heard it a million times already: the future of fashion is personalized. As
new technologies allow brands to customize products and services according
to customer’s tastes, lifestyles and past purchasing behavior, consumers
will grow to expect to get a personalized experience almost everywhere.
“Data is the new oil and artificial intelligence is the oil drill”, said
ecommerce expert Jorij Abraham, from the Ecommerce Foundation, during a
panel in the last IAF World Fashion Convention. “Retailers who fail to
offer customers a personalized experience will be swept away by
competition”, added fellow panelist Jeff Strader, from Go Global Retail.
Topology, a company founded in 2013 in San Francisco, is the perfect
example of how these developments can reshape the eyewear market. The brand
uses 3D facial scanning and augmented reality to create custom-made glasses
which are “guaranteed to fit” each and every face. To buy Topology’s
glasses, customers must first download an app (currently only available for
iOS) which takes over 20,000 measurements to develop a millimeter-accurate
model of their face. This model is used to reshape the brand’s designs
along 21 different dimensions so that the glasses don’t slip, squeeze or
slide. Once the perfect fit is
calculated, the customer goes on to choose the style, color and shape of
her specs, previewing the choices with a virtual try-on. Et voilà:
a few weeks later, a made-to-order pair of glasses arrives in the mail,
engraved with the customer’s name.
Topology has recently caught the eye of New Look Vision Group Inc.,
which acquired an equity interest in the company earlier this month, allowing it exclusive rights
to retail Topology products in Canada and other selected markets. The brand
will debut in 15 stores across Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British
Columbia from October, with a wide national roll-out planned for the first
half of 2020.
Speaking with FashionUnited about the company’s growth path and future
plans, founder and CEO Eric Varady emphasized that, while its business
model sounds pretty cutting edge, the main idea is actually to go back to
basics. “In the beginning, all eyewear was bespoke! Once upon a time the
only way to get glasses was to have someone make them for you by hand. Once
mass production techniques were developed, it made eyewear faster and
cheaper to produce, but it sadly undermined the utility of the product”.
Read the full interview below.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you and what did you work
with before founding Topology Eyewear?
After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, I spent the first 10 or so years
designing and manufacturing complex implantable medical devices, such as
pacemakers and defibrillators. I worked on a technically-challenging and
life-saving product, and though it didn’t make for compelling dinner party
conversation, it was the best imaginable learning ground for making
highly-quality products, at scale, with no tolerance for error.
How did the idea for Topology’s business model come about?
When I was dating my then girlfriend, now wife, I went shopping for
glasses and couldn’t believe how hard it was to find a pair that both fit
me comfortably and looked good. She told me at the time: “I’m the one that
has to look at you all day, so I get final say on what you wear on your
face!” But six hours and countless stores later, she gave up in
frustration, and I was still left without new glasses.
After a considerable time puzzling over why it was so challenging to buy
this seemingly simple product, I realized the answer is that every single
human is very different, whereas all eyewear is mass-manufactured in
enormous batches for identical faces. The industry needs to assume a
one-size-fits-all approach, but it simply doesn’t work well. That’s the
true underlying problem with all stock eyewear — it was made for someone
else’s face, with someone else’s aesthetic sensibilities.
The logical and inevitable solution is to make each pair from scratch
for one person at a time. In other words, completely bespoke, or
“custom-tailored” as we now call it. It would compete on a completely
different axis than all stock eyewear, offering not only a better fit, but
a wider choice of colors and materials, and superior optics. However, to
succeed at scale it would also need to be within the price range of
existing designer stock eyewear. [Editor’s note: each pair of Topology
glasses costs 349 US dollars]
I was actually surprised by the price point, considering each pair is
unique and made-to-order. I was expecting it to cost a lot more. How have
you managed to achieve such competitive pricing for a bespoke product?
Thanks! We hear that from many customers, especially those already
spending more than 1000 US dollars for designer frames. To date, we have
deliberately kept the pricing simple and accessible because consumers are
self-serving from home in a direct-to-consumer scenario. But we will soon
launch a new range with 4 times more styles than our current offering, with
existing styles also getting a refresh. New higher-end materials such as
buffalo horn and titanium are also on the roadmap. More importantly, we
will shortly begin to sell in physical retail under the consultative
guidance of a trained optician, who is now transformed into an eyewear
stylist. Physical product samples will be on display, and additional levels
of customization and materials may only be on offer in retail. As our
offering becomes more established and grows into professional channels, the
price strategy will likely evolve.
Can you tell us in more detail how customers’ faces are mapped? How
does the Topology app define the perfect fit for each customer?
Many people now know that all recent iPhone and iPad models include a
TrueDepth sensor that can take precise measurements of a person’s face,
which is what powers FaceID. 30,000 invisible dots are illuminated onto
one’s face, and the sensor records their precise 3D positions.
