I am not typically brand loyal and I hardly ever pay attention to designer labels. I watch fashion shows as the colors and silhouettes are usually good indicators of what will be trending in the optical industry, but I never watch for a specific designer. This search for aesthetics over designer labels is a practice I use in my own personal clothing shopping, and led me to an unintentional purchase that has influenced my designs.
I am addicted to a plain T-shirt that costs $130.
I don’t have the most exciting closet. It consists mostly of shades of white, gray, blue, and especially black. Since my daughters are old enough to start eyeing my closet, they often ask why I own clothes that are so plain and black. “Black clothing makes my life easier,” I
reply. When I’m on the go, I don’t have time to be thinking about which colors will match, so I simply go with one that can withstand the test of time and occasions.
I don’t have a favorite designer. When I shop, I look at the quality of the material, the cut, and whether the style is one that suits my own. I hardly have any time to shop, so when I do, I go straight for a few stores that are known for quality, and search for pieces that are similar to the tried and true styles that I previously owned. I never have been one to go for any particular label or designer. Until I found these T-shirts.
I discovered these incredible T-shirts by pure coincidence, as I never intentionally seek them out. One day I was in a rush to find some plain T-shirts, and Neiman Marcus was the closest store near me. I ran in, asked the sales lady where I could find some plain shirts, and she pointed to a rack in the corner. I quickly grabbed three: a black, gray, and navy blue, and darted to the cashier. When she told me the amount I had to pay, I was shocked. I instantly regretted not looking at the price tags, but I didn’t have time to shop elsewhere, so I dutifully but painfully paid.
What made those T-shirts different from inexpensive alternatives was not immediately apparent to me. Yes, the cut was great; they felt as if they were tailored specifically for me, but I am no stranger to clothing with a proper fit, so I still thought I made a mistake for not being a more careful shopper. But years went by and I finally took notice. I became aware of the fact that those three T-shirts are the ones I always reach for. I also noticed that after years of countless washing, they have not faded and have not lost their shape. They feel as comfortable as when I first bought them. I also finally understand what “feels like your second skin” means. Not because they are skin-tight, but it means they are so utterly comfortable that I always feel at ease while I’m wearing them.
I will probably wear tees by Neiman Marcus’ Luxury Essentials until the day I die or they stop the collection, whichever comes first. I came to accept the fact that paying such an exuberant amount for a plain T-shirt is my guilty pleasure. I wear them all the time, and they work well with either dress up or down: with jeans, with long skirts, layered under a blazer, and especially when I fly as they are thick enough to keep me warm while on the plane.
Four years after I bought those tees, I went back to NM and got a couple more black ones. I brought them home, put them side by side with the old one, and found no difference whatsoever between them. They are exactly the same shade of black and look and feel identical.
This is an era when fast and cheap fashion such as H&M and Zara are all the rage. But I refuse to shop from them because their clothing cannot withstand the test of time so one ends up creating more wastes in the landfills. I will always prefer paying more for quality and styles that actually last as I believe it’s actually better value in the long run and better for our environment.
No fashion runway shows have inspired me as much as these plain black T-shirts. It shall always be my goal to create versatile, understated, and timeless elegant eyewear with quality that lasts.
I often question what it really means to be a designer.
Take the fashion industry for example: for the last few decades, most of the runway-worthy designers package their latest whims and ideas with dramatic theatrical elements tailored for the media hoping to make headlines and glossy magazine covers. But the more regarded the fashion designer, the less likely we will ever see their clothes sold at retailers, as they are deemed “unsellable.” So, in order to recover the exuberant price tag of runway shows, the fashion houses will request the designers to create a simplified “ready to wear” collection. The glorified fashion kings and queens will eventually cater to department stores and the down-to-earth needs of regular consumers to recoup costs in order to remain profitable.
Then what is fashion but a form of self-indulgence of the fashion houses and of the designers? It is all done in the name of creating an image and to satisfy the press with article-worthy materials. The consumers merely get a watered-down version of the designer’s aesthetics. They are buying the label of the designer whose name was in the news, but the clothes they get from Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth Avenue have barely any resemblance of designers’ original creativity.
Yet the shows go on season after season. Millions and millions of revenue is spent and lost. The fashion the world once knew is being reduced to serve only a select few. Couture is alive only on runways and red carpets.
