Camden Lock is a labyrinth of curiosity. If you can navigate your way through the tourists and avoid the stalls pushing the downright distasteful and odd, the few real gems often find you. The shiniest gem of all is General Eyewear. Formally known as Arckiv (now the menswear rooted in military and work wear), General Eyewear is a cornucopia of spectacles that has been providing stylish sight since the late 90s. Spread throughout the inviting and absorbing Arch 67 space are all manner of beautiful and unusual frames and sunglasses from 1800 to 1995 alongside its own original designs and custom made pieces that often find themselves on the silver screen or in fashion editorial.
Since my first visit a couple of years ago, I've gladly lost countless hours in the absorbing space, admiring all manner of frames and chatting with its ever inspirational and knowledgeable proprietor, Fraser Laing. For his glasses are far more than commodities, they are exciting and at times mysterious artifacts. Laing's enthusiasm is infectious. So infectious in fact that one of my good friends Joseph Piper, fed up of a fruitless search for his perfect frames decided to challenge General Eyewear to make a custom pair. Of course we were there to document the process. From tweaking a pair of frames he'd found, to rooting through just a fraction of the company's four tonnes of acetate and chatting through the possibilities with Laing, we snapped away at each process. Before we share the experience with you, we sat down with Laing to hear more about the evolution of the company and its offering...
SS: What was the catalyst, the spark, that drew you to collect spectacles?
Fraser Laing: I spent my formative years in Naples working as an English teacher and then as an antique dealer. At this time the design scene in Italy was very innovative and various industrialists were putting together collections of historically important plastic objects made out of bakelite, acrylic etcetera. I became involved in putting together some of these collections and that was my first contact with amazing pieces of eyewear. When I moved to London to study film, I developed my Italian experiences into what was to become General Eyewear
SS: As a collector yourself, is it hard letting some frames go?
Fraser Laing: With very few exceptions, I've never sold any of the pieces that I'm really attached to.
SS: Looking over your enviable collection now, do have particular favourites?
Fraser Laing: There are lots of favourites - there's a pair of very large, almost architectural Lanvin sunglasses from the 70s which I really like and lots of highly stylised and colourful Baruffaldi and Gambini pieces from the 70s and 80s characterised by technological and stylistic innovation. For the same reason I’m attached to the design prototypes and industrial goggles in the collection.
SS: Are there many that have slipped through?
Fraser Laing: Not many slipped through, but I’m aware that there is still a lot of work to be done to develop the collection in the direction I would wish.
SS: What does General Eyewear mean to you?
Fraser Laing: The aspiration would be to present designed objects, in this case pieces of eyewear, as being more than just commodities, but exciting and sometimes mysterious artefacts.
SS: General Eyewear shares Arckiv's a commitment to high quality and pared down design. Could you talk briefly about the relationship between the two arms of the business and how the distinction has helped each grow?
Fraser Laing: Both companies approach design as being about shape and material coming together to create emotion, but Arckiv has much more commercial freedom to explore this idea. The eyewear company brought me into contact with many outstanding people who work in fashion and as a result of various conversations I began to think about the possibility of creating a menswear label which as far as possible would be uncompromised by commercial considerations and be developed in a structural, organic way. As General Eyewear is a shop, located on a London market, lots of very different people come in to chat: the doors are almost always open. That status as a kind of forum has become enhanced now that we have the Arckiv studio at the back of the Arch and several people we’ve met through the store now collaborate on the menswear label.
SS: General Eyewear also provides a full range of optical services. In addition to selling beautiful and unusual frames and sunglasses from 1800 to 1995, you also designs and produce custom made pieces for all manner of clients. How has the custom side of your offering evolved?
Fraser Laing: We’ve actually done custom made frames for specific customers almost from the very beginning, but only now that we have shop premises big enough to store all the acetate the frames are made from, can our customers select the actual piece of material their frames will be made from, which is probably a unique service. Under the guidance of our spectacle makers over time we’ve become expert at adapting designs using our archive of shapes to create individual design solutions rather than just replicas.
SS: Now, myself and Jo only touched the surface of your four tonnes of acetate that is organised at the back of the Stables Market space. How did you amass such a collection?
Fraser Laing: As I said above we started doing custom made frames very early on, but we were very limited by the lack of acetate available in the UK. I embarked on a mission to buy surplus stocks of acetate from the more historic factories I knew about in France and Italy. The fact that I was able to find so much of it means that the selection of different materials we’re able to offer in the shop is unique.
SS: Your passion for craftsmanship and making eyewear the right way is obvious. Could you talk us through some of the processes and people involved in the making of your custom frames.
