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The Interview: Tom Broughton, founder, Cubitts

Tom Bottomley
10 July 2019

Modern spectacle maker Cubitts announced the opening of its eighth store on Friday 5 July at 41 Monmouth Street in London’s Seven Dials. The shop takes its inspiration both from the quarter’s historic sundial centrepiece and from the building’s previous incarnation as A. France & Son, undertakers to the likes of King George III. Cubitts’ founder, Tom Broughton, talks through his brand’s journey 

Any particular reason for choosing that location for your eighth store?

The Seven Dials always has a good mix of independent brands, and quite a lot of direct to consumer brands. I’ve always liked the local feel of Seven Dials too, as opposed to the south side of Covent Garden which is very tourist driven. There’s little cobbled streets and places I like such as Monmouth Coffee. We have had eyes on that particular site at 41 Monmouth Street for a while. It’s a very cool site and it feels very Cubitts. It’s only 300 square foot on the ground floor and the same in the basement, and it’s got a very interesting history to it as it used to be an undertakers. They are still our landlords and I met the great great grandson. He showed me photos of when they had all the funeral processions around the old Covent Garden Market. You can imagine how many flowers they would have had considering it was a flower market!

Cubitts' eighth store on Monmouth Street

Have you drawn on that history for the new shop’s design?

We’ve designed the concept to reference the old use as an undertakers. We’ve clad the whole of the inside in Spanish mahogany, which was traditionally used to make coffins out of. The whole theme is light and dark, and life and death. We’ve built a little garden out the back with vibrant plants, and glass doors so you can see inside like a coffin. We’ve also put a lot of gilded brass tack pins in the cabinets as well, which is a reference to the coffin A. France & Son made for Admiral Lord Nelson, which apparently had 10,000 gilded brass pins in it.

Are each of your shops individually designed and representative of their locations?

Yes, we always look at different things, such as the history of the building, so who else has lived or worked there, and what it has been before. It’s also about what’s behind the walls and ceiling when we strip it out, to see if we can reveal details that really help with the store design. Then we look at the history of the street, and if there’s any interesting stories to tell, and we look at the area as a whole. We then aim to turn that in to a concept based on the colour of the façade, the materials we use and the fixturing system. For this new store, because we are right next to the famous Seven Dials sundial, we’ve incorporated the gnomon design, which is the part of a sundial that casts a shadow, into our fixturing system. So, all the glass shelves are held up by individual gnomons, and shadows will be cast when the light comes in. 

The interior is clad in Spanish mahogany

Do you also offer something unique in each of your stores?

For each of the stores we also have a separate made-to-measure collection, so four frames which are unique to each particular location. We always try to reference the area, the people associated with it or the history of the building in those designs too. One of the frames for the new Seven Dials store is based on the sundial.

When was the last shop you opened before this one?

It was eight months ago in Coal Drops Yard, King’s Cross. We find it really good, though I think some brands and retailers are struggling there. But we always had a base in King’s Cross anyway, so an active audience for Cubitts had already been established. We’re different to other retail brands in that we also have the on-site eye-testing, so people come to us for the services as well as the product.

Did you start Cubitts in King’s Cross?

We opened the first store in King’s Cross in 2014, but I started it in 2013 out of my flat on Cubitt Street in King’s Cross. Hence the brand name. I was doing some research in to why it was called Cubitt Street, and I found out that it was the old site of the Cubitt brother’s building yard. The Cubitt name goes back for over 200 years in King’s Cross. So, we took our name after the three brothers who were builders and engineers in the early 1800’s. They did a lot of public building work around London. Lewis Cubitt designed King’s Cross station, Thomas Cubitt did Belgravia and lots of Bloomsbury, and William Cubitt did the building that is now the Apple store in Covent Garden. Between the three of them, they designed a lot of interesting buildings, and I really liked their principles of taking an industry that’s been around for centuries and making it relevant and modern, but without compromise. That’s my design philosophy as well.

Glass shelves are held up by individual gnomons

How much does fashion and style play in your frame designs?

It’s important but we don’t describe ourselves as a fashion brand. A nice pair of spectacles, or even sunglasses, in a classic design should last for decades, so long as human beings have got two eyes, a nose and two ears! There’s no reason why we have to go and do anything crazy, so we try to focus on classic and understated styles that can last for decades rather than the idea of constantly trying to create new stuff.

How is the business split between men’s and women’s?

It’s pretty much 50/50. I think the last time I checked it was 52% men’s and 48% women’s, but then the majority of our frames are unisex. I think increasingly people’s attitude to gender, and gender-specific products, is changing. The idea of unisex is much more appealing and amenable to most people’s purchasing behaviour now.

What are your most popular styles?

It kind of splits in to two groups really. There’s the slightly round ‘panto’ eye lens, which is quite 1960’s in style. They’re quite fine, simple and lightweight. Style names include ‘Herbrand’, ‘Keystone’ and ‘Flaxman’, which all share the same kind of characteristics. Then, on the other side of things, we’ve got the big frames, with styles such as ‘Judd’ and ‘Matilda’. They’re big, bold, heavy and boxy frames. People are going for either a statement pair like that which hides their features more, or something lighter and more delicate that accentuates their features.

What’s your design ethos?

Good service and quality product for a fair price. We focus on doing a small number of things really well. We have three levels, so the core collection all retail at £125, then we also offer made-to-measure at £425 and a full bespoke service for £725, where you sit down with a designer and create something from scratch. I’m still the head of product, but these days there’s a small team of three of us who design.

Did you see a gap in the market when you started out?

Six years ago, your options were to either go cheap and convenient, like Specsavers, or to go to a high-end independent boutique which traded on being high-end fashion and exclusive, which was all very glitzy with shiny gold and that kind of thing. It felt like there was nothing really in between, so I thought why can’t you create a brand and make something that is a really good product but isn’t crazily expensive or made to feel exclusive. Spectacles are one thing that everyone is going to need at some point in their life, whether you’re rich or poor, tall or short, male or female, it doesn’t make a difference. So, I wanted to create a brand and products that were quite egalitarian and accessible to all, which people were happy to wear.

Do you wholesale your products at all?

We do some but not much. We’re in Liberty, Mr. Start in Shoreditch and on MR PORTER, along with a few others, but we say ‘no’ a lot more than we say ‘yes’ when it comes to wholesale accounts. We want the retailers to represent our product in the best way – not shoved in a drawer somewhere or behind a glass case, or just collecting dust! It’s important that people put them on, try them and understand the differences. 

Do you do any collaborations?

This year we’ve worked with womenswear and menswear designer, Phoebe English, making frames with off-cuts and recycled materials. We’ve also worked with Sunspel and coming up we’re about to do a collaboration with Liberty, featuring eight frames inspired by the art nouveau movement. We also work with a different artist every six months to release a new cleaning cloth. They create a new piece of art to go on the cloths, then we sell them to raise money for their chosen charity. We’ve just done one with Camille Walala, who does a lot of big geometric bold prints, and the one before that was with Tracey Emin.

Are there plans to open any more stores?

We’re looking at opening another two stores in London this year, one probably in West London, the other in the City of London, and then possibly outside of London too – we’re working on that. 

What else is new?

The other big thing we’re investing a lot in is technology. We’ve just finished our second version of a head scanner, which we’re going to use for our bespoke consultations. It takes a three-dimensional scan of your face so you can overlay a frame on it and get a perfect fitting. We’re trialling that now in the new Seven Dials store, and then we’ll roll it out to our other stores throughout the summer.

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