Gone are the days that men need to be all suited-up in order to look professional and credible. Most women ditched their pencil skirts and stockings for good. People want clothes that can take them from day to night, and consequently, most people hardly ever pay attention to current fashion. People just want to wear what suits their personality, budget, and lifestyle. The smarter and savvier the consumer, the less likely he or she will care to chase what’s trending in fashion.
I am such consumer. I will pay for quality, but never for a label. I am a working mom who needs to go from the office to the grocery store, and then home to whip up dinner in 30 minutes flat. My weekends are filled with cooking, catching up on movies, and lounging in my backyard while I read and listen to my kids’ laughter. I hardly have an occasion that requires fancy clothes. Even when I attend business expos, my outfit has to be able to take me from a 10 hour work day to a business dinner, and withstand the occasional coffee spill.
Before I launched TC CHARTON, I used to work with 20-30 collections of “designer eyewear” each year. For each collection, I always tried to stay focus on each brand’s theme or the colors of the season. But that’s where the consistency of the brand ends. Most license brands would request that the styles sacrifice functionality or cut costs on the materials in favor of the placement of a big logo—which means all temples have to have a certain height or thickness to accommodate such logo. Worst of all, they want to “recycle” eye shapes. Once certain eye shapes are proven good sellers, they wanted me to reuse the same shape over and over again. The end result? All collections look strikingly similar and the uniqueness of each label is lost.
So, when I design my own collection, one thing I try to always keep in mind is “What do real people want.” (Let’s keep this sentence in order to provide some kind of transition). Once I forgo the types of styles that are meant to “wow” but have little practicality, I focus solely on the consumers’ needs and draw my inspiration from real faces. There’s no ego behind my label, and therefore no styles are ever meant to create headlines. They are, nevertheless, carefully crafted with simple and minute details to maximize comfort and durability while looking great on an Asian face.
My customers may never know who’s behind the frames they are wearing, because being famous as a designer was never part of my agenda. What’s important is for them to get to wear products that were sincerely created for them; one face and one style at a time.
“Why do your products cost as much as brands like Versace?” People have asked.
My short and sweet answer: “Because we have higher quality products.”
Upon seeing the puzzled look on their face, I’d explain further.
Most consumers don’t realize the difference between “licensed brands” and “independent brands”.
In terms of eyewear, a pair of “licensed brand” frames will bear the logo of a big and recognizable brand, such as Versace, Gucci, Christian Dior, Michael Kors, Giorgio Armani, Prada, Ferragamo, Valentino…etc.
These fashion power houses give optical companies the rights to develop, manufacture, distribute and sell products bearing their logos. This kind of agreement, depending on how powerful/recognizable the brand is, could potentially cost the eyewear company millions of dollars on the rights alone. They receive permission to use the name for a number of years (typically, five) plus, an additional amount of time per each unit sold.
Meanwhile, the luxury house (such as LVMH) that owns these big fashion brands will sit back and collect the license fee and royalties without ever needing to know anything about the ins and outs of optical design or manufacturing.
Eyewear companies such as Luxottica (which owns Lenscrafters/Sunglass Hut/Sears Optical/Peale Vision and holds the licenses to Chanel, Tiffani, Bvlgari, Oakley, Coach, Prada, Armani, Prada, Ray Ban, etc.), and Safilo Group, (which holds the licenses to Fendi, Boss, Marc Jacobs, Dior and owns nine thousand retail stores worldwide) handle the process of creating and producing the branded eyewear lines.
Taking the licensing fees and the cost of the royalties into consideration, the in-house eyewear designers have a very rigid budget when creating the style. Often times, this means the quality has to be sacrificed. In order to turn a profit, the styles must be easily mass produced. Their business strategy hinges on the idea that people will buy the products for the recognized logos regardless of quality.
However, an independent eyewear brand, such as TC CHARTON, has none of those embedded costs.
In my case, because there is no one above me to dictate the budgets and no board members to answer to, I have total freedom in the creative process. I get to pick the best quality components and materials and can just focus on creating the most beautiful products possible. Instead of spending the money on paying royalties and licensing fees, I get to spend it on quality and craftsmanship.
I am not alone. Behind every independent eyewear company, there is someone who is passionate about the art of designing and producing a distinctive collection that reflects their artistic sensibilities. Unfortunately, when dealing with licensed brands, they will have to compromise creativity for the sake of profit.
I am fortunate because I have no such constraints. This is all I know, and I cannot imagine doing it differently.
