$130 T-Shirt

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

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“Black clothing makes my life easier,” says designer Alexandra Peng.

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.

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Alexandra (left) wears one of her NM Luxury Essentials black tees.

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.


What’s Behind a Designer Brand?

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.

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Alexander McQueen designs from the Fall/Winter 2009 collection.

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.

 

 

 


What Are You Really Paying For? The True Cost of a Licensed Brand

“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”.

sunglasses_2In 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.

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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.

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Deluxe – How Luxury Lost its Luster, by Dana Thomas.

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.

 


Made in China

“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.

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The worker hand-scrapes the acetate to make the temples thinner.

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.

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The worker buffs the face plate, smoothing out the rough edges.

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.

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The worker uses a calligraphy brush to clean around the hinges.

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.

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The worker files and polishes the end piece.

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?

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The frames are washed, rinsed and set out to dry before being packaged.

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.


Why TC Fit?

“You’re high-end! You don’t need this!”

That is usually what people say to me when I tell them about TC Fit, especially those who love our TC CHARTON collection. It’s true; I didn’t need to create another sub-collection. We are quickly earning the loyalty of our fans, and the practices that carry our products are doing well. Nobody complains about our prices because we have proven the value of our products.

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Kyoto

Besides, I never had any experience creating products at “lower” price points. My past professional experiences and my upbringing has shaped me into a designer/consumer of quality goods with medium to medium-high price points. I will be the first to admit that I am one of those with “expensive tastes”.

However, moving my family and the company out of Silicon Valley has been a real eye-opener. We relocated to the North Texas’ DFW area, and I am delighted to find the diversity that I craved while living in the most expensive area in the country.

I actually have neighbors of ALL ethnicities, and gone are the days that everyone we interact with is in the tech industry with a household income in the top 1%. I actually get to know people from all walks of life. My children no longer bring home friends that roll their eyes because they HAVE TO go to Europe AGAIN for their summer vacation.

Once I got out of the unrealistic bubble of Silicon Valley, I came to realize that maybe not all people can afford our products, but still need them. People who work hard trying to raise a family, or have to work while paying for college tuition; people who are doing their part to contribute to the society but still live paycheck to paycheck; people who have decent jobs but still cannot afford to pay extra on top of their insurance coverage.

Hence TC Fit.

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Frankfurt (left) and Istanbul (right)

I like to think of TC Fit as a simplified collection. Gone are the intricate decals, metal inserted logos inside the temples, and richly patterned Italian acetates. I still want great eye shapes. I still want the hand-laminated nose pads and tips. It’s still being produced by the same manufacturer that produces TC CHARTON, which is renowned for their craftsmanship and beautiful finishing. I still want quality and I still want to offer a great fit to those who need it.

A customer just told me that TC Fit is a great addition to our existing CHARTON collection, as now he can offer great quality products to a wider range of people. “It’s not cheap. They are plenty of cheap products out there with cheap quality to match. It’s just very reasonably priced. It will never replace TC CHARTON, but it’s a great extension of your collection”.

Recently, my daughter came to the office to pick a frame for her upcoming eye exam. Out of over 150 styles, she ended up picking a TC Fit frame. When I asked her why she likes that particular frame, she said: “It has a great shape, and it’s very clean and fresh looking”.

That put a smile on my face.

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Alexandra’s daughter, Claire, wearing the Paris frame


Let Them See Clearly with the Right Frames

I used to think something was wrong with my face.

When I was a child, my glasses would always slide down my nose. No matter what I did I could not find frames that fit me properly, and it made me think that the problem was with my face. It was an awful feeling. When I first started TC CHARTON, I was determined to do whatever I could to prevent other children from having those same feelings.

I recently had a very long conversation with Mark Shupnick, an optician with over 40 years of experience in his field. He is going to be giving a lecture about the importance of children’s eye care at the upcoming Vision Expo West in Las Vegas, and had a lot of interesting things to say on the topic. As a mother of three, this is something that I have always been concerned about.

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We are noticing that more and more children, especially among the Asian population, become far-sighted. Most eye care professionals blame prolonged use of electronic devices and the lack of outdoor activities.

