When I was around 12 years old, at the peak of Harry Potter hysteria, myself and my best friend Lillie were so desperate for glasses that we begged our families to pass their old pairs on to us so we could punch out the lenses and proudly wear them to school. When, a few years later, I received the news that my eyesight had finally deteriorated enough to warrant glasses, unlike most people, I was delighted – in the same way a broken arm or crutches made you cool at school, I couldn’t wait to have something different about me that could be ‘my thing.’
Fast forward ten years and the necessity to buy glasses had become a dreaded chore – one I delayed for as long as possible, often persisting with broken frames (repaired Jack Duckworth style) in order to avoid the grim prospect of being stiffed out of a small fortune at a high street optician. I loathed the options I was faced with – modern, bland designs, often with a meaningless brand logos stamped across the side to affect an air of value and justify the eye-watering mark up. As a result, I spent years putting up with awful glasses and cursed my genetics for choosing to pass on the family astigmatism.
Then, a few months ago, I stumbled across Cubitts. The designs caught my eye immediately – completely at odds with the bland roster of options offered by most opticians. My first assumption was that the price must be extortionate, but I was surprised to find that most frames were around £120, with lenses and extras included. Best of all, they were all made with using proper craftsmanship, largely here in Britain. It all seemed too good to be true, so I hastily bought my first pair of Hebrands in ‘Granite’, and never looked back. I was so overjoyed with my purchase I immediately wanted to spread the word to fellow myopics, so I sat down with founder Tom Broughton to chat about his pioneering business.
“I’ve worn glasses all my life and I could never understand why there weren’t more British spectacle brands,” says Tom. “You would walk into an opticians and it would all be Ray-Bans and Pradas and Guccis and the only British alternative was Cutler and Gross.” However, this was not always the case. For centuries, London was the optical centre of the world, with the first ever pair of glasses made in Soho in 1730. However, it was the NHS that unwittingly brought about the demise of British spectacle brands in the early 1980s, after it ended a scheme that had been providing free frames to every British citizen. The decision triggered the immediate collapse of the industry, and factories across the country began to close.
As a result of the historic link between the NHS and spectacles, the British attitude to the design and aesthetic of glasses remained underdeveloped for years. “British people came to associate frames with the medical industry, so it’s only really in the last few years they’ve become linked with fashion,” says Tom. “The relationship this country has with spectacles is entirely different to the rest of Europe. If you go to France or Italy, towns are full of boutique opticians and smaller brands, but for years we've had hardly any here.”
In response to this, Tom set himself the challenge of changing the British eyewear industry. “I was introduced to Lawrence Jenkin who used to run an eyewear brand called Anglo American,” he explains. “He’s been making frames in his New Cross house for 50 years and he started teaching me, together with a girl called Charlie Ingham who has her own bespoke service now as well called SohoBespoke.” Together they spent months learning the intricacies of eyewear design, which Tom describes as, “a weird overlap between design, fashion and mathematics.”
With the necessary skills honed, Tom set out to define the ethos of his brand – a key tenet of which was to change how people bought glasses. “One of our core principles is never to overwhelm,” he explains. “So we only ever have 20 optical styles, 20 sunglasses and ten colours. When we bring a new design through, we retire an old one – it’s all very considered.” Cubitts also promises absolutely none of the pressured up-selling that can make choosing frames so intimidating, with anti-scratch and anti-glare coatings offered as standard. The brand’s stores are kitted out to make every aspect of the simple and fuss-free, from providing in-store eye tests to a bespoke frame service that lets you design your frames to suit your needs.
Another key principal set out by Tom was to create quality frames that last, robust enough to survive the wear and tear of everyday life, but also simple enough to be repaired should the worst happen. “We use pin drilling to attach the front of our glasses to the back. It takes more time and skill than standard heat sunk hinges, but means if someone breaks the hinge, we can repair it for them in five minutes,” says Tom. “People are always amazed we haven’t tried to sell them a replacement pair, but are happy to fix it instead."
Each Cubitts frame is handcrafted from a sheet of high-quality Italian acetate, passing through 50 stages of production over six weeks. Designs are conceived by Tom himself, who draws inspiration from a life-long obsession with eyewear, and names each frame after a road in the King’s Cross area the brand was founded in. From there his ideas are converted into reality by 2D and 3D designers. Smaller runs of frames are then crafted in workshops in Kings Cross, New Cross, Hackney Wick and Norfolk, with larger runs currently made in Italy and France as demand outstrips the British industry’s current capabilities.
However, Tom is looking to change this with the opening of a new 2000 sq. foot site on the Caledonian Road where larger runs will be achievable. He envisages the new space as a kind of craft hub, inspired by the ethos of London’s Hackspace – a not-for-profit organisation providing free use of technology such as 3D printers or laser cutters to the public. “Ten years ago everyone wanted to be in the service industry and the idea of making stuff wasn’t very relevant to people,” says Tom. “But now that’s really changing.” Tom hopes that the new workshop will tap into this energy, creating what he calls, “a celebratory place that encourages people to make, providing access to facilities that might be too expensive for an individual.”
Throughout all this, Tom’s vision for craftsmanship remains very modern – combining new technology with traditional skills to create the best outcome possible. “It’s all about how you can apply technology to these traditional skills to give them new life and relevance,” he explains. “If you talk to spectacle experts they’ll describe the first ten years they spent just learning to cut frames. That isn’t practical anymore so now we use CNC machines that mean you can create the same outcome in six hours rather than two days.”
Similarly, the story behind the success of Cubitts is also very modern. “We started online and although we didn’t market ourselves we built such a following that by the time we opened our shop we had 10,000 people on the mailing list,” says Tom. “In the past we would have had no option but to go through a large retailer and hope that over 20 years consumers would get to know who we are. Thanks to the internet, that wasn’t necessary, which makes me think five or seven years ago we couldn’t have started.”
Tom believes the increasing popularity of Cubitts is also down to a sea change in the tastes of British consumers. “I was speaking to a retail expert who looks at the spending behaviours of consumers over macro cycles of eight to ten years,” says Tom. “He told me that the 90s was all about big brands and consumers using those brands as a way to position themselves in the world. The 2000s moved towards fast fashion at a cheap price from high street names, but this expert reckons now is the age of the independent brand that does one thing really well.” If this is the case, Cubitts is well-positioned to lead the revolution.