So before you shop for your next pair of frames, please remember: if the brand sounds familiar and bears a big logo that appears on clothing or other consumer goods, it is a licensed brand. A discerning consumer will always seek out lesser known and beautifully crafted pieces, as these are the styles that truly embody the artistry and vision of a true designer.
For more information, I suggest reading Deluxe – How Luxury Lost its Luster, by Dana Thomas. It is a wonderful book that goes into intricate detail surrounding the issues plaguing licensed brands.
“Where are your products made?” People often ask.
“They are made in China.” I’d reply with confidence.
I get a lot of varied reactions to that.
Some would shrug and say, “Everything is made in China nowadays,” and accept it without a second thought. Some freeze up, worrying about blurting out something politically incorrect.
Usually I let them pause for a few seconds, and then add, “They are made by one of the top-five optical companies in Hong Kong. They are a second-generation manufacturer that produces some of the top boutique collections in the world.”
That tends to get their attention.
With so much negative media coverage dealing with questionable products made from shady factories, I can understand their hesitation. The mistrust towards Chinese produced goods is deeply ingrained into the consumer’s mind. After all, most of these people will never step foot inside a factory to inspect the quality of the goods themselves, especially not the ones across the globe. If all you ever hear is the negative portrayals on the news, then of course you would be critical.
And because of the media bias, most people will never know that the ones really responsible for those shoddy goods are the buyers from American companies.
I’ve heard with my own ears, more times than I care for, stories of obnoxious buyers from big companies that bully their way into better deals with the factory. They will place orders for ginormous quantities, and insist that the factory slash their prices in half to accommodate them. Most factories have little choice in the matter, as if they refuse to do business, hundreds of thousands of workers may lose their jobs.
But something will have to give.
The factory is placed under strict time constraints, so they can’t take longer to finish the order. The price range is non-negotiable and at the end of the day they will still have to pay all of their employees. The quality of the materials is the only thing that can be sacrificed to appease the buyer’s outrageous specifications.
Lower quality products do not concern the buyers. The only thing they care about is maintaining their profit margins, and returning back to the boardroom with a beautiful spreadsheet detailing the amazing deal they just secured. So long as they can supply blockbuster stores in the first world countries with cheap goods to feed the insatiable appetites of the typical consumer, they will do whatever it takes to make it happen.
Then my question is, who is to blame? The factories? The buyers?
Or is it the consumers that only want cheap products?
The same people who are wary of Chinese-made products often forget that the iPhone in their hands was also made in China. So are their solar panels, the $3000 flat screen TV, the satellites, and their beautiful buttery leather jackets.
The factory that produces our collection is the same I collaborated with for fifteen years while working with 30+ European collections a year. It is a second-generation frame maker, and the founding father, who is over 78 now, started making frames when he was 17 years old. As a young apprentice, he would fallow his shi-fu from Shanghai to Hong Kong, sitting behind a little window taking measurements and handcrafting each frame from real tortoise shells. He kept a small operation for over four decades, until his three grown sons returned from their education in America to take over the family business.
All the European brands that I worked with, (the majority of them real boutique eyewear brands with great prestige worldwide) were produced in their plant in China. Once the goods were finished, they were shipped throughout Europe to the headquarters of these optical companies, and there they were printed as “made in” France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Denmark, etc.…
Once, I was approached by a representative from a European brand. He noted the quality of TC CHARTON, and said that other brands of similar quality would price their products $100 higher than ours. He didn’t know how we could afford to price them so low.
I just smiled and told him, “I don’t need to pay for all the shipping.”
By directly shipping from China to the USA, we don’t have to increase our prices to pay for detour shipping and custom duties. This allows us to pass the savings onto our consumers.
I used to be part of this unethical “country of origin” game. But now that I have full-control of my own collection, I refuse to deceive the consumers. I also want to give credit where credit is due. These exceptional artisans and craftsmen deserve recognition for their work. I want to tell everybody through my products that there are GREAT Chinese factories out there, and that they produce some of the most beautifully crafted products I’ve ever seen. Why should the Europeans get all the credit when these Chinese workers are the ones who did all the dirty work?
That being said, it is undeniable that the European optical component companies still produce top quality parts and materials. We use German stainless steel, Italian Mazzucchelli acetates, French COMOTEC and Austrian REDTENBACHER spring hinges. But, besides the parts and materials, the thing that truly distinguishes a beautiful acetate frame from a mediocre one is the craftsmanship.
