For the flaw-sighted who are averse to contact lenses, framed eyewear will always be their go-to for a clear vision. But there has been discontent with generic eyewear offered in the market—economical specs are often inferior in quality while the sturdier ones cost a premium. Is there a brand that produces timeless quality frames without breaking the bank? Cast thy sight to homegrown eyewear label O+.
Established in 2016, O+ was conceived to fill the gap on the lack of quality yet affordable premium frames in the market. At the helm is David Hwang, a veteran in the global optical industry, and his two sons, Silas and Shamus. This gathering of two generations results in a successful combination that taps into the patriarch's rich experience in the business of designing and manufacturing eyewear, and the newer generation’s contemporary interpretation of classic, vintage frames.
Wielding the entire manufacturing process through the affiliated Emsley Eyewear Design, O+ oversees all—from design to sourcing and production of its frames—ensuring that perfect pair of eyewear. This resolution reflects on each pair of O+ frames, which are available at a price that excludes the excessive markups synonymous with the conventional luxury brands.
Esquire Singapore spoke with the family about their entrepreneurial zeal and the transition from behind-the-scene manufacturers to the retail front.
ESQ: How did the concept of O+ come about?
David Hwang: Here’s a brief background story: We are an eyewear manufacturing company that’s in the industry for about 20 years and focused on supplying mid- and high-end products to many eyewear chain stores overseas with Europe as a key market. We also import designer eyewear and are the design manufacturer for many overseas brands.
After two decades, we decided to start our own brand. Singular branding is ripe in both mature markets and places where people appreciate design and character. Another reason is that e-commerce is gaining traction, making it easier for us to reach our target audience using this platform.
Silas Hwang: We have an infrastructure of manufacturing and design under one roof for the past 20-plus years. So, we thought, why not tap on that and start our own direct-to-consumer business? We decided to do something that we are passionate about, and O+ was born. It’s about designing things that we like and make them available to consumers.
ESQ: As a manufacturer-only company for over 20+ years, why do you make the switch to being a retailer now?
David: Our goal is to expand abroad. Again, the Singapore market is currently ripe for single brands with good quality products and unique local branding to emerge. If I were to introduce O+ 20 years ago, I doubt anyone would accept a homegrown brand. Also, my sons are working together to carry on and build the family business further. In today’s business of timeless eyewear fashion, it is difficult for me to start O+ without the two of them. Both of them are talented in their own ways.
ESQ: How do you stand out from the mainstream eyewear shops that popped up in recent years?
David: Firstly, we are one of few single label optical shop in Singapore, apart from the Korea-based Gentle Monster. But they don’t do prescription lenses. The other is Bolon from China.
Our designs are curated and specific to a particular style: Classic, timeless, and simple. There are similar frames in the market, but it’ll cost a premium. We’re not trying to compete with mass eyewear brands because we managed the quality of our frames closely. We are a company that produces substantial lenses to match the frames too.
We value quality, but at the same time, we want to remain affordable and accessible to our customers. Other brands can be either be super pricey or bargain-priced, which compromises the quality of both frames and lenses. We’re in the middle: not budget, but affordable and within reach to fit the intermediate gap.
We didn’t enter the market when the new wave of ‘inexpensive’ glasses appeared. So I think we came in at the right time when consumers worldwide realise the difference in quality. Singaporeans do appreciate local design now, but they would’ve brushed us off if we came in 5 years ago. We are proud of manufacturing our own glasses—from start to the end we oversee and control the quality. We are the only brand that does it in Singapore and one of the only few in the world.
ESQ: Why do you opt for a physical store instead of going online first?
Silas: Going online is great and we do have an e-commerce store. But it's still important that our customers get the full experiential treatment at [a physical space], especially for eyewear. Eyewear differs from clothing. Even though e-commerce is gaining traction, brick-and-mortar experiences are crucial too as it brings in the majority revenue for retail brands. The issue between eyewear and fashion glasses is lenses must be prescribed and the fit must be accurate. A prescription requires a professional to be present—a certified optometrist at our store will make sure the eye test is done properly.
Our glasses are priced from SGD100, and for customers to part with that amount, they would want to try them on. The physical construction is as important as how it looks aesthetically.
David: The importance of having an eyewear brick-and-mortar store is related to health care and eye care as spectacles are medical devices. We don’t want to compromise both for fashion. The quality of eye care is just as important, a physical store with a good optometrist and optician are essential.
