Tom Davies - the celebrity eyewear designer from Derbyshire
- Credit: Jack Hill/The Times
David Marley speaks to Tom Davies, founder of the eponymous luxury eyewear company, about his incredible journey from a Derbyshire schoolboy to creating made-to-measure glasses for world celebrities.
Tom Davies sat in his car on the hard shoulder of the carriageway waiting patiently to be rescued by a tow truck after he broke down on a long journey from Ipswich back to his hometown of Derby.
It was 1996 and Tom had just graduated from the University of East Anglia with an art degree, and once back in Derbyshire he was planning to sell the car and use the money to travel to Hong Kong with a friend as part of a post-university adventure.
‘I was aiming to get about £3,000 for the car which would have set me up in China, but when the recovery mechanic inspected my vehicle, he said it was beyond help,’ Tom remembers. ‘He offered me £200 as the scrap value of the car – and not wanting to be ungrateful I took the money and made my way back to Derby feeling a bit disappointed.’
Tom decided to press ahead so with just £200 left the UK and made the journey to Hong Kong. ‘My first night’s accommodation, in one of the worst hostels you could imagine, cost me £50 – so I thought to myself there was a real chance that I would be coming back to Derby in the next three days,’ he recalls.
Tom immediately got a job in a bar and started to apply for as many design-related jobs as he possibly could. ‘I really wanted to put my art degree to good use – especially with something creative,’ he says. He landed a job with a watch-making factory and was given responsibility for expanding the company’s production into the spectacle design industry.
‘My job was to design and produce a range of glasses, but the trouble was I had absolutely no idea how to go about it,’ he remembers. Learning on the job, Tom soon understood how eyewear can help define the look of a person’s face.
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‘To me there is nothing in the creative industry that has such an impact on someone’s appearance as eyewear. Within a heartbeat I clicked that a well-designed pair of spectacles can change not only how a person looks and feels about themselves but also how people perceive them,’ he says.
Tom took the first frames he made back to the bar where he worked and the public reaction was instantly positive. ‘People really liked what I had made – and from that moment a spark was lit and eyewear design became my purpose in life.’
He devoted the next three years of his time in Hong Kong to setting up an eyewear division for the company and he produced several new ranges of glasses. His designs proved extremely popular and the firm was soon selling thousands of pairs a month. ‘It was all a huge success and I fell in love with my work.’
Tom thrived in the freedom to experiment with colour, texture, shape and with the materials he had to work with. ‘I got a big thrill out of making people happy and I soon realised just how life-changing excellent design could be to customers,’ he says.
‘After all, with a great pair of glasses it is possible to make a person look younger or more distinguished, or make a person’s nose bigger or smaller. You can even hide wrinkles, distract attention away from a balding patch on a head or simply make someone look super stylish,’ he laughs.
He decided to leave the company in 2000 and return to England with a simple aim of creating his own eyewear business. ‘Having designed bespoke frames for family and close friends I wanted to come home and launch my own brand on the made-to-measure principles of couture design,’ he adds.
Working out of a shared office in London, he needed to earn money quickly, so to keep his dream alive he took commissions to design anything from websites to electronic gadgets. ‘Eyewear was always my first passion and I spent all of my spare time at my desk scribbling new concepts of frames – but I still lacked the finance to get a dedicated eyewear company up and running,’ he explains.
And then he got a lucky break when a journalist from the Financial Times noticed some of Tom’s drawings on his desk. ‘I knew the journalist worked for a national newspaper – in fact we got on really well because he was a Nottingham Forest football fan and I’ve always supported Derby County, so I used the football rivalry and our banter to encourage him to publicise my hopes of working full time in the eyewear design industry,’ Tom says.
The journalist wrote a story about Tom’s work and the press coverage had an immediate impact on his life, with dozens of people calling to commission him to produce bespoke frames.
‘The problem was I needed some capital to launch the new line of frames – and that meant going to a bank and asking for a £100,000 loan,’ he recalls. The bank manager was impressed with Tom’s plan for his business but insisted that he would only lend him the money in exchange for a property being secured against the loan.
‘The bank manager knew I didn’t own a house,’ Tom says, ‘So I went up to see my Dad at his property in Barrow upon Trent, in South Derbyshire, and asked if he would lend me £30,000 as well as re-mortgaging his house and acting as a guarantor against the loan. He agreed and I will always be grateful for the faith and belief he had in me.’
