Korea optical roadshow descends on Amsterdam

LASH, Korean eyewear in Amsterdam
The team behind LASH show off their collection of frames. 29 Jan. 2019. (photo: NL Times)

The burgeoning Korean optical industry is eyeing the Netherlands while seeking a global entry for their products. On January 29th, eight South Korean companies, from startups to multinationals, descended on Amsterdam to show off innovative eyeglass designs, materials and manufacturing processes to Dutch wholesalers and retailers.

"There are many designers in Korea that are famous now," said Sandy Yu of S.I. Vision. "We are now here to show off our designs."

Following a successful tour stop at the massive Opti 2019 convention in Munich, the Korea Optical Roadshow came to The Netherlands to promote Korean eyeglass companies from the Daegu region, and their globally competitive products. Companies Fantom Optical, H2C Design, JCS International, MIIM, Set Inc., Smart Optical, joined S.I. Vision in a packed conference space at the Doubletree Hotel. The wares on display included optical- and sunglasses frames, spectacle lenses, contact lenses and accessories, and cleaning and care products for your glasses.

Yu and her husband co-founded the company, which has an annual turnover of about a million dollars primarily by export to China, Indonesia, Japan, the Philipines, and Taiwan. "We don't want to compete with cheap Chinese products. We are looking high-end," Yu said.

Setology focused strictly on innovation as its way of aiming at the luxury market. Also a family business, it was started by the insightful Keunho Do. He engineered a hinge-less frame that qualified for a patent in 2016, which was both sturdy and light as a feather. The former Samsung finance professional joined the growing optical industry in Korea nearly 15 years ago.

"I am proud of my hinge system! It's the same logic of opening a car door," Do said. He is hopeful the technology can be licensed and adapted for other uses.

Contrarily, having a sense of fashion design exclusivity was also a driving force behind MIIM. The company's CEO, James Lee is not interested in merely following trends, and as CEO he has decided to exercise final approval over all of the company's frames in an attempt to create a specific design language.

"I want to make the trends. That is my aim," said the ambitious business leader. Lee runs a joint venture that is partnered with a manufacturer in China and another in Korea. They hope to break into the Americas through their growing office in San Jose, California, and they have their sites set on Europe through events like these.

"In Europe, to increase brand value is the path to grow sales volume," Lee said.

Fantom Optical is also trying to grow its European base, and noted the rapidly changing market in the Netherlands. "The Netherlands seems to prefer Korean and Japanese products more than others," said Jang Yong Chan. "I think that, like Koreans, the Dutch adapt well to new designs," he said.

However, Chan is among the many enterepreneurs at the show struggling to overcome the notion that a lightweight frame must mean the frame is of poor quality. "We think 'lightweight' is certainly not cheap. We invest heavily in materials that are light."

Another criticism commonly held in Europe is that injection moulding also leads to low quality eyewear. "We want to change the perspective in Europe that injection moulding is not of value. More and more it will grow in Europe. That's why we are here today," said Yeji Park, an assistant manager at JCS International. The company provides components to Samsung in addition to its eyewear business, and operates three factories to do so.

Like Kim Dae Yong of Lash, Park also points to the rich history of trade in the Netherlands as being a logical source for a distribution partner in Europe.

"The Netherlands is the center of logistics, and we thing it's the first step into Europe," said Kim Deok Kyu. He's on the strategy planning team at the Korea Optical Industry Agency, responsible for organizing the roadshow. Kyu noted that some 80 percent of the Korean optical industry is based in Daegu, with most of the products made for export as opposed to domestic purchase.

With these companies traveling together, it seemed likely that eventually the competitiveness of the entrepreneurs would lead to some conflict on the road. Not so, said Charlie Kang. The president of Smart Optical is looking for Dutch partners to expand through Europe and eventually Africa, and travels on junkets like this one about twice per year.

"We're very close friends. We go out dancing together, drinking together," he said with a wry smile.

"I'm satisfied that we have made a step forward, and we will continue knocking on the door of the European market," Kyu concluded.

Daegu, South Korea
Aerial view of Daegu, South Korea. 18 Oct. 2018. (photo: Richie0703 / DepositPhotos)

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