We use this sensor to build a 3D map of your face that is used to craft
you the perfect pair of eyewear. We understand not just the size of your
head, but the unique contours and positions of your nose, cheeks, and ears,
as well as the precise placement of your eyes when focused at different
distances. We then use this 3D map to provide you a photorealistic virtual
try-on of a product that does not yet exist, but is already adjusted in 20
different dimensions to fit you. And of course, from these 3D measurements
and surfaces, we then can sculpt the perfect pair of eyewear just for you,
as well as fit it with the fully-compensated state-of-the-art optics,
including digital progressive lenses, with precision that exceeds the tools
available in most retail stores.
We make everything from scratch in our production facility in San
Francisco. To demonstrate the uniqueness of your eyewear, we include in the
box an engineering schematic of your pair, and we engrave your name on the
inside of the temple arms. So it’s not about finding the closest
pre-manufactured stock frame to fit your measurements, but rather crafting
something new to match your measurements. It’s like a couture dress, or a
bespoke suit, but for the most important and demanding aspect of your
wardrobe that you wear everyday: your eyewear.
What were the main challenges you faced when starting the company? What
are the main challenges now?
We were founded in December 2013, although the early years were mostly
me and 1-2 others in a small industrial garage solving the early technical
challenges and writing our initial patent applications. It took years to
refine the software and the manufacturing to get to the level we are at
today, which is a cross-functional team of 30 people, all under one roof:
leadership, software development, design, production, customer service,
I’d say the challenge always comes back to the same thing: people’s
expectations and assumptions. People accept that glasses either look
or feel good, they think that annoyances such as your eyewear
slipping down your nose, leaving nasal red marks, or pinching causing
discomfort, are just part of the typical eyeglass experience. Most people
have never experienced how good it feels to wear a custom-tailored set of
eyewear. Our customers have said things like “it feels like they are
floating on my face,” but until you try it for yourself, it’s hard to
convey what you’ve been missing. So, the challenge has been getting people
to open their mind to believe that glasses can, and should, be objectively
This challenge applies not just to customers, but also retailers,
investors, journalists etc. There has been so much debate about making
glasses cheaper (and rightly so: stock eyewear should be inexpensive) that
not enough consideration has been given to making eyewear fundamentally
better! And by improving the product, you also vastly improve the shopping
experience. Glasses are the only product we own that is on our face, 16
hours a day, every day, for 2-3 years. They are not just a fashion
accessory, but an indispensable medical device.
Topology has raised over 13 million USD to date, including the recent
investment by New Look Vision. How will the capital injection be used? What
can we expect from this partnership?
The investment is focused on evolving Topology from a direct-to-consumer
offering to a solution tailored for optical retail and the professional
practice. We will be moving from iPhone to iPad Pro, and redesigning the
experience from one that is designed for a consumer shopping at home to one
that is guided by a trained professional in-store. We are also vastly
expanding our eyewear styles available, but deploying physical signages,
finished frames, and color swatches to each retail partner location.
Many consumers are worried about privacy and how companies collect and
share their data. As Topology uses a 3D mapping of the customer’s face, one
cannot help but wonder how the company handles this data.
We take privacy extremely seriously. First and foremost, we’re an
eyeglass company: we only capture customer’s data in order to make eyewear.
That’s our business model, we don’t use customer data for any other
purposes. Customer reviews and testimonials are our lifeblood. Behind the
scenes, we have implemented a lot of technology to further enhance privacy:
anonymization, encryption, unguessable strings, and where-possible,
on-device processing. We also restrict access to customers’ data to only
those team members that need it in order to produce customers’ orders, or
to respond to customers’ inquiries. Finally, if a customer requests that we
delete all data that has been stored, they need only ask us, and it is
Topology’s website says you check each and every pair of glasses
personally before they are sent to the customers. As the company grows, how
do you intend to ensure your quality standards are met?
Yes, we’ve already scaled beyond this point, and we have worked hard to
institute my quality expectations into the processes and practices of many
more people on the team! Having previously worked in the medical device
industry, I learned that quality must be instituted at every process, task,
and stage of the production process in order to ensure exceedingly high
yields and tolerances – which is absolutely critical when you’re making a
one-off of every part of every frame.
Having all aspects of the company being housed in the same building
means I can regularly spot-check not just the quality of our final output,
but the quality of every process on our production line. Everyone on the
production team also knows they can message me at any time to come over to
assess any challenging situation. Lastly, if a customer chooses to come to
our San Francisco facility to pick up their final pair, I try to free
myself up so I can personally assess their satisfaction with our
Speaking of Topology’s San Francisco HQ, it features a showroom titled
Bespokery where customers can try products on. Any intention to
open more Bespokery locations?
The Bespokery is our workshop/factory where we make everything from
scratch, and upstairs we have a customer area that folks are welcome to
visit to see in-person physical samples of every color and style. We are
excited to expand swiftly by offering our product in existing optical
locations across North America. Our Canadian partnership has recently been
announced, and shortly we will have some other exciting partnerships to
share. There’s always the future possibility of Topology-branded pop-ups or
flashship stores. We’re very excited for what the future holds.
Any more plans for the future you’d like to share?
More stores, more styles, more materials, and forever improving our
accuracy of frame and optical fit. We’re building from scratch an entirely
new category of eyewear: custom-tailored. We firmly believe it is the
future of the premium segment of our industry.
Images: Topology website and Facebook