Jason + Karen Equals Kirk and Kirk

The following was originally published in the March 2018 edition of 20/20 Magazine
by Christine Yeh

You may have only experienced Kirk & Kirk in recent years but founders Jason and Karen Kirk have been around the optical block for over 25 years. The husband and wife team made their debut in 1992 when they founded Kirk Originals, their initial eyewear company. What began as a collection of eyewear designed by the Kirks led to a venture into retail, owning and operating a boutique under the same name. With both their eyewear collection and retail shop enjoying success, the couple set their sights on growing their company further. What happened next was an unexpected turn that sent the Kirks down a new road and proved that an unforeseen obstacle can also lead to an unstoppable comeback. 

Eyewear was in his blood, but Jason Kirk didn’t always bleed eyewear. Hailing from three generations of optical pioneers, Jason initially had little interest in the family business. His grandfather Sidney Kirk first opened shop in London in 1919, contributing to an influential growth of opticianry in the U.K. and spawning a new generation of opticians in the Kirk family, including Jason’s father, uncles and cousins. But Jason took a different path, opting for a career in sales and marketing at cosmetics giant L’Oreal. While helping to clean out his father’s practice one day, Jason happened upon a stash of beautiful pieces of eyewear. Designed by his grandfather, these frames gave Jason a newfound perspective on the eyewear world, inspiring him to give new life to a long-held family tradition of creating fine eyewear.

In bringing Kirk Originals to life, Jason and his wife Karen maintained the same principles held by Jason’s grandfather: “Don’t bring it to the market unless you’re bringing something new.” Their goal was to always be different and create innovative eyewear with new designs and new materials. The timing couldn’t have been better—Kirk Originals entered the market at a time when the eyewear scene in London was not as progressive compared to other parts of the world. The market was hungry for something fresh and new, and the Kirks were met with eager response. To help communicate their brand message more effectively, in 1996, Jason and Karen opened a retail boutique in London under the Kirk Originals name. The shop underwent several location changes until 2010 when their shop on Conduit Street in Mayfair became the couple’s third and final location.

While business prospered, like most entrepreneurs, the Kirks sought new ways to grow their company. But as sometimes occurs with running a business, unforeseen circumstances often invite themselves. “We couldn’t do all the things we wanted to do and fulfill the potential of our company without taking on an investment,” Jason explains. “I didn’t know enough about the risks of going down that route, and we got involved with people who didn’t share the same vision as ours. It just wasn’t right so Karen and I ended up leaving fairly soon after the investment came in.” It wasn’t what they anticipated, and it certainly wasn’t easy, but Jason and Karen left the Kirk Originals name behind. “It was weird but you have two choices at that point—you can lie down and start crying, or you stand up and accept what’s done, and you move on to the next chapter.”

And on they moved, without ever looking back. In 2014, Jason and Karen launched their new company Kirk & Kirk. “We decided to set up a new company which followed our principles, our guidelines and our dreams. We decided that was more important to us than the financial aspect of it.” In deciding on the name for their new company, the couple wanted everyone to know it was brand new. “We didn’t want to set up the same company with a different name, we wanted people to understand and see the difference, and also start without any baggage.” Kirk & Kirk is a symbol of the partnership between Jason and Karen. The couple had been working together for over 20 years, but up until then Karen played a more behind-the-scenes role. “Karen was always more shy and reserved; she didn’t come to the shows that often and didn’t make herself that visible. Yet Karen is the brains behind this, she’s the creative genius behind the products we make. So we wanted to have both our names in so she can be more present and for her to be more recognized for the work that she does.” When it comes to designing product, the two work in collaboration on an initial concept, coming up with ideas until they both agree on the direction they’re going in. As creative director, Karen takes it from there and decides on shapes and colors. I ask Jason if she really is the creative genius, to which he laughingly replies: “Oh absolutely! I come back in at the end of the process and see what I think will work and won’t work but basically it’s Karen’s baby.” And when it comes to running their business? “Karen.” Jason laughs again. “I’m the managing director so that means I’m trying to influence all the different departments and making sure everything is being run in a particular way.”

