“Putting on a pair of glasses is faster than make-up and easier than plastic surgery, yet the effect can be just as dramatic,” once said eyewear designer Alain Mikli, who rose to prominence in the 1980s designing spectacles for the likes of Elton John, Jil Sander and Issey Miyake. It’s this maxim that the manager of General Eyewear, Fabio Ribeiro lives by, he tells me, flitting around the glasses store contained in a 30,000-foot concrete arch in the heart of Camden Market Stables. The independent shop selling vintage and bespoke frames, sourced in Europe and made in-house respectively, was founded in 1997 by Fraser Laing, who brought his passion for mid-century design to the faces of Londoners via Naples.
It’s immediately clear from the way Ribeiro speaks about his work that for the small team employed by this independent company, it’s far more than just a nine-to-five slog in retail. “We usually travel to regions of France and Italy to source our glasses,” he exclaims. “These are the heartlands of where most eyewear is produced in the world – good quality eyewear, at least.” And there is a detective-like quality required to obtain such unusual stock, it would seem. “When you visit these towns, you can just go around knocking on doors. You’d be amazed at some of the ways we find our glasses. Locals will say, ‘I have an uncle who had an eyewear factory. It’s still there actually – go and have a look!’ and suddenly we’ll have discovered a treasure trove.”
A treasure trove would be an apt description for the fruits of such laboured searching, for upon stepping into the dimly lit concave shop, the sheer volume of frames on display can be overwhelming. Illuminated cabinets are stocked with acetates, clear coloured frames and tortoiseshell browns glowing from the backlights, whilst drawers around the peripheries of the store house wire frames dating back to the early 20th century curved into unusual half moons and ovals. In short, it’s hard to know where to start, and at first glance some of the wackier designs can appear more Timmy Mallet than Tom Ford. “I know a lot of them might look quite ridiculous,” says Ribeiro, “But actually there is a face for every pair; someone would put these on and it will actually look brilliant,” he explains, producing an asymmetrical plastic frame in a shade of cerulean blue. “On the right face you won’t even think it looks weird.”
General Eyewear counts costumiers working in film and television and some of the most esteemed fashion stylists amongst its loyal customer base. Accessory designers at luxury brands also stop by now and again to conduct research on their next line of eyewear. Nestled at the back of the store is a workshop, where sheets of cellulose acetate – a particularly malleable plastic made from cotton, I’m told – are whittled into bespoke shapes, catering to the most discerning bespectacled clientele. “Someone can come in with just literally some pictures and sketches and we’ll create something for them. I remember that one guy even brought in a poem, and wanted us to make something from that.”
Ribeiro goes on to rifle through the masses of storage housed in the workroom, which, quite unexpectedly, reveals some of the oldest spectacles in existence. “These are 400-year-old glasses from China,” he notes, describing a pair of frames with bottle thick lenses tinted the colour of pink lemonade. “The lenses themselves are actually made of polished quartz. It’s very rudimental. But they work fine! Obviously optometry is something that has existed for around 800 years.” The business might have one eye permanently fixed on the past, but it is also expanding into future endeavours, with a second, smaller branch set to open in Soho Square imminently. So, for those of us also wanting to live by the wise words of Alain Mikli, there are no two better places to start.
General Eyewear is open Monday-Sunday 10-6pm at Arch 67, The Stables Market, Camden Town, London NW1 8AH.