When children can’t see well, they simply cannot read and learn accordingly.  Moreover, a child that wears a pair of frames that keeps sliding down means their vision is not being properly corrected.

Making sure that children take annual eye exams, wear glasses that stay put, and protect their eyes from harmful UV rays while outdoors are simple ways to correct their vision.

A lot of parents are only vaguely aware of this issue, which is why it is so important for people like Mark to spread awareness. Hopefully the opticians, once informed, will pass on the message, and I want to do my part as well.

As far as I know, TC CHARTON is the only collection that offers an entire line of kids and teen Asian-fit frames. I feel that it is very important to not only give them glasses that fit properly early on, but to also provide them with many styles to express themselves with.

That being said, I am often asked why I don’t offer sunglasses for children. There are a few reasons for this.

Shot by Los Angeles Fashion Photographer, Will Taylor

Shot by Los Angeles Fashion Photographer, Will Taylor

Our frames and sunglasses are made with the highest-quality materials we can find, but a lot of parents are worried that their children will break or lose them. I already lowered our kids and teens prices substantially in an effort to encourage parents to give their children the right fit, but while most parents recognize the benefits of our frames, they would still be reluctant to give them sunglasses at a higher price point. To those parents, I often suggest an alternative solution: fitting their TC frames with transition lenses.

Transition lenses change from light to dark in the sunlight, so the child can wear their frames both indoors and outdoors without any problems. This saves the parents from buying two different frames, and means the child doesn’t have to keep track of multiple pairs of glasses. Just doing something this simple can make a big difference.

I grew up dealing with frames that never fit my Asian bridge. It was frustrating and made me feel inadequate. As a mother, I do not wish any child to EVER have to feel this way. As members of the eye care community, people like Mark and I must do everything we can to raise awareness on this topic. Please, if you are a parent, make sure to give your children regular eye exams. Don’t be afraid to spend a little bit more for frames that can actually stay on their bridge, and please fit them with transition lenses. The eyes of your children will thank you for it.


My Week in Hawaii with Arden Cho

A few weeks ago I traveled to Hawaii on a business trip. My original intention was just to visit our retail locations in the area, but a nice little coincidence led me to meet with actress and musician Arden Cho.  We had agreed to cosponsor her Aloha Summer Concert series and a music video during the same week, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to meet her.

I’ve been watching Arden closely for almost a year now. Aside from her role on Teen Wolf, she also appeared as a guest star on Hawaii Five-0 and has a number of other roles in both live action productions and voice over.  She caught my attention because she has a very positive public image and a strong presence on social media, so I always thought she would be the right type of Asian celebrity to represent our frames.

Arden

We had brunch at the Kahala Mandarin Hotel, and when we met I was immediately enchanted. She is a sweet, charming young woman with a strong, but quiet confidence. We had a wonderfully pleasant conversation while I fit her in some of our frames, and I’m pleased to say that she looks fabulous in them.

Unfortunately, there was a bit of a hiccup with the music video. The location, a beautiful run down building, was no longer available. So instead, we agreed to create a video for her Youtube channel to promote the concert. The video featured a number of scenes with her wearing our frames while her songs played in the background. I was quite impressed with the professionalism of the crew she assembled locally, and the video, needless to say, came out beautifully.

The VIP ticket holders of the concert got to attend a BBQ house party with Arden at an ocean front property just outside of Honolulu. During the party, I was able to witness firsthand how sweet and warm she is to her fans who were clearly ecstatic to be able to meet her.

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That same night, I attended her concert, and it was an absolute blast. She sang a lot of covers but also has an impressive repertoire of original songs that she has written over the years. As a music lover, I love the idea of being a part of her entrance into the music industry, and I believe that she will eventually make a big impact using this medium for her artistic expression.

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I may not be in the target demographic of Teen Wolf, but I am a huge fan of her talents. It’s clear that she has earned her place as one of the few Asian actors playing an important role in the mainstream American entertainment industry.  I truly feel that there needs to be more Asian celebrities like her in the public eye, especially those that can inspire the younger generation of Asian Americans to do the same.

My experience with Arden Cho has been something I will cherish for many years to come. I’m looking forward to the next time we can collaborate on a project together.

Friends