There are bad apples in every industry, in every country. But there are also some state-of-the-art facilities across China that are so well-managed, so skilled, and so technologically advanced that they have to be run by some of the very best experts, engineers, and artisans in the world. Just like the factory that produces every single piece of our collection.
Top notch components and skilled craftsmanship. I believe we have the best of both worlds. And yes, they are made in China.
By Alexandra Peng
Founder of Prolouge Vision / Designer of TC CHARTON & Alexandra Peng Collections
When I first envisioned the TC CHARTON collection, I had only one simple mission in mind — I wanted to offer beautiful and chic eyewear products to Asian Americans. More precisely, all Asian people who reside in this great country. As one of them, I want to do something for my fellow Asian Americans who work so hard to be an integral part of this nation, and call this land our own, even if we are only 12 % of its entire population. Sometimes, we must work harder to prove ourselves. Sometimes, we must face conflicting sets of values that are different than our ancestors’ cultural heritages. As much as we feel just as American as everyone else, we look different than a Caucasian person. Being a “minority” is challenging at times, but feeling bad about how we look shouldn’t be one of them. We are simply built differently.
TC CHARTON is here to offer you glasses that are designed with your specific facial structure in mind. So when you wear them, you don’t have to wish you had Caucasian features just so the glasses won’t slide down or sit on your cheeks. You no longer need to secretly wish for plastic surgery every time you feel frustrated while shopping for glasses!
Of course, diversity is a beautiful thing. It is what makes this nation so great, and it is the inevitable future. As the world gets smaller, people from different parts of the world mingle, interracial marriages are becoming more and more common, and we are witnessing a shift from what used to be “normal” and the so called “standard”. We are creating the new norms, and the world is a better place because of it. Esthetically TC CHARTON is true to the American sense of style, but technically they are shaped and built to NOT fit the same as conventional eyewear.
I am not here to exclude, I am here to include ALL of us who used to feel excluded and forgotten by the eyewear industry.
The old “standard fit” is still good for the majority, but it is not for me, nor you. Every season, I try to offer different designs that can serve a specific need: faces with extremely low bridges, faces that are very wide, faces with very high arches, faces with very small PDs…For 2014, we are including some sophisticated styles for petite men and women, and more styles for people with low but wider bridges.
Only recently I started to notice that we have a following of Black Americans and Blasians (Black American and Asian mix) and also Latinos. We even have some Caucasian fans! While I am extremely happy about the fact that my products are serving a much wider demography that I hadn’t thought of before, it also makes me wonder whether I was wrong all along to call this collection “Asian Fit”.
I didn’t mean to exclude. I want my products to be worn by anybody who needs them. Everybody deserves glasses that fit and are beautiful at the same time.
After months of pondering over this and even taking online polls through our Facebook page, I am finally at peace with myself. I know my collection is the antithesis of exclusion, and my fans know it too. While I must not forget that most of my inspiration comes from Asian faces, and therefore TC CHARTON is foremost an Asian Fit collection, I am thrilled and happy to know that our products are also serving some of my fellow Americans of other ethnicities.
This photo shoot is my response to all of our fans that are NOT Asians — I present to you, Eldridge Henderson, my incredibly handsome Black model, who flew in from San Francisco to be part of our shoot.
Among hundreds of models’ portfolios, Eldridge caught my eye because I saw a picture of him wearing a pair of Ray Ban frames and while his wardrobe and pose were impeccable, I noticed that the frames were not sitting properly on his nose bridge. That’s when I knew he would be perfect in this photoshoot. This is not the first time that I have designed styles to fit nose bridges that are wide and low, but it is the first time that we found the right model to showcase this style.
This is my way of saying Thank You to ALL of You.
By Crystal Natsuko
Model for TC CHARTON
On January 29, 2014, we shot the 2014 TC CHARTON photo shoot with a special twist, adding some Texas flair to our upscale Asian look. Alexandra has gotten a flood of requests for new images, and we are excited to share this year’s new campaign images with you, very soon! Here is a breakdown and behind the scenes peek of how the photo shoot went. Yeeehaw!
Since moving her company, family and loyal employees to their new national headquarters in Plano, Texas last November 2013 TC CHARTON has continued to expand product lines and inluence to fans and beautiful unique faces around the world. Owner and designer, Alexandra Peng, decided to infuse this year’s photo shoot with local flavor and charm and to that end, scouted photographers, videographers, crew and location all from the Dallas area to reflect that TC CHARTON’s new home is the Friendly State of Texas.
