In the mad skirmish over fashion in last season’s NBA, Miami Heat players Dwyane Wade, Lebron James and Chris Bosh appeared after a game in Los Angeles in matching pairs of dark, chunky eye glasses custom-crafted by Miami optician Edward Beiner.
A night after winning the finals last June, Wade greeted fans at the Vizcayne condo wearing fuschia Del Toro shoes he helped design, three championship rings, and another of Beiner’s concoctions. It had clear lenses, not to improve sight, but to deflect the cameras— an approach Beiner took when designing dark frames for high-profile model and television host Heidi Klum.
The championship rings might be hard to get, but Beiner hopes his company will score points with well-heeled customers by offering them the chance to not only copy the style of NBA stars and models, but to fashion their own specs.
“I see myself as a pure retailer,” Beiner says during a recent visit to his recently revamped, ground-floor 1,280-square-foot store at 900 S. Miami Ave. in Mary Brickell Village, where white chaise-longue chairs nestle near custom-built glass cabinets displaying his hand-picked collections. They feature both his own designs as well as other high-end brands.
Prices for a pair of frames run from $150 for a pair of Super nonprescription shades to $30,000 for Cartier diamond-studded frames. But what all the frames have is a style or look not readily found in larger stores.
“It doesn’t have to be expensive, it just has to be unique,” Beiner said of the items he offers.
Publicly traded Italian optical conglomerate Luxottica, headquartered in Port Washington, N.Y., controls the eyewear market through its brands Ray-Ban and Oliver Peoples, exclusive licensing agreements with Italy’s top fashion houses to manufacture frames, and global retail chains including Sunglass Hut — which it acquired for $686 million in 2000 — and LensCrafters and Pearle Vision. Because of Luxottica’s heft and reach, designer eyewear is widely available to consumers.
Each year, Beiner scrutinizes trade shows in Las Vegas and Japan as well as the ski lodges of Aspen and the streets of Paris — locales of the world’s most fashion-forward, adventurous eyewear, he says — for frame ideas and colors that will “set the bar in fashion.” Beiner says his eye for the avant-garde gives him two years, if he’s lucky, of exclusivity before the designs in his stories are copied and sold online or by bigger optical chains at lower prices.
“Ed’s style is so great, sometimes I’ll try on 100 pairs of glasses just for fun,” says 30-year customer Cynthia Leesfield, 68, the Democratic fundraiser and wife of prominent trial attorney Ira Leesfield who is known for the oversize frames she wears.
The $6.3 billion designer eyewear market is highly competitive, optical companies and observers say, with Luxottica controlling distribution channels and prices. Luxottica, which does not break down sales by category, reported sales of $4.3 billion in the United States and Canada in 2012, suggesting a clear majority market share.
But Beiner believes his bespoke frames will help him carve a niche that Luxottica, because of its size, won’t easily be able to occupy.
“The upper echelon is sick and tired of all these brands printed on their clothes, their shoes. They don’t represent luxury anymore,” said Guido Balocco, co-owner and chief financial officer of the Beiner company.
Balocco sold the boutique Italian eyewear line PerSOL, his ex-wife’s family business, to Luxottica for an undisclosed sum in 1994 before he joined Beiner as partner and co-owner two years later.
On a recent trip to his native Turin, Balocco discovered a tiny lab able to build glasses made-to-measure, offering thousands of combinations of shape and color, with the customer’s optional logo or signature imprinted on the sides. Although Edward Beiner has already offered such services to a handful of celebrity clients, the company plans to launch the concept to all customers with a trunk show at the Palm Beach Store, 150 Worth Ave., in January.
For $700 (including prescription or non-prescription lenses), customers can purchase frames of their own design. The lab in Turin will receive the custom orders digitally, build the frames, and mail them back within 30 days.
“You will be presented with a range of samples in frames all in black. You can say, ‘I want a temple that gives you the sensation of sea waves,’ and then you start picking the colors,” Balocco says. “This is so niche, the big manufacturer will never do it.”
Rival companies could also find ways of customizing frames and producing them inexpensively. But Beiner dismisses the competition, saying lower prices generally reflect lower quality and the lack of original design.
