Family pumps fresh blood into home-grown eyewear brand O+

Entrepreneur David Hwang roped in his wife and sons, with an eye to going global.

THINK of eyewear, and it's usually foreign names that come to mind, such as Gucci, Oakley or Owndays - depending on your budget. But Emsley (see amendment note), a local eyewear designer and manufacturer with over 20 years of history, is intent on changing this with their very own Singapore eyewear brand O+.

After decades of experience in the industry, founder and CEO David Hwang noticed that offerings in the market are either high quality but expensive, or cheap but mediocre.

Together with wife Brenice Ong and their two sons Silas and Shamus, he took the leap to launch the O+ brand in 2014, an eyewear label that aims to change all that.

It finally culminated in its flagship store located at the OUE Downtown Gallery since May 2017. The family business aims to fill a gap in the market for optical frames with "premium quality but affordable pricing", says Mr Hwang.

Fulfilling a vision

Its standalone O+ store is actually the result of a rebranding strategy.

The family previously operated a multi-brand optical shop called Eden Eyeland, before making the decision to focus on their O+ brand.

It has been fast gaining traction by both locals and Caucasians, shares Mr Hwang. He pumped in S$350,000 into O+, but expects to break even in two years at the latest.

Tucked away in Tanjong Pagar, the store has attracted quite a number of walk-in customers, usually from the office lunch crowd.

"When they first come in, they think it's an expensive foreign brand, and they are very surprised to find out that it's not," says Mr Hwang.

Customers are also pleased to find out that O+ is a Singapore label, with many voicing their support, he adds.

"When they find out we are a local brand and that we are also a manufacturer, they get even more interested. It's quite surprising to me that they love to purchase local brands." And it's not just Singaporeans that frequent the store. O+'s clientele consists of 30 per cent of Caucasian customers, shares Mr Hwang.

He says this is because of his awareness of the European sense of aesthetics and preferences, having catered to customers over the years who are mainly from the West, such as France, Germany and Scandinavia.

The glasses that they design are generally classic, timeless designs, but he is quick to add that the O+ frame is suited for both the Asian and the Caucasian face, as much effort has been put into the design of each pair to ensure that it fits customers perfectly.

Considerable emphasis is placed on quality, starting from the type of materials used, to the details that go into each frame.

Shamus Hwang says that a lot of European components are used, such as Italian acetate - an expensive material usually used by high-end brands - and German hinges.

The designs and control in terms of quality requirements are done in Singapore, but manufactured in China.

Perhaps, more significantly, every single pair of spectacle frame produced is machine cut, but hand-polished.

Says the younger son: "A premium material like acetate requires a lot of hand adjustment. It's not an injected material where the curvature and polishing is done by machine alone… It's about putting everything together and being able to choose the right acetate for the right design."

He points out that at a glance, the frames may look similar. But on closer inspection, it is clear that each one has its own character.

The vision of creating a Singapore brand may have started with Mr Hwang, but he says it would have been "impossible" for O+ to exist without his two sons coming onboard. After all, the name itself represents the blood type of family members, symbolising the ties that bind the entire business together.

Wife Brenice is head of operations for both Emsley and O+, elder son Silas is co-founder and head of business development at O+, while second son Shamus is co-founder and head of design at O+.

Both sons were exposed to the eyewear business since young, attending trade shows and sitting in at customer meetings.

Says Shamus: "My dad has a very entrepreneurial mindset, so it's inspiring to see that as a son, and to follow in his footsteps."

Before Shamus joined, Mr Hwang was the only designer, coming up with sketches for both the manufacturing business and O+.

Passionate disagreements

But just because Mr Hwang is the big boss doesn't mean that the rest of the family acquiesces to all his views. Shamus shares light-heartedly that there are plenty of passionate disagreements when it comes to design.

His dad says: "When it comes to design, it's really about passion. We can argue over a simple pair of glasses many times. But even just a small detail like thickness, once you put (the glasses) on, makes a world of difference." Passion, it seems, runs in the family. "I thought both of us were opinionated enough, until I saw him with the two boys," laughs Ms Ong.

Far from viewing it as discord, she says that disagreements can be a good thing as it comes from a place of wanting the best for the business.

"Disagreements do not equal disunity," she says.

Mr Hwang also credits his family for the ideas and inspiration they bring to the table.

He adds: "Although we need to come to an agreement, we are more than willing to explore any idea. For my generation and theirs, there's a big difference in our thinking. But it's a good learning experience for me as well as for them."

Looking ahead

The family says there will be no change to its manufacturing arm, and it will continue to be business as usual.

They, however, have big plans for O+. Mr Hwang reveals that their intention for setting up O+ is not simply to focus on the local market, but to go abroad. The business is already in talks with interested parties from Europe who are keen to take the brand overseas.

Says Shamus: "One big differentiating factor is the Singapore brand, which is associated with quality, integrity and excellence… It's something they're willing to run with."

While the business may still open stores in Singapore, the ultimate goal is to expand overseas, which is expected to happen in the next year or two.

But regardless of how far the business will take them, Mr Hwang says that staying true to their ethos is something they will never compromise on.

He says: "To me, it's always about integrity in business. My philosophy is simple - do the right thing. We may not be perfect, but if customers come in with issues about their glasses, we make sure they leave happy, no questions asked."

Amendment note: The article previously misspelt Emsley. The article has been amended to reflect this.