Tom still lacked enough funds to open a factory in the UK, so he decided to contract out the manufacturing of the frames to a company in Japan. He then went out as a commercial traveller visiting partner opticians throughout England encouraging them to stock his products.
‘I made sure I personally visited all of these opticians, taking with me my travelling bag of frames. I spent lots of time with the owners to make sure they took extra measurements during eye tests to ensure my frames sat perfectly on people’s faces so that the glasses weren’t too tight or too saggy,’ he says.
To his credit he certainly did not lack ambition or a will to succeed. ‘On the first day of my business I told my accountant that my new company was going to be the biggest and best eyewear brand in the world – and I’m still aiming for that,’ he grins.
By the end of the 2000s he had grown his business to the point where he could afford to set up his own factory in Shenzhen, China. And just over two years ago he opened his first UK factory in Brentford in west London. ‘Back in 2008 China was a good place to set up because of the low manufacturing costs, which all helped when I was scaling up my business – but today it feels more appropriate to bring my operations back to England.’
‘When deciding where to base my English factory I seriously did consider opening it up in Derbyshire – but as most of my current contacts are in London it seemed to be the best place to start,’ Tom explains.
Tom now leads a multi-million-pound turnover global business, enjoying year-on-year double-digit growth figures, and he employs hundreds of people throughout the world. He owns five boutique stores in London, set in sought-after desirable locations including Covent Garden, Chelsea, Knightsbridge, Canary Wharf and the City of London.
And chatting to Tom it is not difficult to appreciate that part of his success is down to his super cool approach to life and his work. He quite simply oozes style and charisma. There’s no doubt he is the man of the moment in the world of eyewear design and fashion – he is the designer that anyone who is anyone must be seen to be wearing.
Pairs of his much-in-demand spectacles and sunglasses grace the noses of some of the world’s most well-known stars and celebrities. Singer Ed Sheeran, actor Brad Pitt and chef Heston Blumenthal are just a few of his many clients.
And Hollywood studio executives often come calling to his London-based factory when they need a pair of spectacles to fit the faces of screen stars for forthcoming blockbuster movies. Only five years ago he was approached by Warner Bros to make a set of frames for Henry Cavill, the actor who played Clark Kent in the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. And further Hollywood commissions are underway.
The heightened media profile now means that an eye test with the luxury spectacle maker is highly-prized, with some discerning clients paying up to £10,000 for a private one-on-one consultation and bespoke made-to-measure glasses. Tom’s top-of-the-range spectacle collections are made using some of the world’s most precious materials including 18-carat gold-plated lenses and buffalo-horned frames.
Naturally modest and humble about his achievements he continues to speak with great pride about the county he grew up in. ‘One of the best things about leading an international business is that I can now tell so many more people about the wonderful place Derbyshire is to visit and live,’ he says.
‘When I’m staying somewhere on the other side of the world I often act as a one-man public relations machine for Derby and Derbyshire. I always make sure to share with people all the fantastic places to come and see in Derbyshire and the Peak District – I’m very proud of my roots.’
Nowadays, Tom spends most of his time in London with his wife, Kirsten, and his children Amelia and Oscar. ‘We live in Richmond – it is so like South Derbyshire in many ways. Richmond is a very green place with lots of trees, water and open spaces,’ he explains.
‘We may have the River Thames in London but it is nothing when compared to the beauty and tranquillity of the River Trent near Derby – a place I still manage to find time to come and enjoy when I visit friends and family about every eight to ten weeks. Whenever I get the opportunity, I still love to take a boat out and enjoy the Derbyshire air.’
Tom’s passion and knowledge of the eyewear industry continues to have a major impact on the creative industry. He is often voted as one of the most influential people in the creative sphere. And because of that he may well yet achieve his ambition of creating the biggest and most successful eyewear business in the world.
Not bad work for a Derbyshire boy from Barrow upon Trent, who studied at Burton College’s Rolleston campus. And all the more impressive when you consider he leads one of the most respected international eyewear brands – having started out with just £200 in his back pocket when he left the UK for his life-altering adventure just over 25 years ago.