One of Beiner’s chief rivals is Richard Golden, the founder and chief executive of the funky-frames chain SEE Eyewear, based in Southfield, Mich. Formerly chief executive of his father’s company, Detroit Optical Co., which he and his brother Randal sold to Luxottica in 2006, Golden was quick to reject Beiner’s critiques that SEE sells cheap knockoffs made in China.
“The kiss of death to us would be to look at frames that are already on the market and to make ourselves vulnerable to allegations of copying. We would be busted,” Golden said, adding that only about 10 percent of SEE frames at the company’s 32 stores nationwide are manufactured in China.
“The reason I started SEE is that it got so insane and continued to be. We knew how much frames cost to be produced, but the people who have the licenses for the designer names charge us a huge mark-up to buy those frames,” Golden said.
Beiner, 58, is also going head-to-head with hipster purveyors Warby Parker, based in New York City, which went from online-only to brick-and-mortar on the popularity of their buy-one, donate-one $95 frames, and Miami Beach start-up Collins Bridge, which has a similar policy.
Beiner shrugs. “The war keeps me young,” he says with a grin.
Beiner first came to Miami in 1980 by way of Brazil, Canada and Puerto Rico. In 1969, five years after a coup d’état in Brazil, Beiner’s father, a jewelry merchant, moved the family from Santos, in São Paulo state, to California and then Puerto Rico. After studying optometry in Toronto, Beiner returned to Puerto Rico to become Philadelphia optical start-up For Eyes’ regional manager. He transferred to Miami, quit his job, raised $40,000 from family and friends and, at age 26, opened his first shop in South Miami at 5817 Sunset Dr.
Beiner says he had learned from his father’s repartee with customers, offering them food and drinks while they perused his gems. He makes a point of memorizing customers’ names and tastes in eyewear. “We Latin Americans have a different approach to retail — it’s all about the customer experience,” he says.
He has long tailored the merchandise and atmosphere of his stores to his intended customers. Last year the company hosted a lavish cocktail party at the Palm Beach store around the release of a new collection of Prada eyewear, complete with $35,000 diamond-studded frames. At a recent promotion party in the Brickell location for the yuppie eyewear brand Super, a DJ spun dance music while customers drank Peroni beer and perused the new collection.
The Foundation, a New York City-based showroom that represents a handful of private-label accessories and clothes, gave the Beiner company the Super account because Beiner and Super seem to share similar outlooks on fashion.
The Foundation was “looking for something a little more forward, a brand whose sole intention was to keep things clean and not put our logo everywhere,” said Daniel Yadgard, the showroom’s “brand architect.” “The brand DNA of Super was having no brand, and the team at Edward Beiner seemed to really like that about us.”
Edward Beiner’s brand — or the lack of one — was what Daniela Zanzuri wanted to cultivate when she began as head of marketing in 2008, a year in which the company’s sales dropped 30 percent. A New York native in her early 50s, she worked as a producer for Italian filmmakers and commercial makers in Miami. She is married to Beiner; they met in San Juan when both were teens.
“I know how to work out the details for somebody else’s vision,” says Zanzuri. Her last campaign — which equated technology with beauty to sell the company’s razor-thin, “high-index” lenses — won her accolades from the respected trade publication, Vision Monday, which named her among the top 50 women in the optical field. “Advertising and public relations can sometimes be a big illusion. How do we give a certain reality to this illusion? That’s what I’m good at — breaking down the big picture into details,” she said.
Since Zanzuri came aboard, sales have nearly doubled, from $6.4 million to a projected $11.3 million this year. Gross profit margins have also improved — from 7 percent, or $448,000, in 2009 to 13.9 percent, or $1.57 million, last year.
Beiner projects the company can grow to $20 million in annual revenues and 20 stores in five years by further penetration of the Florida market. After that, he says, he’ll arrive at a crossroads: Go public? Sell? Retire?
“Some people perceive Edward Beiner as a recognizable up-and-comer, some see it as a brand with a real following, but it’s not big time on the radar yet. Is it ready for prime time? “I don’t know. It’s still very niche,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at The NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based company that tracks sales in many industries.
If Beiner does hand over the reins, it won’t be to his sons David, 24, and Steven, 20.
“Family business doesn’t work. I refused to go into my dad’s jewelry business. This was my dream,” Beiner said as he surveyed the Brickell store.