Colab Eyewear

For an accessory that sits prominently upon one’s face, it’s surprising that sunglasses so often lack the individuality of their owners. Thanks to Colab Eyewear, that is no longer the case. The small Australian brand is built on a simple, yet revolutionary concept: give various artists and designers free reign over the design of sunglass frames, and then produce only a limited number of each model.

The result is a distinctive, eccentric line of sunglasses that radiate with personality. Format spoke with one of Colab’s owners, Peter Smith, about the brand’s collaborative process and why he thinks the project is so vital in today’s market.

“I believe our innovation is more to do with the treatments we use in laminating materials together and re-producing art on the frame and lens. This is what separates Colab Design from other sunglass collections.”

Format: What was the driving factor or inspiration behind Colab’s founding?
Peter: We wanted to produce eyewear for individuals. We were sick of the mass market brands that just keep re-hashing shapes until they become trash. There are just three-four manufacturers who control all of the major brands and now everything is looking the same. We wanted to make an eclectic mix of styles that do not follow any seasonal constraints and we have achieved this because our artists work independently of each other. They are unaware of each other’s designs, which guarantees that we are going to get a wonderful mix of ideas.

Format: There are posts on Colab’s website dating back to 2005, but the brand itself wasn’t officially launched until early last year. How long was the project in development for? What kinds of things were going on behind-the-scenes?
Peter: The idea was formed some five years ago, however, we needed to do a lot of research on the style of artists we wanted to use as well as finding the right factories which could interpret our needs. This took a couple of years until we had everything in place – we basically picked the artists we admired, jumped on an airplane and went and approached them. It is interesting to note that we have not had one artist reject the idea. In fact everyone we have spoken with wants to be involved and we now have a shortlist of artists and designers for our next two-three years.

Format: Colab certainly has the design side of things down, but are your products as practical as they are stylish?
Peter: Yes, absolutely. There are two people involved in this process. I am actually an optician with over 35 years of practical knowledge to do with facial fitting, Lens Standards compliance, manufacturing techniques etc. All of our sunglasses fit and comply with the US, Australian and European Standards. They are collectable pieces of artistic design, however, they still function perfectly as sunglasses.

Dave Allison: being a graphic designer Dave helps us interpret the Artists requests into fabrication. Some of the manufacturing techniques we have developed have never been done before.

Format: What is the screening process for the artists, designers, and brands you collaborate with?
Peter: Basically it is about reputation. We want to engage artists that we admire and artists that have been introduced to us by other artists. In fact we probably get approached by someone every other day which is a real positive reaction to our project. We do not compromise the artist’s integrity by trying to direct their ideas – instead we give them a free hand to develop their own concept.

We have only really collaborated with one brand at this stage – Kidrobot. They approached us with a concept for colorful eyewear to be launched with a hoodie from their collection, so we managed to develop something very quickly, which suited their needs. At present, we are in negotiation with a retailer in Paris and an artist to develop some styles exclusively for that retailer.

Format: When Colab approaches an artist or designer to work on a project, do you provide any guidelines or are they given complete creative freedom?
Peter: They are basically given total creative freedom. Our influence is more to do with making sure the sunglasses fit and that the shape and design will work and meet all of the criteria that a sunglass should.

Format: Describe the process that takes the collaborator’s initial sketches or designs and turns them into products available for purchase.
Peter: Most artists have never thought about “Art and Eyewear” prior to our approach, so their observations and comments about sunglasses are always brand new. Sometimes a suggestion is impossible to actually fabricate, however, it leads to something else, which we can manufacture.

We initially take the artist for some retail therapy and see what is actually on the market in eyewear. From this point the design process starts to take place with hand drawings, followed by technical drawings for the factory. Initial prototypes are produced and adjusted until the finished article reaches fruition. This whole process can take 12 months and 10 prototypes.

Format: Are there ever times where you have to reign in the creativity of the artists’ designs because it would be nearly impossible to physically recreate or produce them?
Peter: Yes! Some suggestions are impractical and cannot be produced and others have been stopped because they may infringe on one of the other artists ideas. It’s only happened a couple of times and in both instances the artists idea did not comply with Standards regulations and therefore would have been illegal to sell.

Format: In many ways, Colab represents the future of eyewear design, but lately it’s been trendy to rock classics like Ray-Ban Wayfarers. Is it ever difficult attempting to straddle the lines between avant-garde innovation and timeless appeal?
Peter: Yes it is, however, we are developing unique eyewear. Classic shapes are classic shapes and always will be. This is particularly applicable to models like the Rayban Wayfarer. Just about every “designer” collection we see these days, has a Wayfarer type model included. This is because it is a very good wearable shape and always sells. Nothing wrong with that! Just proof that it works!

I believe our innovation is more to do with the treatments we use in laminating materials together and re-producing art on the frame and lens. This is what separates Colab Design from other sunglass collections.

Format: What’s inspiring you right now? Who would you most like to see Colab work with in the future?
Peter: We get inspired every time we look at the mass-market brands and the sameness. This makes us more determined to keep doing what we are doing and continue developing new ideas for fabrication. New materials and treatments are the way forward for Colab Design. We are working with a myriad of artists for the next two years and some of the ideas are amazing. This is cutting edge eyewear at the coalface. We are also in the process of developing a spectacle frame collection with the same concept.

Who would we like to work with? Well, in the future you might find other clever artistic people designing eyewear with Colab. These people could be musicians, architects, poets etc.

Format: Is it acceptable for anyone other than Corey Hart to wear their sunglasses at night?
Peter: Well I guess as long as you can see through them, you can wear them and who doesn’t want to be seen wearing Colab Design sunglasses, even at night!

Yang-Yi Goh

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One comment

  1. I never really thought of eyewear as wearable art, but this stuff looks pretty cool…will def check out the rest of the line! great interview…

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