Brenice (David's wife and mother of the two boys): The service that we provide is in sync with our business' mission. We hope to detect any early stage of eye diseases and it can be pricey to consult an eye specialist. So we offer this service at the store.
David: A proper optical care store is just a step away from an eye specialist.
Silas: At the end of the day, our design is the main factor that draws people in and at the same time, we return to the fundamentals that were mentioned by my dad—that glasses are, essentially, medical devices. They help you to see clearly. I believe that’s something you shouldn’t compromise on.
Shamus: It is about the personalised experience. When customers enter the store, they expect a personalised experience—receiving advice on lenses and what suits them the best. That requires the customers to be present in the store. You can’t do this online.
Silas: Neither can you see a doctor online.
David: Fashion and eyecare may sound like they are worlds' apart but we manage to combine them together.
ESQ: Why did you open a space in the CBD area?
Silas: There are many locations in Singapore we can plant ourselves at but we chose Downtown Gallery because of its branding. If you look at the stores here, they are curated and a fair number of local brands have established themselves here too. It contains a good mix of tenants which you wouldn't find in other CBD malls.
David: CBD is centralised and we have customers from all over Singapore. If we’re located on the extreme end, it’ll be tough for them to reach us. Our eyewear also attracts expatriates—about 20% of them of are our customers and they are based in the CBD area.
Silas: The management of this mall is willing to work with us on the store’s concept in the space offered. It’s a nice partnership that we have.
ESQ: How do you maintain the quality and affordability of your products?
David: The main reason that we can achieve this is that we are the manufacturer. Otherwise, whatever we’re selling now will cost three to four times more in retail price. As a manufacturer, we have a say in the supply chain process—we don’t go through importers, third parties, and wholesalers. So we cut off the unnecessary channels. Our core business is to produce mid to high-end glasses.
Silas: The glasses that we produce are mostly exported to Europe and retails for about SGD500 or more there. If we sell them back to Singapore, it’ll definitely cost more. We don’t compromise on the materials too; we use Italian-made materials and Europe components in our eyewear. That’s how we maintain our quality and affordability. The frames are designed in Singapore and this branding helps to market our product overseas. European countries are receptive to Singapore brands.
ESQ: What’s the inspiration behind the frames that you design; what's the process like?
David: To me, inspiration can originate from anything that captures my attention. We want to stay with a simple and timeless design for O+ and look into the fine detailing to make sure it’s well produced. As an eyewear designer, you can be wild, as seen with some design in the market. Such eyewear says a lot about an individual when worn. Those are not ideal designs for O+. The simpler ones are more challenging to design.
It’s easy to put a statement on the glasses. Anything you create, that’s a design. But you want to make it simple and yet make people like it for its quality. That is not easy.
Comfort is also a key factor. Many glasses might look good physically in terms of design but are not practical. We want someone who relies on glasses to want to put them on, not just liking the design [and] feeling uncomfortable in it.
ESQ: What made both Silas and Shamus join the family business?
Silas: After graduating from Junior College at about 16, I started working at the office. But we have always been exposed to the business. Likewise for Shamus.
David: They will follow me to the trade shows and business meetings…
Silas: And we’ve visited the factories too. I knew that I will eventually carry on the family legacy. But at what capacity and when I wouldn’t know. I wanted to be on my own first until the idea of O+ came around.
Shamus was still in the army and I was in the UK. We’ve gone through discussions before we arrive at where we are today. In short, dad had a new idea and wanted me on board.
Shamus: My experience was similar to Silas as I was exposed to the business at a young age around aged 16-17 too. My parents proved that having your own business has its advantage—the freedom to make your own decisions and to work together.
Silas: The manufacturing business arm has always been doing well. But as entrepreneurs, you’re always itching to do something new. This excites us.
David: I feel that this is not just building a business and doing something that you enjoy. The people around you get to benefit from this too. The majority would prefer a pair of timeless glasses for everyday wear. You are able to get a pair of designer glasses that you don’t wear daily and you’ll want something that’s versatile and easy to wear. This type of glasses is lacking in the market.
ESQ: What are the future plans for O+?
David: We’re looking to open more stores in Singapore but not going mass. You don’t need the quantity. People will come to you. Our main objective is to expand overseas. It can be either be Asia, China, or Europe. We have European investors that want to take us to their market. We are happy and proud about that because they think positively of a Singapore brand.