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Luisa Del­gado sweeps into the room with the cool con­fi­dence that you might ex­pect from a cor­po­rate leader. The 49-year-old is the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Safilo, one of one of the world’s top eye­wear man­u­fac­tur­ers. She’s stylishly dressed in a black suit and yet the zany an­i­mal print on her Fendi glasses sug­gests she likes to chal­lenge con­ven­tional ex­pec­ta­tions. Del­gado took charge of Safilo three years ago and has been on a mis­sion to re­vi­talise and trans­form the Ital­ian com­pany ever since. “This com­pany has been a bit like Sleep­ing Beauty in the past 15 years,” Del­gado tells WISH at the com­pany’s sleek global head­quar­ters in Padua. “It prob­a­bly now has the com­bi­na­tion of op­por­tu­ni­ties that you can only find in this com­pany.”

The US90 bil­lion ($120bn) global eye­wear in­dus­try is one of the most dy­namic sec­tors of style to­day as good sun­glasses and spec­ta­cles have be­come a wardrobe es­sen­tial rather than sim­ply a fash­ion ac­ces­sory or an op­ti­cal ne­ces­sity. Whether it’s pre­scrip­tion eye­wear, sun­glasses or hi-tech sports gear, in­dus­try ex­perts be­lieve the in­dus­try could grow to $US140bn by 2020 and all sorts of brands are lin­ing up to ex­plore that po­ten­tial.

Gucci mod­els re­cently took to the runway in flow­ing evening gowns topped with sun­glasses pro­duced by Safilo; Switzer­land’s largest watch­maker Swatch has re­leased its play­ful “Swatch The Eyes” in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the brand; and Brazilian flipflops maker Hava­ianas un­veiled its first range of psy­che­delic sun­glasses made by Safilo at the Rio Olympics.

Beirut de­signer Elie Saab will soon launch his first haute cou­ture line of gold-plated Safilo-pro­duced eye­wear fin­ished with Swarovski crys­tal; Hol­ly­wood A-lis­ters Ju­lia Roberts, Jes­sica Chas­tain and Naomi Watts were re­cently spot­ted at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val wear­ing the ate­lier line, ex­pected to be re­leased in Jan­uary 2017. Still, few con­sumers may re­alise that the firm pro­duces eye­wear for 25 brands in­clud­ing Fendi, Ce­line, Tommy Hil­figer and Jimmy Choo.

“These are pres­ti­gious in­ter­na­tional brands. In these the very best of our de­sign ca­pa­bil­i­ties come to light,” says Del­gado. “Ev­ery brand has to trans­late its iconic el­e­ments on to eye­wear. You think about Dior. This is not a pair of glasses, this is a work of art that trans­lates a phi­los­o­phy that is ‘Mai­son Dior’.”

Safilo may not be a house­hold name in Aus­tralia, but be­sides its well-known de­signer-li­censed brands it is the com­pany be­hind some big sell­ers, such as Po­laroid, Car­rera and Smith. Now Del­gado has am­bi­tious plans to broaden the com­pany’s port­fo­lio across the spec­trum, ap­peal­ing to the mass mar­ket while ad­ding a higher level of haute cou­ture to ex­ist­ing de­signer fash­ion lines.

“There are so many op­por­tu­ni­ties to mod­ernise yet pre­serve and do some­thing that is very unique,” she says. “It is one of the most ex­cit­ing trans­for­ma­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties that you can imag­ine.”

Born near St Moritz in Switzer­land, Del­gado knows a thing or two about trans­for­ma­tion. Her first lan­guage is Ro­man­sch, the Switzer­land’s lesser-known fourth lan­guage, but she is com­fort­able in many oth­ers.

She brings a depth of ex­pe­ri­ence and an out­sider’s per­spec­tive to eye­wear af­ter 20 years at Proc­ter & Gam­ble and her last five years there in a se­nior role in its Nordic di­vi­sion. She was a non-ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor at Safilo when she was of­fered the top job in 2013.

“I fell in love with this com­pany, the tremen­dous re­search, pas­sion, tech­ni­cal knowhow, aes­thet­ics and sen­si­bil­ity that goes into it,” she says. “And the peo­ple, they have a tremen­dous pas­sion for the prod­uct.”

In Italy it’s rare to find ei­ther a fe­male or a for­eign CEO. Del­gado ap­pears to be us­ing both to her ad­van­tage at the helm of a com­pany that gen­er­ated al­most 1.3bn ($1.9bn) in sales last year. And her hon­esty is dis­arm­ing.

“This com­pany used to be run mainly by Ital­ian or Vene­tian men. Wher­ever you would go in the com­pany from Seoul to Sao Paulo there would be Ital­ian men. This is not bad or good, it’s just that it lacked the di­ver­sity to be­come a modern multi­na­tional.”

