CUTLER AND GROSS: accelerated change

Author: Clodagh Norton

Interview of the Month
September 28, 2021

Alessandro Marcer working at the design studio

In an exclusive interview for 2020EUROPE, Fiona Reynard, Managing Director, Cutler and Gross explained the fast evolution of the British company, and its new investments in production in Italy, diversification and product strategies, designed – in the light of the pandemic and a new climate of business – to promote long-term success.

Q: The last 15 months have been difficult to say the least across the optical business. How has Cutler & Gross taken on the challenge of the pandemic?

A: The past months have been challenging for everybody. We have all had to change the way we do business, and in other ways the pandemic has accelerated changes that were already happening within the industry. At Cutler and Gross we have had a major push towards upgrading all our systems and digitisation, implementing a new B2B system to enable customers to view and order our full range online and helping our sales agents work virtually. Customers have shifted from placing orders in bulk 2-3 times a year to ordering more regularly throughout the year. Quite simply, we have found, now more than ever, service is key, being able to deliver products on time to our clients and holding sufficient stock to replenish within 3 days in Europe is our benchmark. A fully integrated distribution centre in Italy, close to our factory, was a consequence of Brexit - but will improve our service level going forward. However, after 40 years of shipping into Europe from the UK it has been a major change for us to recreate the Service Level and ‘feel’ while shipping remotely from a new location. We have retained a smaller London warehouse for our UK customers. We have also changed the way we release product. Having previously focused our new releases around the trade shows (Mido and Silmo), we now are having a release every quarter. Bringing something new to the market every 3 months has been a change which has really worked for us in not only driving sales but also creativity within our business. Our European partners have really appreciated our efforts to help them bring forward our service and stock levels and our push to making it easier to order and replenish. We are approximately 20% up on wholesale frames ordered versus the previous 18 months, so the changes we have been forced to make in the business have had a positive impact already and should future proof us for the next 2-3 years. Our current 5-year plan is to create the highest quality acetate frames in Europe and upskill our factory to do so. This is a plan we have been working steadily towards with improvements each collection. However, the lockdown gave us the opportunity to get together as a board to reassess this in light of the changes in the world and the problems faced by reduced travel, supply chain issues and inflationary pressure. It has crystalised our vision to three main tenets:  less is more; strategic sourcing of raw materials; and to focus on pushing the quality levels higher than our competitors who make in Japan and overseas.  To do so we have invested over a million euro in the factory alone to improve our facility and ability to transform the quality of our production in the last 12 months. We have also invested around the same in key staff in Italy and the UK to help us push the quality of design, marketing and production.

\\ New collection campaign AW21

Q: Cutler and Gross is an iconic British brand with its own production facility in Italy – something quite rare in a business where outsourcing is the norm. How is this unique structure, which is at the very essence of the DNA of the brand

A: We have the customer facing side of the business in London, for example Sales, PR and Customer Service (to preserve the British identity) and we have Design, Operations, and some of our Marketing operations in Italy. We are unique in the fact we do not outsource any processes, and we are vertically integrated - which is extremely rare for an independent brand. We control our own image, communication, design, distribution, and production, which allows us to focus on delivering exactly what we envisage to our customers without any dilution of the creative process. A unique position in the market which enables us to do things which are sometimes outside of the norm, and true to our independent spirit. As a group we are very aware of the iconic status of Cutler and Gross in the industry. The goal for us is to keep the British style and attitude, whilst leveraging the capabilities of our bespoke design studios and factory in Italy. We regularly look at our extensive archive for inspiration, with over 50 years of creativity distilled within our DNA, we are never short of inspiration. Design features like thicker acetates, laminates, star rivets, paddle temples, neon colours and reverse milling (which you now see in many other brands) were first pioneered by Graham Cutler and Tony Gross 30-40 years ago.  Cutler and Gross, much like other iconic brands like Porsche or Land Rover has distinctive shapes in its design lexicon which are instantly recognisable. The challenge is modernising the fit and manufacturing processes to position our frames at the highest possible level, while keeping the unique Cutler and Gross DNA. With our ‘less is more’ motto, we have recently introduced a lengthy sign off process for all our products to ensure they are fitting of our name. Not just as regards the quality and fit, but also the design language, we always ask ourselves, “Is this Cutler and Gross?”. I like to think that as a leader I bring the best people I can around me. At heart I am a fan of Cutler and Gross – for me its not just a product, it’s a passion, and that’s why I am so keen to preserve it. I also understand the competitive nature of the market, so Cutler and Gross cannot be a museum piece, we must evolve our offerings and push boundaries – much like our founders did in the 60s right through to the 2000s.  

The goal for us is to keep the British style and attitude, whilst leveraging the capabilities of our bespoke design studios and factory in Italy…

Q: I understand that some restructuring of operations at the Italian factory have taken place just in the last few months. Can you explain what you have changed or put in place in Italy? How has the design atelier changed?