Fraser Laing: Essentially the spectacle maker makes two shapes out of transparent acetate – these are called “jigs” and represent half a frame, the eye shape and the outer rim. The first shape is used to cut out one eye shape, then flipped to cut out the other. The cut-out eye spaces are then routed to make the grooves the lenses fit into. The second shape is used to cut the outer rim shape first one side, and then flipped to cut the other. This technique ensures that the glasses are always perfectly symmetrical. The bridge area may then have to be built up into a bump my adding a small piece of acetate, which is then polished down, Likewise the side may be built up into “lugs” to create a swept-around frame. The sides are made by shooting metal wire at high temperature and velocity into small acetate slabs. These parts then have to have joints attached, and are then polished.
SS: How has the eyewear industry evolved in your time?
Fraser Laing: Eyewear has gone from being a specialised niche product to being almost tediously ubiquitous – every brand and every designer has an eyewear collection. And this has, with other factors, led to a general flattening out of what’s on offer. Even vintage eyewear has become a mini-industry in its own right. However General Eyewear tries to concentrate on developing our own distinctive values and ideas without paying too much attention to what anyone else is doing.
SS: What excites you about the future of eyewear?
Fraser Laing: Ron Arad, who’s studio is just across the road from us, has developed a new way of producing frames based on digital prototyping technology – it’s the first time anyone has completely re-thought eyewear in several decades. And although technologically innovative the glasses are also really stylish. I also find it really encouraging that there are young London stylists who are using eyewear in a striking and quite avant-garde way which I’ve never seen before.
SS: Finally, what's next?
Fraser Laing: We receive requests for ever greater quantities of our bespoke frames, so we’re planning to develop our bespoke frame workshop into a mini-factory in order to be able to produce more, but also to enable the creation of complete collections which reflect our own style and taste.
A selection of store shots.
Since its inception, General Eyewear has concentrated on developing its own distinctive values and ideas without paying too much attention to what anyone else is doing. We're looking forward to the frame workshop evolving in to a mini factory and cannot wait to see the harvest of Laing's exciting collaboration with Ron Arad. In addition to Laing's enthusiasm and passion for fine craftsmanship, what really sets General Eyewear apart is its store of acetate. The fact that customers can choose the material from which their glasses will be made and that once that sheet of vintage acetate is used, it'll be gone forever, is an attractive proposition. One that Joseph Piper, a self confessed eyewear addict, found too good to resist. Joseph's search for the perfect pair of glasses had appeared futile. Beginning with shape and then considering material, craftsmanship and brand, striking the right the perfect in an existing frame was impossible. He was looking for something that didn't really exist. The only solution (and to assure his piece of mind) was to get a pair made. Thankfully he finally found the unrivalled yet reasonably priced General Eyewear. From searching through four tonnes of acetate to cloning a pair of vintage frames and seeing the custom pair realised, we covered each step...
Rifling through acetate...
"Fraser was very welcoming to my excitement, and was incredibly helpful in consulting me on the process. The more I talked to him, the more I learnt about the possibilities. He was very encouraging. He was just the most passionate person about the industry I have ever met and that was one reason why I chose to use his service. He told me about all of these processes, showing me just a small selection of his acetate and telling me the story of how he sourced them. As far as I know no-one else has access to materials like these. Completely unique sheets across decades of concepts from the heyday of eyewear, too expensive be produced again. To produce a product from this selection revives the trade the way it was, and breathes new life to old ideas. In a way your cutting from History!"
Joseph on the acetate.
A tiny selection of the acetate we rifled through. It was impossible not to be a tad overwhelmed by the sheer variety of colour, print and texture available. A shortlist was made and Joseph finally decided on a clear acetate that had a delicate pink hue.
Finding the right frames...
"I found the frames on Redchurch Street in a place called Love Eyewear. I saw them and they were just perfect. They were the shape I wanted, a blend of two vintage frames Fraser had in store I was keen on. They were prototypes found in a French Factory apparently made in '59. Fraser wasn't offended when I brought in the frames that I wanted to copy as opposed to use one from his archive."
Joseph on the frames
A few options followed by the chosen frames.
The fruits of General Eyewear's craft...
"When I began looking in to custom frames, I was confronted with two obstacles, price and a general lack of a desire to experiment. Quite a few times I visited a brand and they were only interested in pushing their own label on to me. There was no sense of collaboration. It was more about tailoring something that already existed for me and for some people that would be enough but I was on a mission for more. Thankfully I found Fraser. The relationship was great throughout. The experience was as open as it could be. It was liberating. I felt free to create something I'd wanted for so long. The only thing I'd like to do more is go through the rest of the acetate, its inspiring stuff (but heavy). The reaction has been great, so many people have asked me what label made them. I've already started thinking about the next pairs and I've love to work with Fraser making a range."
Joseph on finding Fraser and the result of his collaboration
The fruits of the custom collaboration - the subtle pink hue of the lens is missed on the lightbox but becomes more prominent when worn.
With anything bespoke or custom, the process has to be a collaboration between the customer and the craftsman. At every step, Joseph was involved and was guided by Laing's years of expertise. It was an absorbing process and one that we felt privileged to document. When the time comes to update my own frames, the search will begin and end with General Eyewear.