Safilo has steadily evolved from a com­pany of crafts­men that be­gan cre­at­ing eye­wear in the north­ern Veneto re­gion in 1878, to the world’s sec­ond-largest eye­wear man­u­fac­turer af­ter Ital­ian ri­val Lux­ot­tica.

The com­pany’s eye­wear prod­ucts are now sold in 100,000 stores around the world in a fiercely com­pet­i­tive mar­ket where movie stars, celebrity mod­els and other VIPs on a red car­pet can turn one pair into a global sen­sa­tion. Adopt­ing a no-non­sense ap­proach, Del­gado says the chal­lenge is to com­bine cut­ting-edge de­sign and tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise with­out los­ing Safilo’s rep­u­ta­tion for crafts­man­ship. She has also been shak­ing up the firm with new re­cruits and in­vest­ing in new tech­nol­ogy.

“We don’t want to be­come a stan­dard­ised com­pany that does mil­lions of au­toma­tised prod­ucts,” she says. “We want to pre­serve some of that unique crafts­man­ship, but we need to be­come more modern when it comes to man­ag­ing our­selves as a multi­na­tional.”

While the lux­ury fash­ion brands ac­count for up to 50 per cent of sales, Del­gado be­lieves there are also pos­si­bil­i­ties to ex­pand what is called the bur­geon­ing “mass cool” seg­ment – grow­ing at a rate of 3bn a year – which in­cludes Po­laroid, Swatch and Hava­ianas.

De­sign is the foun­da­tion of ev­ery line and Safilo has 150 de­sign­ers around the world pro­duc­ing up to 3000 new mod­els a year. De­sign­ers col­lab­o­rate closely with clients be­fore model pro­to­types are ap­proved and pro­duc­tion then gets un­der way at plants like the one at Santa Maria di Sala, out­side Padua.

“We start from the de­sign of the prod­ucts and do all the en­gi­neer­ing that needs to be done, from ren­der­ing to hav­ing all the equip­ment and the tools needed to pro­duce the glasses,” says Ste­fano Parmegiani, the plant di­rec­tor. “We go end to end from the en­gi­neer­ing un­til fi­nal pro­duc­tion.”

The Santa Maria di Sala plant is one of four plants owned by Safilo in Italy and there are three oth­ers in the US, Slove­nia and China. The Veneto plant pro­duces an in­cred­i­ble 12,000 pairs of glasses a day. Each pair is carved from slabs of ac­etate or moulded from plas­tic in a pro­duc­tion line that com­bines star­tling com­put­erised ma­chin­ery with the painstak­ing hand­i­work of around 600 work­ers, in­clud­ing spe­cial­ists who do noth­ing but in­sert hinges or tiny lo­gos into the frames.

“Ev­ery piece is unique in the way it is worked and the way it is as­sem­bled,” says Parmegiani. “If you look closely there are no two pairs of glasses which are ex­actly the same.”

Back at Safilo’s Padua head­quar­ters, de­signer David Iarossi is show­ing off the lat­est Car­rera mod­els, which he hopes will ap­peal to sports-lov­ing rene­gades as well as so­phis­ti­cated cor­po­rate types.

“They are a mix of fash­ion and sport,” he says en­thu­si­as­ti­cally. “Sporty chic.”

Iarossi, who has been with Safilo for eight years, has just fin­ished a meet­ing in a con­fer­ence room lined with his lat­est de­signs. The walls are cov­ered with posters re­veal­ing Car­rera’s de­mo­graph­ics from skate­board­ers to fash­ion-con­scious met­ro­sex­u­als and cor­po­rate ca­reerists.

“We have a col­lec­tion called Flag, it’s very bold, in your face,” says Mas­simo Pozzetti, Car­rera’s global gen­eral man­ager and head of cor­po­rate dig­i­tal at Safilo. “This is for peo­ple who want to show off – it’s ac­tu­ally strong in Aus­tralia.”

Pozzetti, who built his ca­reer sell­ing frozen peas at Unilever, is rel­ish­ing his new job and says Car­rera has huge po­ten­tial, par­tic­u­larly in Aus­tralia where its sun­glasses are a top seller. “Aus­tralia is one of our growth mar­kets. Car­rera has been do­ing re­ally well there,” he says. “There is a lot of eth­nic­ity so it’s a barometer for us, like the west coast of the US. For us Aus­tralia will re­main a growth mar­ket.”

Pozzetti says one style can eas­ily make or break a col­lec­tion. To mark the brand’s 60th an­niver­sary, he and Iarossi went to the ar­chive and sought in­spi­ra­tion from

“We have a col­lec­tion called Flag, for peo­ple who want to show off – it’s ac­tu­ally strong in Aus­tralia.”

the styles and mod­els that dis­tin­guished Car­rera in the past. In Fe­bru­ary Car­rera launched the Mav­er­ick col­lec­tion. “We are see­ing a re­ally good trend and good feed­back on our so­cial ac­counts,” Pozzetti says.

