Interview: Safilo’s Design Excellence Award
posted by Grace Connaughton
This article is part of a series of interviews conducted by LIM students with category winners in the Accessories Council's 2019 Design Excellence Awards (DEA). Students are enrolled in Fashion Merchandising Professor Andrea Kennedy's Introduction to the Fashion Business class.
As I stumble around 30 minutes before my interview with Safilo, a global Italian eyewear manufacturer and licensee of over 25 eyewear brands, I realize it’s right next to my school, LIM College. I see the big “Rolex” sign through the glass door, and instantly I’m intimidated. I practice my questions a few more times and head up to the eighth floor of 665 5th Avenue.
After being offered something to drink and a tour around the beautiful showroom, by Safilo’s Director of PR Eden Wexler, I sit down at one of those big conference tables you see in movies.
Chief Marketing Officer Victoria Hallberg, who I’m interviewing, comes sweeping in and introduces me to the Senior Design Manager, Hayley Friel, who is with her. I am informed that Hayley is going to be joining the interview. My excitement is through the roof of this 20-something-story building. As I sit down with these three impressive women, it becomes apparent they’re making me feel like an equal, not just some college student. Small talk becomes big talk about my major, my college, and their brands. I feel like I can speak with them as if they’re my friends. As the big small talk draws to a close, it’s my turn to set the stage.
I kick things off by asking Victoria how she managed to work her way up to the position of CMO at Safilo. She begins by saying she started in sales with ophthalmologists and opticians, meaning her primary customers were vision care specialists. Victoria noticed that while more fashion brands were getting into eyewear, she observed that vision care specialists didn’t understand the merchandising and marketing of the brands. She wanted it to be easy to find a beautiful pair of glasses, so she became invested in marketing some of the earliest brands in eyewear, like Diane Von Furstenberg, Christian Dior, Calvin Klein, and Carrera. Now, there are too many to count.
Victoria took a job as the Director of Special Projects for an eyewear / sunglasses manufacturer and distributor in New York. She developed training in sales and marketing for sales reps and vision care providers. As licensing began to grow, the company launched many new brands of glasses. She made sure that each brand stayed true to itself, and she always asked herself, “What can I do better? How can I help my customer?”
I then ask her about winning the Accessories Council’s Design Excellence Awards for the Jimmy Choo 228 eyeglasses. Victoria explains that they entered this frame for the competition because of its glitter fabric—the same Jimmy Choo uses for clothing and shoes—with a geometric shape that would wow the judges. She says that Safilo is known for design excellence; therefore, they entered five frames for the awards. Three of the five made it to the finals, which she says was very exciting for them!
Next, I ask about Victoria’s role at Safilo and how it compares to her past roles. She says her objective for this year was to bring together the brand, marketing, and PR teams to better connect with the commercial teams to deliver the absolute best experience for all her retailers and vision care providers.
I ask about advertising optical wear and how that differs from advertising other products. “Since eyewear is on your face,” Victoria says, “it’s the first thing you see on a person. It says a lot about you!” She gives the example of seeing a handbag online—you already know if it will fit you. The challenge of eyewear is it must be flattering to your face; it has to go with your face shape, the bridge of your nose, how far apart your eyes are. She then takes a pair of glasses from the display wall behind her and shows me how a pair can be in the “same family” but not of the same shape.
Next, I ask about design. I’m happy that I have the opportunity to turn to Hayley Friel at this point. I ask about the up-and-coming eyewear line for Levi Strauss and how difficult it must be to design sunglasses for a denim brand. Hayley explains that there are many ways to remain true to a brand’s DNA. She says that for Levi’s, they were inspired by apparel and accessories in the brand’s archives, as well as newer elements, such as their zipper pulls.
The challenge of having global customers is my next question, since Safilo’s glasses are made in Italy and China. They have subsidiaries in 40 different countries, 50 distribution partners in various markets, and 100,000 points of sale throughout the world. Victoria says the styles are designed completely differently in Eastern Europe from what is marketed in Italy, China, or the U.S. Additionally, what is marketed in Ohio is different from what is marketed in New York or Miami. Hayley jumps in and explains that design is the same way. Designing for the U.S., U.K., and Germany can be similar, but much of Europe is on the opposite spectrum. They get into the specifics of who wants large frames, which cultures tend to have different facial characteristics, and what colors are popular where. All three burst into fun conversation about which countries love sparkles, which love neutrals, and why Italians love the color butterscotch so much.
Licensing is a favored business model in the United States, so I ask about what can make things difficult as a licensee. Starting by stating the positives, Victoria says she loves that Safilo gets to work with fantastic brands. The challenge is approvals, as brands must approve all the designs, displays, counter cards, cases, factories, and images. Also, licensing agreements involve investing a lot of money into that agreement. Glasses can take 18 months to get to market, so there’s no “trial and error” for eyewear. “We can’t sew a few t-shirts, throw them out there and see how it goes.” Since brands can always leave when their agreement is up, Eden Wexler adds that it is important for Safilo to have its own brands as well, to continue to grow on their own.
I then ask all three what advice they have for fashion students today. Victoria takes the lead by saying “internships.” Hayley speaks specifically about Safilo, saying that if the design team sees a “natural buzz” and talent in you, they will do everything they can to nurture you into making an internship into a job.
As I tell them I’ve reached the end of my questions, each smiles and begins to chat. Victoria and Eden offer to take me into the showroom and show me their favorites. I’m relieved no one is rushing me out! As Victoria shows me around, Eden goes off to a little corner. When the tour finishes, Eden is standing with a set of lenses staring at me. “We have a gift for you. I think these will match your little face shape,” she says. I almost shriek, I am so caught off guard. I couldn’t have asked for anything more than an amazing interview, but they upped the ante by gifting me my new favorite Polaroid sunglasses. After my words of gratitude, I mention I need a photo. Victoria says, “Oh, I have the perfect idea. Let’s take it with life-size David Beckham!”
Among the many things I’ll remember from the interview is Victoria expressing her love for eyewear: “I think eyes and being able to see is one of our most valued possessions. Putting eyewear on somebody’s face, making them feel beautiful, and helping them see, too, is really exciting and unique. There is nothing like healthcare and fashion combined.” I can feel her passion, and I can tell that she loves what she does.