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Christian Roth: The Local Label That Invented Designer Shades

Images Via Ashley Brozic
Images Via Ashley Brozic

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The duo behind Christian Roth has done more for the eyewear industry as a whole than most designers can do for their own brands in a lifetime. Christian Roth and Eric Domege, both Miami residents, have consulted and designed for the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors, and their signature shade styles have become synonymous with images of Kurt Cobain and Lenny Kravitz. At a time when magazines paid top dollar to showcase the full face of a model, their shades were the only ones to have been worn by Nadia Auermann on the cover of Vogue UK. To top all that, they were the first-ever eyewear designers to be honored with an invitation to join the CFDA, the country's highest fashion authority.

Now that Christian Roth's thirtieth anniversary collection has hit the market, we couldn't help but lower our own shades to find out how these two have been able to stay at the top of the eyewear game that they invented over thirty years ago.

Although Roth and Domege have their own studio here in Miami, they create the concepts for their collection right from the comfort of their Venetian Island home.

What is the main thing you want people to know about Christian Roth?
Christian Roth: I think we want people to remember that we always make design and quality the highest priority and we do not make any compromises. It's our mission to deliver new shades, new silhouettes, new concepts, new materials, new colorations. We don't want to be the biggest, but we want to be the first.

It's been thirty years, so I think you're pretty close to being the first. What would you say your signature style is?
CR: One of them is definitely the oversized acetate. It's a little bit reminiscent of Jackie O in the 1960s. Do you know the story of Jackie O? How she ended up with the big frames?

No! Were the first ones your design?
CR: No! We are old, but not that old [laughs].
Eric Domege: No, but her sister...
CR: We come to that story! [Jackie O] had such taste and a clear vision. She realized she had a very wide pupil distance, which some people have, and that every frame she put on looked too small and made her look fat. So she went to a New York optician, took her favorite pair of sunnies and said 'build them bigger for me. I want my eyes to be centered in each lens.' This is very important; otherwise, it will look crooked. And that's how the Jackie O. [shades] came about.
ED: It gives you instant glamour.
CR: Then one morning, in the 80s, I get a phone call. It must have been before 9am, and this smoky voice, a little demanding, says 'I hear you do these frames for my sister. I want the same ones.' That was Lee Radziwill, sister of Jackie.

This Opposites Attract frame is a modern day, neon-detailed version of the original blue acetate frame they were known for in the 80s.

So how did you make today's oversized shade different in your anniversary collection?
CR: Coloration, shapes...
ED: This [picks up a pair of bright blue acetate frames] was a frame we created in the late 80s and it was mono color in a way that was, I mean, techniques were not as good and as precise as they are today.
CR: See, [points to a chip on the shades] these are painted. You see it's coming off. Back in those days you found no supplier who gave you baby blue acetate material.
ED: So we spray-painted it.

You spray-painted all of these?!
ED: Yes!
CR: I mean, the factory did it, but there was no other way to get a strong color. No acetate material factory had the guts to produce it in blue because they were not sure it would sell.

Titanium wraparound frames like these are what largely popularized Christian Roth in the early 00s and were a signature favorite of Lenny Kravitz.

What are some of the other frames that you are known for?
ED: We are [also] known for is this mask with a wraparound look. It's been very strong in our collection for over 20 years and was inspired by the bikers of New York. We called it an urban mask. It was designed in the early 90s as a one-piece lens made of aluminium… then in the 2000s, the silhouette and concept remained the same, but it became very different. In those days titanium was used to make optical frames very light. Nobody dared to use the material and do bold pieces, so we were the first ones [to do this] and still, as of today, I don't think anybody has been able to create that bold look with titanium. This one is the wraparound, which was on Mary Jay Blige's [album cover, No More Drama]. We have a big following in the music industry.
CR: Our idea is to do [a collection] every season, but we want our customer to wear it after. We don't give it a maturity date. I know we push the "it" frame— everybody is talking about the "it" frame and tomorrow they want another "it" frame— but we want our customer to wear something [classic]. We always pick up from our original ideas and make them different and new, but not too different so that you don't feel comfortable with them.

