It takes 72 hours to transform a pair of Kirk Originals from a sketch into a work of art. Every part of the production is done by hand. It is a process, a long process, but a work of art nonetheless.
That dedication to craftsmanship is the cornerstone of the United Kingdom’s chicest eyewear label, but it is only part of a unique story dating back more than a hundred years.
More than just another sunglasses brand, we sat down with Kirk Originals creative director Mark Brown to discuss the business of creating the world’s most desirable sunglasses – and why history, along with craftsmanship, is everything.
A brief history
Kirk Originals has a long history that started in the early part of the 20th century and has undergone several incarnations since.
The business was established in 1992, but the concept was born in 1919 by two brothers – Percy and Sidney Kirk – who founded Kirks Brothers as an optician, lens and frame manufacturer in Clerkenwell in the heart of London.
While Sidney carved out a reputation for his designs – and his creativity for turning a sewing machine into a lens cutter – Percy was somewhat of a marketing trailblazer who knew how to tap into influencers an eternity before that term became a part of the everyday vernacular.
The brand disappeared during the Second World War until a distant descendant of the Kirk family discovered a trunk of vintage frames and decided there was an opportunity to create a brand based on the vintage aesthetic.
Imagine stumbling across timeless designs that would soon become almost permanently fixed to the face of Liam Gallagher and Oasis when the brand was revived at the start of the 90s. Sounds like something out of a J.K. Rowling novel, doesn’t it?
Kirk Originals burned brightly across that decade before shifting focus to optical frames until the brand was relaunched by IDL Group in June 2017. Now, England has something to be proud of in the field of men’s eyewear.
The process of craftsmanship
“Craftmanship is extremely important to us in all facets,” Kirk Originals Creative Director Mark Brown tells Man of Style inside the brand’s Blackfriars headquarters in central London.
“When you look at a properly crafted anything, you’ll see the handwork in it; you’ll see the maker in it. With our handcrafted product, every one of those frames is ever so slightly different. I can point to a little detail or a curve and explain what’s happened to make it that way. They are ever so slightly different.”
“Just having the maker in the product is really seductive and there is a story to tell there, it is not just stamped out or moulded in a machine process. Seeing the people and the process behind a product is really important to us – I can look at a sketch and then an end product and see the journey that’s happened.”
“It takes around 72 hours from start to finish to craft a pair of Kirk sunglasses. A number of those hours will see the frames in a barrel with woodchips and stones which softens all the hard edges. But in the main, most of it is cutting out; you’re sanding, you’re using files, you’re using cutters to cut out the lens. Then when it comes to assembly, you’re fitting the hinges by hand. It is all done by an individual. It is a process, a really long process.”
It might sound a little bit different from the process behind a pair of Ray-Ban or Oakley frames, but that’s the beating heart of the brand. And it is that commitment to quality craftsmanship that separates them from the pack – and has done for more than a century.
Made in England
Another crucial Kirk Originals tenet is local manufacturing. In a time of fast fashion and all the evils associated with underpaid labour in decrepit buildings, this is an English brand made an hour north of the capital in a workshop designed for quality, not quantity.
“Made in England is important to us because we looked at this from a global perspective and we felt it would have really good cut through in the States and in the Far East,” says Brown.
“We aligned ourselves with the thinking in the men’s shoe industry. There is a kind of sense of authority from a made in England product. England used to make eyewear and a lot of eyewear. That industry had fallen by the wayside and we thought this could reignite that industry.”
IDL Group is comprised of an architecture firm, a design agency, Author Studio, which is also run by Brown, as well as Kirk Originals. It is not hard to see how this marriage works in sync.
When it comes to sourcing inspiration, Brown is never not looking, literally. A Swiss furniture book from the 70s he discovered in a second-hand bookstore has been one of the most influential resources of his career. And he often rewinds a vintage film or documentary to take a photo of a pair of frames from a bygone era.
“The influences tend to be 20th century. It is about drawing from vintage influences but reinventing them for a contemporary market,” he said.
“You are always looking and the beauty is we are never working to seasons. We are able to continually drop new product in.”
“It can be anything from finding an old coffee table book in a charity shop or you may find a designer wearing a pair of glasses that immediately start your thinking.”
“You might be watching a movie from the 40s or 50s and it sparks something. It might be a classic featuring Cary Grant or someone left of centre. It can be a book collection from the glam rock period. I saw an old newspaper clipping of David Bowie at Mark Bolan’s funeral and he was wearing a great pair of frames and you start thinking about how you can tweak them. You are looking for classic shapes that you can tweak and adjust them to this time.”
Now you know, there is far more than meets the eye when it comes to Kirk Originals.