In designing their debut optical collection Vivarium, Kirk & Kirk’s main goal was to surprise people. “That was really important because everyone immediately expected us to do something which was the next step from the last collection that we did at Kirk Originals, and we didn’t want to do that. We deliberately wanted to mark a break in what we were doing, so we needed it to be visibly different from what we were doing before.” A collection that represented their values and their DNA was also important to the Kirks. “We wanted to make a statement about our brand and our DNA. Some of those things were Englishness and its unique aspects, and quality and integrity, and the way we found that represented it the most was with this ‘Victorian Dandy’ approach that was very tongue-in-cheek and doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s something about that Victorian atmosphere that was beautiful—it’s very detailed, very caring, very considerate—it kind of laughs at itself as well at the same time.” Inspired by the Victorian obsession with nature and science, the styles in the Vivarium collection are named after acclaimed scientists from that era. Each frame is handmade in France with Kirk & Kirk’s proprietary acrylic from Italy in rich colorations with a metallic finish. The upper corners of each frame front feature decorative sterling silver or 9-karat gold pins in the shape of animal heads handcrafted by specialist jewelers from northern England’s Jewelry Quarter. Solarium, the sunwear answer to Vivarium subsequently followed as Kirk & Kirk’s first sunglass collection.

The element of surprise didn’t end with the debut collections. In 2015, Kirk & Kirk launched Kaleidoscope, a collection of playful translucent acrylic frames true to its name—a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors. Whereas many eyewear brands were offering translucent acetate frames in neutral colors including crystal, blush or gray, Kirk & Kirk opted for bright and unconventional hues such as violet, emerald, ocean and garnet in layers of complementing colors. Kaleidoscope frames are bright but in such a way that they almost “glow” on the face. This unique glow, along with the rich colors prevalent in all Kirk & Kirk frames, are achieved through the special proprietary acrylic Kirk & Kirk uses to make its frames. “We worked with a plastics manufacturer in Italy to develop a great acrylic which was malleable enough to make handmade frames the old-fashioned way. That process took about two years. And then having found the material that could actually be made that way, finding a manufacturer that could do it, developing that technique and working with them to do that took another two years. So there was a whole process of development that was going on.” Jason explains that while some companies attempt to replicate the material, they have a hard time because it’s simply too difficult to make as many factories aren’t interested in the amount of time it takes to develop the material. 

All Kirk & Kirk frames are handmade in France in one factory from start to finish. Jason emphasizes the importance of this aspect in achieving superior craftsmanship. “That means not only do they control the quality of the product, but they take responsibility from start to finish, and they can’t blame anyone else for errors.” Jason won’t reveal whether or not they are exploring other materials for future collections but he says, “We have two collections that we’re working on at the moment which we’re really excited about. I hope they will surprise the market and bring a new dimension to what we do.” 

It’s safe to say there is nothing quiet or boring about Kirk & Kirk eyewear, but Jason contends that many of their frames are easy to wear. “You can wear a midnight frame that’s blue and gray, and a guy can wear that to the bank—it’s how you wear it. Everything we do is about expressing your true colors. It’s about the individual, not only about how you express your personality but how you feel at a certain time on a certain day.” He believes most Kirk & Kirk fans are people who own several pairs of frames to reflect how they feel or what they’re doing. “The people who wear our glasses are rarely boring people. There’s always something going on, even if it’s not on their first layer, and that’s what those layers of colors on our frames represent—layers of personality. There are always layers to that person who wears the frame. And our glasses reflect those layers and facets.” 

Kirk & Kirk joined the eyewear scene at an opportune time as the market was blossoming with independent eyewear. A decade or so ago, a brand such as Kirk & Kirk may not have been as well-received in the U.S. market compared to Europe. Jason believes that the U.S. along with Canada are among the most progressive markets today. This is due in large part to the role retailers are playing when it comes to embracing independent eyewear. “There are some really clever and insightful retailers here who push the boundaries and really get behind collections. They’re not only buying collections but actually merchandising and displaying them in such a way that expresses the brand. They’re investing in a team that understands and can communicate the message of the product and the company, and how that makes the wearer feel. The fact that you have people who understand makes it feasible for brands like us.” 