Unlike most designers who make sure their logos are visible, Roth and Domege brand their frames on the inside of the leg to maintain their exclusivity.

Is there a reason your name doesn't stand out on your glasses?
CR: Yes. It's not vulgar, but why would you put a name on them? Maybe a message, which we have done, but a name? I think eyewear is meant to be chic, to make you feel good.
ED: For big brands it's different… Basically you buy a frame and you advertise the brand with your frame. This is a marketing position that we respect for big brands, but our brand's niche is very intimate.
CR: We don't want to be immediately recognized by a brand. We want a person to say, 'Oh my god you have a beautiful new pair of sunnies. Where did you get them?' But if the name is already written on them, then you don't even have to ask.

Who is the Christian Roth customer?
CR: People who want to be individual. People who don't see eyewear as a mask, but who see eyewear as an object of desire.
ED: They are for someone who treasures what they have. Because of our price point, we are not fast fashion. If you go to all those new stores they do great things for the price but in our case, there is no age limit because we have customers from 16-years-old to older ladies and gentlemen. But they have one thing in common; they appreciate the quality, the design and the uniqueness.
CR: There are a lot of people with good taste in different age groups, but what all connects us is a passion for beautiful eyewear and it starts not only by look, but by touch.

Instead of being cut into circles and squares, the lenses on Christian Roth's wraparound shades are molded and bent in full to achieve their continuous look.

And where can someone find Christian Roth sunglasses in America?
CR: In the west we were overproduced by our former licensee. We are slowly going back in, but we only want to do one store per fashion capital. For America that would mean at least three stores, assuming that New York, Miami and L.A. are fashion capitols, and they are.
ED: We don't have our own standing stores…
CR: …but we do have strong presentations in our shop-in-shops at stores that are really behind the brand.
ED: Since we are not dependent on retailers, we have the chance to spread out the new arrivals, so we spread them out every two to three months. Sometimes they are limited editions, which go very fast actually.
CR: We have a Skype service now, where we Skype with customers, who have a certain dollar value of course.

You both personally Skype with customers on your website?
ED: Yes, but this is still in the testing mode. It will go live in a couple of months because there are still some technical issues, but it's basically to be able to have a one on one session with the consumer on Skype and we can guide them in their choice before they purchase a frame.
CR: It helps to have [the customer's] creative input. Not everything is gold but if you listen to what people say about your product you will always have another chance to make it better. They might know more than we know.

Has downsizing your brand benefitted you?
CR: Since we were a little bit overproduced and over-distributed, our touch was becoming hard to find. That's what I think our customers like, so we had to put a break on it. It's a great situation for us to be in, to have it small so we can control it.
ED: Exactly. To have full and total control, from the design to the distribution, is very exciting and is also a learning experience for us. Inspiration comes from art, but your customers actually are the big inspiration.

Roth and Domege are also known for this criss-cross frame, which was inspired by an ottoman in their living room. Before sending their sketches to their design factories, they must detail every millimeter on paper. "Millimeters can make or kill a frame because of the sizing, because of the weight, etcetera," says Roth. "There's nothing glamorous in the technical drawing."

Where are your glasses made?
CR: In Japan and in Italy.
ED: Everything is handcrafted
CR: By people who have never done anything else in their lives.
ED: Sometimes they work in three generations. In the case of our factory in Italy, we work with a very fantastic person, a true eyewear maker and lover. He had two daughters, so now the daughters took over and they do the work.
CR: They also have the magic to take the frame and do little adjustments without making a scratch or breaking the frame. It's an art in itself, not only to design and promote it, but to make it. It's not like shoes and watches.
ED: Well, we would think that shoes and eyewear have something in common. They have to look good but they have to fit. You have to be comfortable because that's what makes the difference between a great shoemaker and a not so great shoemaker, because a woman in stilettos, if she feels good and the curvature is good, is going to love them because she can walk in them. She will continue to buy them. It's the same thing with a frame. It's on your nose and it's covering one of the most precious parts of you, which is your eyes. You want to make your consumer feel comfortable in a practical way. It has to fit.

