AS BOTH AN OPTOMETRIST AND AN EYEWEAR DESIGNER, THIS ENTREPRENEUR IS REDRAWING THE BLUEPRINT OF VISION CARE
BY AMANDA McCOY • PHOTOS BY PHILIP HARVEY PHOTOGRAPHY & THE ARCHIVE
The launched at seemingly the worst time,” laughed Blake Kuwahara, an award winning eyewear designer and founder of the Los Angeles based creative agency Focus Group West. It was 2009, and the designer’s vision to integrate product design, marketing, and sales under one collaborative roof was just coming to fruition right at the onset of the economic downturn. But, as fate would have it, the timing proved to be serendipitous for the young entrepreneur.
“As it turned out, this was fortuitous, since companies were desperately looking for ways to differentiate themselves and be more competitive in a struggling marketplace,” recalled the California native.
The concept of Focus Group West was progressive. At the time of its inception, each part of the industry was compartmentalized, with design, marketing and public relations, and sales all happening independently of each other. Kuwahara set out to create a more integrated approach, bringing in eyewear designers, graphic designers, architects, public relations agents, and project managers to work comprehensively under the same umbrella. (“Since there was no one really providing these kinds of services under one roof, it took a bit of explaining,” said Kuwahara.) But shortly after its official launch, the agency landed its major first client. Through an industry referral, a research and development company out of Oxford, UK, hired Kuwahara’s team to integrate a new type of lens technology into specially designed eyewear. It wasn’t long before the agency’s appointment books began to fill up. “We were on our way,” he said.
A CFDA member and winner of the 2016 SILMO d’Or award for Best Eyewear Design, Kuwahara has seen notable success as a designer in his career. His first line, Kata Eyewear, won a special SILMO award given out by the French fashion press, and his current namesake collection is carried at hundreds of locations around the world.
But although the celebrated designer has possessed a creative impulse since childhood, he initially thought his vocational journey would be mainly left brain driven.
“We were tracked early on in high school, and I had an apparent aptitude for sciences, even though I preferred the more creative route,” he said. “I won a competitive grant from NASA for a project I worked on at the USC Dental School. At the time, I thought my career path was set.”
While working on his undergraduate degree in psychobiology at UCLA, Kuwahara also served as the creative director of his university’s yearbook. He also had an internship at a local design firm. At about the time he received his acceptance letter to optometry school at University of California, Berkeley, he was offered a full time position with the design firm.
“I was torn,” he recalled, “but took the pragmatic path of accepting admission to optometry school, figuring I could always revert back to the design field if being an eye doctor wasn’t my cup of tea. Actually, that was my mom’s suggestion. And it turned out to be a good one.”
After graduation, Kuwahara entered the optometry trade, and found there was one aspect of the profession that particularly piqued his interest. It was not being in the exam room.
“I realized that being in a dark room seeing patients wasn’t exactly my calling,” he said. “While I loved what I was doing, I enjoyed being in the ‘front of the house’ in our optical boutique more.”
Three years after Kuwahara received his doctorate in optometry, a job opening at a well known optical fashion brand caught his eye, and he made the decision to officially retire his ophthalmoscope.
“By pure luck, there was an opening for a fashion forecaster at Liz Claiborne Optics. They were looking for someone with an optical background and an interest in fashion. I thought this was a perfect fit. They didn’t, however. After pretty much pleading for an interview, the owner of the company offered me a different position that of creative director. I didn’t have any design experience, but he thought I had a sense of style. The practical aspects of eyewear design (ergonomics, engineering, etc.) he could teach me.”
Kuwahara spent his first year with Liz Claiborne learning the mechanics of design, quickly discovering that because of his experience as an optometrist, his approach to the trade was unique. His sensitivity to how a frame fits on the face and feels in the hand gave the new designer an edge, one that drew the attention of his superiors. After a year with the brand, Kuwahara was offered the opportunity to design his own line. Kata Eyewear received international acclaim and was sold at exclusive optical boutiques and specialty retailers around the globe, including Barneys New York, Takashimaya, Brown’s in London, and United Arrows in Tokyo. His work also caught the eye of Linda Cohen, the owner of Eye Design in Red Bank, who remembers being captivated by the elements of spring and fall in his designs.
“There were little tidbits of environmental complements, like tree twigs, leaves, and beautiful natural things,” said Cohen. “My business is about being on the edge of fashion trends, and we’ve been selling his products since the beginning.”
For Kuwahara, the transition was natural.
“Although it wasn’t planned, eyewear design is the perfect integration of my background as an optometrist, my interest in design, and my childhood aspirations of being an architect,” he said.” Eyewear is also transformative. What other accessory can change one’s look so easily and definitively?”
From there, the designer’s budding career escalated quickly. He took a creative director position at REM Eyewear, where he was introduced to a more integrated concept that, he explained, was not typical of the times. It inspired a way of thinking that would one day form the foundation of his own creative agency. Seven years after accepting the position at REM, the time had come for Kuwahara to set out on his own.
“I wanted to take what I was doing but throw a wider net,” he explained. “It’s a very competitive marketplace, and consumers are savvy. Brands need to fire consistently on all cylinders in order to be as effective as they can be in communicating their brand ethos, which is why we not only can create the logo and product but also the environment in which the brands live, and then communicate that to the consumer.”
Nearly 10 years after its inception, its original team is still on board at the agency’s West Hollywood office. The clientele is multifarious, spanning industry behemoths and boutique retailers, including such familiar brands as Lucky Brand, Coach, and Converse as well as such celebrated designers as Carolina Herrera and John Varvatos. Looking ahead, the founder revealed that the team is deliberatively tackling more design intensive projects, even entertaining the future possibility of furniture and jewellery artistry.
While Kuwahara is involved in every stage of product development, from white boarding concepts to final production, he has not lost a desire to artfully create. In 2014, he went into a meeting with potential clients and left the room with new business partners for the launch of his second line, an eponymous collection the designer described as “artful but wearable.” Cohen, as avid a supporter of Kuwahara’s work as she was two decades ago, jumped at the chance to stock this most recent collection.
“Blake has reinvented himself with new designs for a long time,” she said. “I believe this new release under his own name is his best ever, and that says it all.”