Co-founder of Kirk & Kirk, Jason Kirk, shares the story of his journey over two decades in the optical industry
12 April 2016
01 In 1992 my wife, Karen, and I were helping to clear out my farther's practice when we discovered old boxes of glasses from the '50s and '60s.
The frames had been designed by my grandfather Sydney and his brother Percy during a time when they owned a company called Kirk Brothers.
Before stumbling across those boxes of glasses, I hadn’t been interested in optics at all – I found it all very conservative and dry. However, seeing the frames and how beautifully designed they were opened up a whole new world for Karen and me.
I took a week off work and travelled around the UK to see what opticians had to offer and, on returning home, it was clear that there was a gap in the market for a new type of product. By coincidence, shortly afterwards I was made redundant from my position as head of sales and marketing at L’Oreal and we decided to take my redundancy as an opportunity and start an eyewear company, Kirk Originals.
Initially we began by making copies of the original glasses and then, when we had sold a lot of the originals, we started to produce new designs that we made from old sheets of acetate. As the company expanded and demand grew, it became harder and harder to source the acetate, which is when we began to design and produce collections from scratch.
"Winning was certainly a key moment for the company and a time when people started to take notice of us on an international stage"
02 In 1996 we were featured in an eight-minute video on The Clothes Show, which was a big turning point for us.
Our PR company received a call, completely out of the blue, from The Clothes Show, who said they wanted to feature us on the programme.
The Clothes Show was a colossal show back in the ‘90s, watched by millions every Sunday evening. It featured the likes of Jeff Banks and Selina Scott, and for them to approach us was huge.
They visited Premier Optical in Colchester where our glasses were produced at the time, filmed the frames being made and interviewed us.
After we appeared on the show, the phones didn’t stop ringing for days and we received hundreds of enquiries about where our glasses were stocked. We sent those who asked where they could find our glasses to one of the specific retailers that stocked us across the UK. In doing so, we anticipated that our retailers would return to us to replenish their stock. But when this didn’t happen we realised that people were using the publicity that we had secured through The Clothes Show to get people through their practice doors to sell them different brands.
03 Not reaping the benefits that we thought we would, the same year we took a leap and opened our first store in Earlham Street, Covent Garden.
It was a huge, huge risk – back then we didn’t have any backing, we did it all because we believed in it and it was all from our own pockets.
At the time there were very few mono-brand retail stores around, and we took our inspiration from the likes of LA Eyeworks, who were very supportive of what we were trying to achieve. On opening the shop, we managed to create a beautiful atmosphere that a lot of people loved and we were lucky to receive a lot of support and publicity from the UK press.
We also began to attract a huge following from big name musicians and actors, working with the likes of Oasis, U2 and Robbie Williams. We never paid anyone to wear our glasses – they did so because they wanted to.
During this period we grew very organically; we were creating something that we were very passionate about.
04 2003 was the year that we won a Silmo d'Or award.
The Silmo d’Or is really unexpected and even to be nominated is an honour. It provides great PR because, regardless of winning, people come to find out more about what you do.
Interestingly, we won a Silmo d’Or for a sunglass that was not particularly one of our most creative or ‘out there’ products, but winning was certainly a key moment for the company and a time when people started to take notice of us on an international stage.
That same year, Karen and I moved to France where we weren’t so involved in the nitty-gritty, day-to-day running of the store, giving us the time to concentrate on the business’ broader picture.
05 Over the next 10 years, we successfully built up the company and were selling in around 600 stores, through a number of distributors and in about 50 countries worldwide.
Reflecting on the company’s growing success, we decided that we couldn’t fulfil its potential without taking on investment and, as a result, we began to seek investors.
Unfortunately, it became very clear, very quickly that we didn’t share the same vision as the investors who we decided to work with. Understanding that we couldn’t work together, Karen and I took the decision to leave our own company.
Walking away from the company was like walking away from family, but when you stop enjoying what you are doing, you know there is a problem. I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason and once we had walked away, what happened next year was very interesting.
06 We established Kirk & Kirk in 2013, having decided that we would launch a new eyewear company, but not on much else.
While Karen spent a year developing Kirk & Kirk as a brand and designing the new products, I spent a year consulting in the eyewear market, which was amazingly fun. I learned a lot.
We launched Kirk & Kirk’s first collection at Silmo 2014 and our products are now stocked by around 150 practices worldwide. We are growing at a steady pace and have a number of new collections in the pipeline – one for Mido and then another major launch at Silmo.
What is unique about Kirk & Kirk as a company is that we don’t simply sell opticians a product and leave them, we offer them the 25 years of experience that we have in business. We support them as much as they wish in communicating with their customers, setting up social networking channels and much more.