Models were flown in the day before. Yun and I departed from Los Angeles and headed to Dallas, and I was surprised that we went across to the ocean, for a while after takeoff, apparently planes fly directly into the wind initially and then turn into the air currents, a pilot friend of mine later explained to me. After a few hours, Regis picked Yun, Eldridge and I up from Dallas International, one of the largest airports in the country.
Alexandra, Regis and the girls, and their new rescue puppy, Cocoa, were gracious to host us. Alexandra welcomed us by making an incredible fresh cherry tomatoes and spinach pasta in under 10 mins flat, no problem. With some non-vegetarian options on the side. It was the best tasting thing in the world as we were hungry and tired, then we all tried to get our beauty rest.
The day of the shoot was cold. Outside it was something like 30 degrees. We drove up North through Dallas, until we reached the outskirts of the city and civilization began to fade away as we marveled at the beautiful, raw scenery. The landscape reminded me of California’s Central Valley where I grew up, stunning yet stark and utilitarian with agriculture being the main industry. We reached the ranch and cottage location.
We had brought enough snacks to feed our little army for the day and everyone quickly set up. Our first set was shot in the upstairs of the barn. Our hosts at the ranch were the owners, a great husband and wife team who had built the structures on the ranch by themselves, him putting reclaimed wood together to build the vintage replica barn, the cottage where we staged the shoot, and possibly their own house, with amazing loving care and attention to detail. She had designed the interiors thoughtfully using reclaimed materials, like champagne corks of different kinds for drawer pulls in the Jack-and-Jill bathrooms.
Makeup artist, Leslie, had arrived early to scout out the best lighting in the cottage and did the makeup and hair for all the models in a window corner where the sun filtered in. Alexandra had opted to do lead styling herself, tying all aspects of her vision for the brand together by choosing pieces that reflect the lifestyle and upscale nature of the brand, but also playing on down-to-earth all American staples like jeans wear, tall boots, flannels, white collared shirts, and leather jackets. Bradie meticulously and efficiently coordinated logistics and wardrobe changes and steamed the garments to perfection.
The videographer and his crew and photographer, Sergio and his crew, who are all Dallas locals, seemed able to survive outdoors in the cold on the various sets for most of the day, while us models, who are all from sunny California, took turns reheating and defrosting ourselves indoors at the Cottage and outdoors in front of an amazing bonfire that the awesome owners lit up for us with a healthy dose of kerosene.
This is my new favorite picture, ever. The dogs belonged to the ranch owners and wandered into the shots with some coaxing, since they were doing the rounds.
Alexandra had chosen Eldridge, a FORD model who hails from San Francisco and was referred by our other model, Charlene, (featured in the counterpart Alexandra Peng collection photo shoot that took place the following Saturday) because Alex had gotten so many inquiries from all around the country, for a Blasian look. I learned that Blasian refers to a mix between Asian and Black American, which is distinct from the identity term, African American. As Alexandra pointed out, Eldridge was making history and creating images that are a sign of our times, as these glasses do fit a variety of faces from all ethnic backgrounds and mixes.
In a hilarious but also awe inspiring moment, Eldridge was helped out by two canny horses, who stepped into the frame on either side of him, while he was posing next to their corral, amazingly the horses held perfectly still and faced the camera. Whoever says animals aren’t aware and sentient beings misses the meaning in moments like these.
Towards the end of the day, we were racing the sunlight, squeezing out as many sets as we could. Luckily, my last wardrobe change and set was inside the cottage, as the temperature simultaneously dropped lower as the sun did. It was a very productive and smooth flowing day, as everyone pitched in and worked together as pros. We celebrated another successful wrap at the Brick House in Dallas, a local sports bar where everyone we met was super cute and friendly!
Location: The Cottage At Bon Terra Farm Aubrey, TX
Photographer: Sergio Garcia
Videographer: Bruce Faulconer
TC CHARTON Asian Fit Eyewear Designs/Stylist: Alexandra Peng
Makeup/Hair: Leslie Belcher
Models: Yun Choi, Eldridge Henderson, Crystal Natsuko
I’m currently attending some trade shows in Europe to check out the latest in styles, colors and designs this season. I always get very inspired when I go to these shows. I am constantly in search for more ideas to help create the next collection of TCC eyewear. It would definitely combine the best of European designs tweaked to the Asian palette and especially the fit. That would be east meets west indeed!