A: As mentioned above we have maintained a strong presence in Italy for the last 10 years with our own factory and long-standing highly skilled team. To be able to rapidly make changes and develop the collection we needed the design atelier and our Creative Director, Alessandro Marcer to be based there. Working with Alessandro we have a team of people sampling and developing protypes for Cutler and our licenses. Clearly a portion of our investment in Italy last year was directed to the atelier development and the results have been amazing. We are very excited about our new product.

Q: Has the move towards sustainability in fashion and optics had a bearing on your planning this year, and if so how?

A: Cutler and Gross have always had the reputation of creating frames with a long lifespan. We continue to have clients visiting our stores with frames they purchased many years ago for a clean and polish bringing them back to their former glory. We continue to follow the same ethos of manufacturing frames which will last. We source the majority of our raw materials and components locally to our factory in the mountains. We are working on improvements to our packaging and POS materials, and will have an option on our B2B where customers can select ‘no packaging’ and the frames will arrive with less cardboard and also less waste. 2023 should see the introduction of Bio Acetate into our collections, with our expertise lying in custom colouring and laminates. This is part of a wider project with our partners Mazzuchelli and Laes.

\\ Cutler and Gross production in Italy

Q: And in the UK, is your HQ very much still London? How are the stores faring, and have you made any changes to your retail proposition or online / digital focus with the climate as it is and footfall in stores low compared to pre-pandemic time

A: We are very much a British brand with our roots are in London, having our HQ and two retail stores here. It has definitely been a challenging period for retail, navigating through the various lockdowns and maintaining a safe environment for all our clients and staff. As with other parts of the business, we have also been investing in retail, introducing a new patient management system and new testing equipment to give our clients the best possible eyecare experience. Although footfall has been weaker than pre-pandemic times, the introduction of a frame styling by appointment service, to complement eye examinations and lens prescription dispensing appointments, has resulted in increased transaction values. Our US stores are leading the way in bouncing back to pre-pandemic levels, and we anticipate the rest of our stores to follow suit from Autumn / Winter 2021.
A new website was launched in August 2020, giving consumers an enhanced experience, with 360 views of frames and virtual try on tool, and we are planning to introduce further features over the next 12 – 18 months. Performance of this new site has been extremely positive, being over 50% up on the prior year.

Q: Are you able to share any financial data regarding the company’s growth + performance (2021)? What is your positioning as regards specific European markets or the US/Canada?

A: I would say globally we are up about 20% in orders taken. The US has been particularly strong after the change of administration and we are about 30% up on orders taken. Although challenged by lockdowns, Europe continues to be our key market with solid growth.

\\ New collection campaign AW21

Q: Cutler and Gross has had some extremely successful high-profile fashion collabs and licences through the years – and the current collection with Paul Smith has been an immediate crowd pleaser. Comment on the Paul Smith Eyewear Collectio

A: It has been a very positive experience collaborating with the Paul Smith team over the last three years, and they really are a great partner to work with. For Paul Smith as a brand, I think it was nice to work with an independent partner again (much like Oliver Peoples in the 90s) as we can give them a more bespoke offering. The synergy was always there, Sir Paul being a friend of Tony Gross’ and running in the same social scenes in the 70s and 80s so it’s a natural fit with both having offices in London. I believe the genuine connection comes across in the output in terms of product and marketing materials. AW21, which we just about to launch, is the most expansive yet with lots of colour, laminates and design features harking back to the 90s. Having a licence of the magnitude of Paul Smith has also allowed us to leverage relationships and find new customers, with worldwide brand recognition like Paul Smith it has been very useful for the USA as a gateway to our portfolio of brands, including Kingsman and Cutler and Gross.

Q: Are they more licences in the pipeline?

A: Our aim is to have 4-5 licences under the Cutler and Gross umbrella by 2024. Although this sounds ambitious, if you look at the changes in the market, diversification is key. We want our licences to perform in different sectors of the market, and for our customers to develop a trust in the group - so we are a viable independent alternative to the huge conglomerates (who control most of the licence business in optics). My feeling is more and more bespoke brands will seek out licence partners who can treat their products with respect and do things differently. We are uniquely positioned with a factory specialising in hand crafted acetate in Europe, a strong distribution network worldwide, and our own retail and e-commerce structure. We have just launched a collaboration with Korean high fashion brand, Juun J which will be delivered in store in January for SS22. Also, we are finalising a licence deal with another UK vintage brand to launch in March of 2022. This is a very exciting project.

Q: Finally, what can we look forward to in the new Cutler and Gross collections releasing this month? Refer to any specific creative development, new collection or edition and describe with specific details the styling/colours/materials - to whe

A: We are tremendously excited by the new collection Alessandro has created. Its inspiration comes from the world of music which was such a great influence for Mr Cutler and Mr Gross in the formative years of the brand. With styling references to guitars and records, Alessandro has layered light tinted crystal acetates with milky ones, with textures of curves and bevels, and worked with Mazzuchelli to introduce an exclusive Havana colourway. Coupled with enhanced manufacturing techniques, this collection has taken the DNA of the brand to new heights. And watch this space for a limited edition later in the year!

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