In a span of a little more than one year, Fleye, one of the most recent and successful start-ups in Danish eyewear design, has become one of the leading designer brands in China, where it is now sold in more than 100 high-end optical stores in 22 different provinces.
Many brands have been attacking the highly promising Chinese market through distributors. Reinvesting the profits made in previous years, the company set up its own office in Shanghai in August of last year. It had to pay a lot of money and go through a lot of paperwork, but the move has apparently paid off thanks to a combination of good contacts, original products and Japanese manufacturing.
The good contacts came through the new Chinese sales subsidiary, which employs ten people, and is run by Jacob Thomsen, a Danish official who had been acting as managing director of Safilo's Chinese subsidiary in Shanghai since 2007. He had been with the big Italian group for a total of 13 years including in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.
Thomsen decided to work with Fleye because he and his wife, who worked at the Danish Consulate in Shanghai, wanted an opportunity to spend more time in their native country and because he felt that the Danish brand had potential in the Chinese market due to its original combinations of high-end materials and colors and its refined Nordic style.
The brand has found its way into Chinese stores by making broad use of social media such as WeiXin (We Chat) and through the development of a dedicated collection for the market with an Asian fit for the nose pad, slightly rounded temples and somewhat brighter colors than the Danish collection.
Pricewise, the Chinese line is positioned between mainstream fashion brands like Gucci and the designer brands imported from Europe. It would be less expensive if it were made in China, but the company has decided to manufacture in Japan in spite of high import duties to give it a foreign twist. The combination of an original Danish design and Japanese manufacture is an important part of the marketing message, which has turned out to be very appealing to well-to-do Chinese customers who want to wear something different, special and well-made.
For its international collection, which has the same quality standards as the Chinese line, Fleye is using several Chinese manufacturers in the Shenzhen area that are now working almost exclusively for the Danish company, making prototypes as well as finished products for distribution everywhere else in the world. They get rewarded for their high-quality work, which is supervised by four local officials in charge of quality control. Annette Estø, the chief executive and creative director of Fleye, says that it's easier to work with them than with European producers to develop new and “crazy” styles.
Estø set up Fleye, a name that stands for “Fine Looking Eye,” at the end of 2001 together with a couple of local partners who are now involved mainly in sales. Originally trained as an optometrist, she ran her own optical shop in Copenhagen from 1985 to 1989 before working as a sales rep for Rodenstock's distributor in Denmark. In 1995 she became managing director of Copenhagen Eyes, a Danish company that stopped trading about five years ago, but she spent only four years there. She took one year off to study ways in which she and her partners could set up their own company, creating an alternative to Bellinger, Lindberg and half a dozen other Danish designer eyewear companies that have achieved international recognition.
In contrast with Lindberg, they launched a line of prescription frames that “made the invisible visible” with the kind of relatively large shapes from the 1970s and 1980s that have become popular again lately. They started off by using two lightweight and anti-allergic materials – acetate for the front and beta titanium for the temples – and introduced a nose pad that can be individually adjusted through a flexible titanium thread looping through the nose bridge. This rather clever technical solution obtained a Red Dot “honorable mention” in Germany earlier this year.
The brand was crowned “Eyewear of the Year 2013” at the IOFT trade show in Japan. Its distinctive sunglasses have been seen on the faces of Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary, the heirs to the Danish throne. The brand has been recently remarked on in the international trade press for its rather original polarized sun clips, which were particularly well received at the Odma fair in Brisbane, Australia last July.
The company entered the market of Australia and New Zealand this year through a special new distributor, House of Brands KH, that specializes in Danish design, marketing also Danish jewelry, outdoor clothing and underwear in the region. Its owner, Karin Adcock, had previously built up the distribution of Pandora's jewelry in Australia and New Zealand. She made a fortune when the Danish company took over the distribution of its products.
Fleye recently hired an exclusive distributor in Belgium, De Ceunynck. The brand already has a good agent in the Netherlands. It performs well on the Swiss market, where it has its own salesperson. It has two salespersons to cover the German market, but apparently it has some problems there because of the similarity of its name with that of a strong local player, Flair.
Together, the Scandinavian countries still represent the biggest market for Fleye. Estø is looking for suitable agents or distribution partners to expand the company's business in France, Italy, Russia and the U.S.
Estø declines to disclose her company's turnover but says that the number of its accounts doubled in the last five years to a total of around 1,600. Direct accounts are asked to order a minimum of 36 pieces. The company has a staff of about 30 people in Denmark and 20 others in the rest of the world.
Besides its geographic expansion, some of the recent progress has come from an acceptance by the market of the downsized versions of some of its men's and women's styles that Fleye has developed for children over the last four-five years.
A new component of Fleye's strategy is the diversification of its line in terms of materials. It came out last spring with a line of frames featuring a sheet of rosewood or ivory wood inlaid into two sheets of buffalo horn. Besides beta titanium, the more expensive models use 18-carat red and white gold.
Fleye has come out now with a line of aviator-style sunglasses inspired by Andy Warhol, called “Pop,” featuring an acetate piece on the nose bridge that can be “popped out” and changed to a different color. The Danish company is also launching a first line of 14 adult frames with carbon fiber fronts. The material is cast in the same way as acetate. They are all black but some are spiced up with colorful temples in beta-titanium. They will be shown for the first time at the Opti show in Munich next month.