From what started out as a lucky break working as a creative director for international brands, Blake Kuwahara has gone on to launch his own brand Blake Kuwahara eyewear that is worn by celebrities, has received coverage in Vogue and has seen him expand from Los Angeles to London.
Speaking to OT, he describes his journey in to the industry and the artistic inspiration behind his brand.
Blending science with art
I started my career working as an optometrist in a practice in Manhattan Beach, California. The practice was extremely busy and needed a third partner, so I became responsible for all aspects of practice management. I enjoyed running the optical boutique and oversaw the buying. In the US, it’s more focused on fashion and this is where my love for that side of the business was born.
I was always attracted to science in school and was going to be a dentist, but I also have a love for art so I saw optometry as the perfect blend of art and science.
I was in private practice for three years and someone brought in an advert for the designer Liz Clairborne, who was recruiting for a fashion forecaster position at the time. I applied for the role and got it. After gaining some graphic design experience, I was offered the role of creative director working with the designer and seven other brands.
“There is a term in Japan called Wabi-sabi and it means that imperfections in objects can enhance their beauty as repair work gives things soul and character”
My work as a creative director was interesting and varied. You get to put on a different hat for all of the brands as they all have different identities but I wanted to create my own brand. In 1992, the boutique phase of the optical industry was just starting out and I launched my own brand, Kata Eyewear. I developed the collection for 10 years until it was acquired by a company based in New York. It was then acquired by De Rigo, who brought me on board as creative director.
I was working with big international brands, such as Carolina Herrera and Converse, and oversaw the creative direction of design and marketing for the brands. The role was enormous and I really gained tremendous experience.
After working at De Rigo, I wanted to create my own brand. I started Focus Group West to build my own line alongside a small team of architects, public relations executives and designers. We worked with Luxottica and optical factories as well. We consulted with optometrists on branding and interior design for their boutiques, which included everything from the lighting to the layout and furniture.
I enjoyed working as a consultant for companies, but it can be limiting to self-expression. I always knew that I wanted to start my own brand. However, one of the barriers to starting is raising capital. I got a lucky break from a company who approached me and already had the infrastructure in place so we partnered and launched the first Blake Kuwahara collection in 2014.
Comfort and personality
The brand is inspired by the need for frames that are both artful and wearable at the same time, combining style with artisanal sensibility so that it doesn’t replace personality but enhances it. When wearing the frames, I don’t want to look like I own an art gallery, I want to look like I visit one.
What sets our designs apart is the labour-intensive construction process that we use. It creates a frame within a frame effect for each model, which gives them soul and character that is unique to the brand. The base materials are the same but the way we combine them is different, we use block acetate and produce them in a block so it’s a bit like baking a cake. We layer the acetate, then it’s all mixed and cooked and then cutting can take four months.
My favourite model is ‘Chambers in crystal’ and I like it because it was a mistake. The outside frame is crystal and it ended up being the best-selling frame. Accidental things always end up being the best.
A heritage of soul and character
The brand identity and logo of the family crest comes from my Japanese heritage. It signifies positivity and the concept that there is positive space and negative space with non-physical entities. This is an inspiration for the brands style because I use a lot of white space to create designs and prefer designs to be minimal.
I primarily use black and white throughout the collections but try to incorporate colour and we have some pastel pink, red, gold and green frames.
My style inspiration is my grandmother, who is 103 years old and has always had a key eye for balance and proportion. She worked as an interior designer and artist, and is sensitive about how things are put together.
Throughout her career she lived all over the word and brought back jewellery and pottery. I inherited the same appreciation of art and design. There is a term in Japan, called Wabi-sabi and it means that imperfections in objects can enhance their beauty as repair work gives things soul and character.
Product popularity can be really unpredictable and sometimes products can unexpectedly do well. In 2016, we won the Silmo d’OR award for the ‘Khan’ frame, which wasn’t going to be included in the collection originally but then became really popular.
A huge milestone for us was launching an optical boutique in Selfridges in London last year. It’s great to be located right in the hub of central London.
There is a wide range of customers who want something different, unique and hand crafted and I look forward to continuing to create with them in mind.
Image credit: Getty