When it comes to color, Roth and Domege go with their gut. "Sure we use trend forecasting, but for us it's very difficult because most of the time we actually create trends," admits Domege.

You've been in the sunglass industry for over 30 years. How do you feel about what it's become?
CR: It has exploded. We feel proud that the word eyewear designer did not exist 30 years ago. When we told our friends and families the direction that we were going in our lives, they looked at us like, 'Is there nothing else that you can do?' We basically invented our own word, so to speak…
ED: …There were 20 years where no new eyewear designers were coming. In the young generations you had a lot of shoe designers, a lot of jewelry designers… The only category that didn't have a new designer was eyewear, but I would say [that's changed] in the last couple of years, because eyewear has become a major accessory. The new generation does see the potential in eyewear and we've come back to having more niche independent eyewear designers than we have had in the previous years.

Not many may know that you brought an eyewear category into the CFDA. Tell us about that.
ED: Eyewear first became a legitimate accessory in the late 80s. We were providing frames for Vogue, and in those days Vogue was already with Anna Wintour… With Anna Wintour they said, 'you know what, it's time that eyewear became a part of the fashion. It has to be recognized as an accessory.' In order to do that, you have to be a part of the CFDA. They had every type of designer, but no eyewear.
CR: They were not ready yet to establish an eyewear category, so basically we needed to make glasses for the fashion shows of big designers like Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors.
ED: So Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors godfathered him into the CFDA.
CR: And 22 years later we have 12 eyewear design members.

More goes into making quality eyewear than meets the eye. Many of Christian Roth's frames could take up to 9 months to make.

You could live anywhere in the world. What inspires you about Miami to run your company from here?
CR: Why Miami? We are America fans! We like the West coast but we have all of our family in Europe so Miami is closer to home, and since Eric showed me the South of France, I cannot live in cold places anymore.
ED: And we love to design sunglasses, so where better to design sunglasses than in Miami? The ocean, the buildings, the vegetation: everything is so bright.
CR: Miami is the coolest place right now in the world. Europeans— like the French and Italians who don't like to admit things like that— even say so.
ED: Miami was always like the stepchild of the big cities.
CR: But time changes and Miami earned it.
ED: And Miami has reinvented itself so many times. In the 20s it was incredible, in the 50s it was MiMo. It had such an energy and wasn't afraid of new architecture. I think you can see now that it is in a phase where it was already.
CR: And maybe it's not perfect. Paris is perfect. Here it's a little rough sometimes, but that's the charm.

After 30 years, Roth and Domege have no plans on putting their successful partnership to a halt, and are continuing their mission of delivering quality frames while revolutionizing the eyewear industry.

What's it like working with each other?
CR: We have our rule: we have to convince each other or it just goes.
ED: And we have four eyes so we can be critical of each other. We have two very different personalities.
CR: Even though we grew up so close to each other, we are from different countries that have different cultures. I feel like America and Germany have more in common than Germany and France.
ED: And it has been a fantastic ride, both personal and on a business level.
CR: It's the biggest privilege to have somebody you can trust so much. If you don't have that, who can you trust? Your family, but I don't really want to work with my family. You have to find an anchor or a rock.

So who takes on what role in the company?
CR: We like to do everything in fusion.

What has been your proudest fashion moment?
CR: There was a huge exhibition in the Triennale di Milano...
ED: It's a very serious museum. They did a retrospective on eyewear from the 80s to the new millennium and the curator contacted us and said they chose our brand to become the main focus of the exhibition called Taking Eyeglasses Seriously. 80 percent of the frames were our frames.
CR: We see them on celebrities, but at a museum they mean more.
ED: To have a living designer present at a museum, that is quite an accomplishment. That is hard to top.

If you hadn't met each other, where do you think you would be in your lives?
CR: There's this new book on Marlene Dietrich and... when she lived in Hollywood in the 30s her life was already going down. But in her book she said she had the best time living with a French man in America. I think it's very special to have that combination. Not to be in America, but to be with a French man.
ED: It's a question we've never had to ask ourselves.

Christian Roth eyewear can be purchased at Artsee Miami, 1658 Lenox Ave.
· Christian Roth [Official Site]
· Artsee Miami [Official Site]