Sama is an apt name for a company that is driven by the belief in the cyclical nature of life. With fashion at its core, supported by the latest technology, Sama Eyewear is driven by the humble principle of philanthropy. Siraj Bolar speaks to the force behind it all, Sheila Vance
Humanitarian. Designer. Businesswoman. Sama Eyewear’s CEO, Sheila Vance has inspired many through her life and work. Whether it’s her avant-garde designs or her philanthropic work, she has carved a new approach to design and business that has set the bar higher for the eyewear industry. In conversation with Siraj Bolar, she shares a glimpse of her journey so far and the way ahead.
Siraj Bolar (SB): Sheila, let me start with a simple question. What inspired you to venture into eyewear?
Sheila Vance (SV): You may find it hard to believe but inspiration for Sama came quite early in my life, although at that time I did not know what it was. I was five or six when I was first prescribed eyeglasses. I realised that everybody was extremely unhappy about wearing prescription eyewear. Especially for children, it was perceived as a stigma. For many, vision was a medical problem. Most could not afford to correct their vision, and laser was a long way away. Eyewear affected confidence and happiness, and was an affliction, not an accessory. I wanted eyewear to be desirable, fashionable and fun – so everyone would want to wear them.
SB: That’s inspiring…
SV: I am so grateful that I could play a part, but it has been a long time coming. It is only in the last five years we are really seeing this vision turning into reality. It started with pushing the envelope, creating new technology, developing materials and products that influential people, whom others emulate, want to wear. We have now fitted eyewear on everyone from the music industry and sports, without lenses to achieve the look. Since the crème de la crème of the entertainment industry approach us for optical frames without lenses to create a statement on the red carpet – I think I have achieved this goal.
Today, eyeglasses have become a high fashion accessory. Even teenagers say, “I need to look intelligent. Can you put a fake lens in the eyewear for me?” It gives me immense happiness to know that we helped this movement. Kids who wear prescription eyewear love to choose different colours and styles. There is no such thing as ‘four eyes’ being an insult. It has helped us to accept people and different forms of beauty. And the credit goes to the entire eyewear industry.
SB: You are opening up to the Middle East eyewear market. How are you going to choose which optical stores to work with?
SV: I have always believed that doing business is like getting married. You really want it to last, so foundation is essential. If opticians don’t share our philosophy or understand our product, we realise it may not be a good partnership. We have an obligation to the clients. We want our partners to be educated in our construction and technology, have a grasp of the materials and base curve and craftsmanship as well as the compassion to be fair and honest. If the opticians are not considerate of the final consumer the way we expect, it does not represent our brand well.
Tightening a screw or adjusting a frame is not customer service. That is technical service – but proper customer service is the relationship with the clientele. Great customer service is truth; selling what is best for their prescription type, face shape, lifestyle and helping to build their wardrobe and loyalty in the process. Not all opticians follow this principle. But things have to change because clients expect consideration and someone to help them navigate the process. So we have dated a lot of opticians and kissed some frogs along the way, but we found the princes amongst them. Globally, we have some of the finest optical partners for over 20 years.
SB: Which means you have set a standard for the choice. So, in effect, how many optical stores will Sama Eyewear be available at?
SV: With standards, there are a fewer candidates. To properly distribute our brand – I just need a few, not the whole market. We like the brand to have exclusivity within each region and pick our partners carefully. Sama has always been a brand with a fresh new perspective, with high technology innovations season after season. We need to be sure it is properly communicated to clients who become a part of the Sama family. We just need the heroes to be the first adapters. We don’t need everybody. First and foremost, we just really want to be with the best.
I have been visiting the Middle East for over 25 years, and am quite familiar with the MENA market. I know all the players, their work and belief systems. I know who has done a good job and who shares our principles. However, if they are not going to stock Sama, I will open my own stores. From Madison Avenue to Rodeo Drive, there are designer-owned shops. This happened because retailers failed at some point – or designers wanted to showcase their brand in the way they intended. So when Valentino asked the boutique owner to stock a specific dress or told the team how to merchandise and they didn’t – he opened signature stores for direct distribution. I hope that we always have the best opticians, but if need be, I too will opt for Sama branded stores.
SB: Very interesting approach indeed. Now coming back to the Sama product line, what’s your approach to design?
SV: I always work with technology first and then design. I put future prospects in front of me, such as materials that are more comfortable, lighter or organic, and then work on the design. Every aspect of our creations at Sama is about quality. From conception through execution, it is about the highest standards. I think the past serves only as an inspiration, but for most designers it is safe – the future is too great a risk. We spend a lot of time and resources to infuse totally new and future concepts.
SB: Celebrities are often seen in your creations. How important are celebrity endorsements for you?
SV: I woke up today to see a mail from Kyle Richards from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. She had just bought Sama glasses in Beverly Hills and she wrote to tell me how much she loved them. This happens quite often – when someone of influence writes to thank me or just tell me how great they look in our frames. I feel I should be thanking them instead!
One reason celebrities love Sama is because when I design I think about individuals with great personal style. We never make frames that are commonplace. Celebrities need to look great, but often don’t want to be noticed. Even our lenses offer extended protection and privacy with coatings and finishes unlike any other in the market. Wearing Sama they feel that, “This is made for me.”
I also don’t put a logo on the frames because it is about the person wearing it making it their own. Our frames do say ‘Produced in Japan by Sama Eyewear’ because we are proud to be one of the only premium luxury producers who can still say that. But it is very subtle. This counters the industry doing larger logos and signs. I am so futuristic in my vision that often we are a year or two ahead of what the market is ready to accept. Wearing Sama sets them apart and stands for quality. The product speaks for itself. The celebrities who wear our frames do so organically – we don’t pay for endorsements.
SB: Now something about your latest collection, deCode: LA.
SV: deCode: LA is about the Los Angeles lifestyle. We launched in New York and will launch in Los Angeles in June. Every frame in the collection has a new concept based on key cultural initiatives, movements and causes that are significant to Los Angelinos. I wanted to pay homage to the incredible range of artisans, leaders and decision makers in LA who have made a difference locally and globally with names like ‘NoHate’, ‘NoBullying’, ‘NoWar’. Of course, the design is cool, trendy and chic, but each frame has its own purpose and we work with the charities or people who support these causes to create a better future.
We have always supported the Sam Vance Foundation with sales. With deCode: LA, we have taken it a step further, giving each frame its own cause. I have always believed in giving back to the community to make sure we can fight the ugliness in the world with something beautiful.
SB: Any new collection we can expect in 2015?
SV: I am working on a new collection which will introduce a new material, magnesium. It is lighter than titanium and has never been used before in eyewear. It was hard to work with colour and plating the frames, but there’s been a breakthrough. If nothing else slows down the process, we will hopefully introduce it by the end of 2015. I am always working on something new.
SB: That’s wonderful news, Sheila. All the best for everything you do.