Del­gado also stresses the im­por­tance of the Aus­tralian mar­ket and the com­pany’s de­sire to of­fer con­sumers even more choice. “Aus­tralia has a lik­ing for brands that you typ­i­cally find in the US or the UK,” she says. “Kate Spade, for ex­am­ple, is one of our strong­est brands by far in the US and in Aus­tralia.”

Safilo es­ti­mates the global “mass cool” mar­ket is cur­rently worth 3bn. But Del­gado is look­ing at ex­pand­ing in ev­ery di­rec­tion from the mass-mar­ket con­sumers who want value out of their high-UVpro­tec­tion Po­laroids to the high end of the mar­ket where there are no price lim­its.

“You could make a lot of money in ev­ery seg­ment,” she says. “Our the­ory is if we are in all seg­ments, we have so many syn­er­gies, that we can make more money than some­body who only plays here or there.”

Po­laroid is a linch­pin for the com­pany in Aus­tralia be­cause of its pledge to guar­an­tee UV pro­tec­tion as well as its af­ford­able price. “Po­laroid is the peo­ple’s brand. It is a brand that is mass and cool and trust­wor­thy. It is cool enough to be ex­cit­ing to wear it but it doesn’t take me out of my com­fort zone,” Del­gado says. The kids’ seg­ment in po­larised sun­glasses has been grow­ing in dou­ble fig­ures an­nu­ally, she says. “It’s par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant for kids. If you don’t start pro­tect­ing your kids from UV rays it is too late.”

Michele Costa­bile, pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and mar­ket­ing at Rome’s Luiss Uni­ver­sity, says Del­gado’s com­pre­hen­sive strat­egy is the right one for a rapidly chang­ing mar­ket with enor­mous growth po­ten­tial.

“De­mand for eye­wear as a fash­ion ac­ces­sory is not only in Europe, the US or Aus­tralia,” Costa­bile says. “It is a phe­nom­e­non that is spread­ing around the world – in China, In­dia and South Amer­ica.”

Di­ver­sity is the key in an in­dus­try as fickle as fash­ion. Safilo was hit hard in 2012 when Gior­gio Ar­mani de­cided against re­new­ing its con­tract and in­stead moved to Lux­ot­tica. In 2010 the sale of Ar­mani eye­wear ac­counted for 162 mil­lion in sales and 15 per cent of Safilo’s to­tal sales.

Del­gado is do­ing ev­ery­thing she can to stop that hap­pen­ing again, while ad­ding brands to the port­fo­lio. “We have trained our­selves and hired peo­ple who have an in­cred­i­ble sen­si­bil­ity and re­spon­si­bil­ity for brand­ing. That is the only way for a li­censee to be re­spected.”

Costa­bile en­dorses the move to chase wealthy con­sumers who “own thou­sands of dif­fer­ent sun­glasses” while de­vel­op­ing its ex­per­tise in the sport­ing sec­tor. He thinks Safilo is well placed be­cause of its tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise. “In my opin­ion Safilo can en­joy even greater mar­ket growth be­cause of its spe­cific com­pe­tence in pro­duc­ing glasses for ski­ing, ca­noe­ing and other sports.”

Sun­glasses ac­count for only 30 per cent of the global op­ti­cal mar­ket, so the great­est po­ten­tial may ac­tu­ally lie in pre­scrip­tion and hi-tech glasses. “There is no doubt our in­dus­try is at the in­ter­sec­tion of fash­ion and med­i­cal and we have an age­ing pop­u­la­tion and emerg­ing mid­dle class across an enor­mous part of the world. That is why we are in an in­cred­i­ble growth in­dus­try.”

And that growth is en­abling Safilo to look at pro­vid­ing spec­ta­cles or sun­glasses to chil­dren in sub­Sa­ha­ran Africa and In­dia, where the poor may never see a doc­tor. “It is not a char­ity, it is a busi­ness,” Del­gado says. “But it is busi­ness where you can ac­tu­ally do some­thing good. Do­ing well and do­ing good can go hand in hand.”

“We have trained our­selves and hired peo­ple who have an in­cred­i­ble sen­si­bil­ity and re­spon­si­bil­ity for brand­ing.”

A model wears sun­glasses by Safilo from Gucci’s au­tum­n­win­ter 2016 col­lec­tion

Clock­wise from far left: Safilo CEO Luisa Del­gado; an arm be­ing pol­ished; popstar Ri­hanna in Dior by Safilo; frames un­der con­struc­tion; and Hyp­noshine sun­glasses made for Fendi

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