a family business, the pressure is more intense to continue this success story. Coming from a path already paved doesn’t make things easier by default.
And how has your path been going?
Oliver Goldsmith Sunglasses stopped hitting its mark around the early 1980s. After graduating I began some intense research and understood that the label still contained a lot of value – design students all around the world were studying Oliver Goldsmith in class. When I started the relaunch in 2006, the label was in what you could call a dormant stage. I wanted to combine my own ideas with the design ethics of Oliver Goldsmith, so I started on a new path: my very own eyewear label CG and the relaunch of Oliver Smith Sunglasses. The whole eyewear design thing developed rather naturally from there. I’m not a studied designer, but I have a very concrete imagination, so whenever I have a concept, I can implement it. I spend four years re-releasing Goldsmith vintage designs from our archive, until I wanted to create new designs of my own. A wise man had once told me: “You can’t be good at every single thing, so find your strengths and surround yourself with talented people that supplement your abilities.”
Where and how does your company operate?
We have a large office in the North of London, where most of us work. By now we are ten people, and every department consists of two. I get to work with the most talented design and production team imaginable and I’m proud to be a part of the whole thing. All our work is based on this great team. I don’t know if I let them know quite often enough… For seven years we’ve had our store in Notting Hill, an equally relaxed and vibrant part of London. Whenever I get the chance, I work from there, which I highly enjoy. It’s one of the last corners of London with artistic businesses and no large chains; rather small, individual shops, galleries and cafés.
Your great-grandfather P. Oliver Goldsmith is an eyewear design pioneer responsible for some of the most influential eyewear shapes of the last century. In how much does that influence what you’re doing today?
I am very proud of my family heritage and consider myself fortunate to be given the chance of not only carrying on this legacy, but also to have a platform for producing my own collection. The Goldsmiths have now been working for four generations to make sure that eyewear design will never get boring. For our products and our business there has always been a fundamental philosophy: style, quality and comfort. As the daughter and grand-daughter, I may have the Goldsmith DNA, but I’m still a different person. And it’s the same with CG: Claire Goldsmith: The brand has the same DNA as OG: Oliver Goldsmith Sunglasses, but with its own unique aesthetic, attitude and direction. In this business, the Goldsmith name will always play a role. That’s why I’m here, doing this job.
Did your ancestors have it easier in the eyewear business?
When my grandfather started out, he went on a journey of discovery, much like myself. But for him it was all brand-new: the materials, the public opinion – nobody had ever seen such sunglasses before! Nowadays it’s different, the market is gigantic and pretty saturated with countless labels and licenses. The number of choices is overwhelming for customers and you have to work significantly harder to create something that stands out. Things and opinions change, but the fashion roundabout keeps on turning ahead.
What was the role of celebrities back then for OG, and for CG today?
You only need to compare the two scenarios: when my grandfather began working with the celebrities of the 1960s, it was a completely new thing. Nowadays there are countless superstars and a very powerful social network. Our relationship to celebrities has always been important and always reciprocal. I’ll put it this way: we would never pay for a celebrity to wear our glasses, and never had to.
How would you describe the designs of CG in three words?
Contemporary. Forward-thinking. Future classics. I hope that CG today is what will be called “vintage” in the future.
Tell us about the very first collection you designed.
My first collection of prescription glasses for the CG label was called “Legacy.” I worked on it closely with my designers Jesse Stevens and Brian McGinn. It was a really great experience and challenging, because I knew pretty well, what kind of aesthetic I wanted. I needed to create an identity for CG and make sure it was reflected in this collection. I always wanted the collection to have its own look, but still live up to the level of details and quality expected of the Goldsmith brand. We managed to do that and the collection was successfully released in 2006 and we’ve been expanding the collection ever since until today.
How do you go about creating your product portfolio?
