The Interview: Gordon Ritchie, Kirk Originals
One of the UK’s oldest eyewear brands, Kirk Originals’ recent reinvention sees the launch of a new and more affordable tier of made-in-England eyewear. Hitting its centenary and, now, headed by Managing Director, Gordon Ritchie, the original Kirk family were pioneers in optics when Sidney and Percy Kirk opened their London workshops in 1919.
The brand came back into prominence in the 1990s thanks to Jason and Karen Kirk catching the zeitgeist for strikingly coloured frames. Today, Kirk Originals is owned by IDL, an architecture firm who specialise in retail architecture and have owned the brand for the past seven years.
“I joined Kirk Originals in Jan. 2017, leading a complete revamp. We re-launched to the industry less than six months later, in June, for the Spring Summer 18 selling season.” says Ritchie.
Originally from Aberdeen and, now, living in Teddington, Ritchie’s career in fashion began working on the shop floor. After a move to London, he “was walking past Joseph in Westbourne Park Road and saw they were hiring. Getting to work alongside Joseph Ettedgui was inspiring, making me want to pursue a career in the industry again. I decided I wanted to be behind the scenes rather than go back to retail, forging a successful career in wholesale sales, which led me to Crombie and my first international role,” he says.
“I took Crombie back out into the world after an absence of 20 years from the wholesale market. After only three years we were in over 35 countries and working with some of the best department stores around the globe. I introduced summer collections, expanded the categories and had a clear vision for what the brand could be and executed the strategy.”
The majority of consumers will be surprised how far back Kirk Originals’ story goes. “The legacy that led to where we are today dates back to 1919 when the Kirk brothers first went into the eyewear business, having been button and clothing makers,” says Ritchie.
“Converting a sewing machine into a cuttng machine was their first step into making eyewear in Grays Inn Road in Clerkenwell. They grew into one of the largest eyewear makers in London employing up to 100 people at one point. The reason for their demise has been lost in the annals of time, but in the early 1990s a younger member of the Kirk family found a trunk full of original frames from the Kirk family business that dated back to the 1950s and 1960s. He (Jason Kirk) started to sell them into clothing stores in London, where they were snapped up,” says Ritchie.
“As stock began to run low he realised he had a business, and a demand, so he set up a workshop to start making more. Taking inspiration from the original Kirk frames, he took classic 50s and 60s shapes and updated them using modern materials and components and adding colour lenses.” he says.
“Launched as ‘Kirk Originals’ in 1992, they were a big success, adopted by the cool London crowd.” says Ritchie. “On the clubscene, particularly the Acid Jazz scene, all the DJs and bands wore Kirk Originals. The Young Disciples, The Brand New Heavies, followed a couple of years later by the Britpop crowd, most famously Oasis, and Liam Gallagher, who still wears them today.” he says.
“The last of the Kirk family stepped down from the business shortly after IDL acquired the brand. When I was brought in, it had lost direction and any sense of who they were trying to appeal to,” says Ritchie. “The idea and direction to re-establish the brand came together very quickly. It seemed natural to take it back to the original essence of the brand, the ethos they started with in 1992, but make it right for today.” he says.
In the last year, the first year since the re-launch to the consumers, sales have increased close to 200%. This year they will see another major increase in turnover driven mostly by wholesale. The relaunch of Kirk Originals started with expensive handmade frames and sunglasses in small quantities, “We set out with our ‘Handmade in England’ sunglasses to create men’s sunglasses that were the equivalent of a Savile Row suit or an handmade pair of Northampton shoes, but we are also a bit less serious and are informed by music, film and youth culture,” says Ritchie.
“‘Made in England’ has also been really important to us, and there is definitely an appetite for made in England in menswear and accessories. It just feels natural to make close to home if you can. It’s not a flag waving thing. In 1992 we were making in England and the whole legacy of Kirk Originals is a London story,” he says.
“While our handmade pieces (£425 rrp) are crafted from individual pieces of natural acetate and made by one person from start to finish, this season we introduce a new level with slightly less handwork in the initial stages that will retail from £235 - £295,” says Ritchie. “We use the same materials and components, but the initial fronts and temples are all cut from sheets of acetate all together. We have injected even more colour into this part of the collection too.” he says.
“We are focused on the best stockists rather than trying to attract lots of stockists. We launched on Mr. Porter in the first season, and you can find us now on The Rake, in Private White in Mayfair and stores in Sweden, Germany and New York. This year, we will launch in Liberty, End Clothing, Browns Fashion, Fortnum & Mason, Loden Frey in Munich, and Barneys New York.” says Ritchie.
Trying to standout in the saturated eyewear market is difficult, especially with how dominated it is by a few big players and their multiple licenses. “There are a lot of eyewear brands out there and that is why you need to work really, really hard to stand out,” says Ritchie.
Kirk Originals’ product development, direction and creative decisions are taken by Creative Director, Mark Brown. “We share very similar views, reference points and aesthetic values. I bring a commercial aspect, market knowledge, an aesthetic eye and a push to be unique to the table while Mark has design discipline, high quality standards and an attention to detail.”
So, what’s next for Kirk Originals? “We will continue on the path we have started. It’s been such a hugely satisfying project to work on personally, but we do face challenges, as any business does with relatively quick success. We have shown our concept works, have a rapidly growing engaged following, and retailers are achieving strong sell-through,” says Ritchie.
“We stand out by presenting a really strong consistent image and a point of view, that is genuine and authentic. No stylists, no influencers, no paid for promotion, we do everything in-house. Everyone you see wearing Kirk Originals genuinely wants to wear them, and some of them just happen to be the best dressed and most influential men in the world.”