There are three distinct collections: with Oliver Goldsmith Sunglasses we are creating famous sunglasses in the vintage style of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Then there’s our very latest collection OG Mini Icons, where we also work with the old classics to bring them back as children’s models. We have joined forces with ZEISS Kids and are one of very few brands that are implementing specialized lens technologies for children’s eyewear. It is arguably the best label for children’s sunglasses available on the market right now. And the third collection is also the most exciting: CG: Claire Goldsmith with prescription eyewear and sunglasses. New, fresh, innovative, creative and vivid. The current collection consists of 25 prescription models and we’ll be introducing six CG sunglasses styles for MIDO 2013 – with the dedicated goal of offering 25 sunglasses styles in the future. Thereby, CG offers a full-fledged product portfolio, rightfully claiming a place in the luxury brand segment.
What inspires you towards new ideas?
I’m always inspired by everything, from my British roots to my life in London all the way to architecture, technology, cars. I read and take photos a lot, hanging all kinds of snippets on the walls of my office. I have a mood board full of shoes, handbags, clothes, hats, furniture, interior decoration, products, people, and buildings. The thing that impressed me the most recently is probably the most inspired blog about design: Yo-Homes (www.yo.co.uk)
How much does a “real” Goldsmith cost?
Our frames cost between £266 and £295. A custom-built frame starts around £550, going all the way to £1,500.
Are any original Oliver Goldsmith Vintage models available for sale in your archive?
No, our archive is not for sale. We have one of the most expansive Oliver Goldsmith collections in the world and they are all exhibit pieces not for resale. When you pull up old OG vintage frames on eBay, you can find prices that are testament to their rarity. Therefore our vintage collection is very important to us and we try to preserve it for future generations.
Your company is working together with handicraft manufacturers in the UK, Italy, Japan and Germany. How important are the countries of origin for you?
Nowadays there is a great misunderstanding between quality and price. Many people assume that if something is produced in China, quality is usually bad and when things come from Japan, the quality will be very high. But actually, you can also find pretty shabby quality made in Japan and rather great quality from China. I think it’s much more important who is making something, than where it is produced.
How do you market your glasses?
For me, PR always means more than just the classical combination of the media, blogs and advertisements. For me it’s also about the customer. You should never underestimate the power of recommendations, which is why we build close relationships with journalists and authors.
Where can people buy CG Eyewear?
Our most important markets are the UK, the US and Europe. We do not have a presence in Asia yet, but we hope to expand during the following years, also into Russia, South America and India.
Is there a typical CG customer?
Our customers are pretty versatile. Aside from our Kids collection, we’re selling frames to 16-year-olds just as much as 80-year-olds and everyone in between. That’s mostly due to our classic and timeless styles that bypass the “fashion” factor to land straight into the realm of style.
How many pairs of glasses do you own, personally?
Wow, no idea – but quite many! I really like to wear eyewear by other designers. I would find it rather arrogant to only wear my own glasses. I have a few MYKITA glasses, and I’m a great fan of DITA, and also own a few. My Leisure Society aviators are super-luxurious and I love them madly. GRAZ is name in this business people should keep an eye on. I also own a pair of sunglasses by ISSON, a great team from Australia. And then there’s a label called FINEST SEVEN that is so special, I’m tempted to keep it as a secret just for myself!
While we’re at it – what’s really hot right now on the eyewear market?
There are so many great brands and designers out there. Among them the “new generation” with GRAZ, GARRET LEIGHT (son of Larry Leight), Jérémy Tarian (son of Alain Mikli) or Thierry Lasry (son of Harry Lasry) – all those great designers with an amazing previous history that are doing their thing in the business. It’s very exciting to see these young talents on their way.
What will be important for the future of the eyewear business?
I think there will be lots of new materials coming into the market. Not so long ago, there were no wooden frames at all, and now many labels have them. And since there are so many, everyone has to work extra hard to create something unique and special. Customers also expect more of their glasses than ten or maybe 20 years ago. And we hope that our line-up can offer exactly that.
Which trends do you expect for 2013?
I think that eyewear is very similar to fashion: there will always be extremes and less exciting things out there – but at the end of the day, classic shapes will remain unbeatable. We are trying to keep pushing ahead in that category. We may not be able to do every single thing, but we hope to be one of the best within our genre.