In the same way that retailers understand the Kirk & Kirk brand message, Jason feels it’s also just as vital for eyewear sales representatives to love eyewear and have the same passion for communicating that brand message. “The climate of reps and the quality of reps is really changing. Our team of reps is phenomenal—if you look at somebody like Teddy Hamilton who just joined us, she has worked in some of the best retailers in America. She sold our product for years and knows them inside out. She loves what she does, and she’s passionate about eyewear, and she wants to go out and share that with people. And that’s a really different way of selling because the traditional idea with reps has really changed. It started to become, I would say about five years ago, entirely about the money—commissions went up, people would jump from brand to brand really quickly, and there was no loyalty, no consistency. And that’s a real problem for a brand; you need to have a representative that is Kirk & Kirk—that stands for it and builds a story over a period of time, and patiently build a market and services that market.” 

In response to the positive growth seen here in North America, last September Kirk & Kirk opened its first U.S. headquarters in Philadelphia to serve the U.S. and Canadian markets and provide superior customer service. “We worked with distributors prior to that, very reputable and competent companies, but we felt the potential of the market was enormous and growing, and extremely important to a company like ours so it was worth investing in quite simply. And nobody takes more responsibility and can do the job better than doing it yourself. It provides a dimension of service that you can’t provide otherwise, or it’s possible you can but I think emotionally people just think you’re too far away. They’re comforted when they have you closer.” The Philadelphia office is led by James Koh, a well-known and respected industry veteran with numerous years of experience in high-end and independent eyewear. 

When asked what inspires them when it comes to their product and their brand, Jason explains that while influence can come from anywhere, what influences him the most is the excitement he feels when he’s about to see a new collection of frames for the first time that he and Karen designed. “I can’t create something or contribute to the creation of something that doesn’t make me feel like ‘That is amazing and I have to have it or I have to wear it.’ We received frames this morning that I haven’t seen before, and these are new frames, and even then opening the box, I’ve got that same level of excitement, and my heart was racing: Am I going to like it or not? Even after 25 years, it’s not just a job, it’s not just churning out a collection—it’s gotta be exciting. And that’s why when I talk about these collections that we have lined up for two or three years ahead, I can’t wait to see them. And that’s how it should feel, if it doesn’t feel like that, then something is wrong.” 

For their 25-plus years of dedication to eyewear, Jason and Karen have rightfully earned their titles as industry icons. While he is genuinely flattered when I say this to him, Jason seems a bit uncomfortable in acknowledging this and emphasizes that the most important lesson he has learned from all the years spent in eyewear is humility. “I thank you for your kind words and compliments, but I don’t recognize any of those things... we’re here, we’re scrapping like anybody else so I don’t see myself as a fixture. We’ve got lots of frames in the industry that we built over the years but that’s it, we come to work like everybody else. I think humility is really important, you’re only as good as the work that you do. Five years ago when we left our old company and decided what we’re going to do, we thought about all sorts of things which were not optics. But I think that had we not had the absolute passion and desire and drive to do more and make a difference in this industry before we disappeared out there, then there would have been no point in doing it.” 

Through their ups and downs in the industry, Jason and Karen are especially grateful for those who never stopped believing in them. “We were really lucky we had the good will of the industry and the industry’s support. It was a lot of hard work and soul searching, but we stepped back into the position where Kirk & Kirk feels like it has established a position in the optical market. We work with some of the best retailers in the world, and we have great relationships with those people. We’re really grateful for the support we have, in the most difficult of times.” Commitment and passion reap success, but success doesn’t necessarily have to be measured in dollars. For Kirk & Kirk, the satisfaction gained from doing what they love and sharing it with people who love what they do is what drives them forward. “The people who work really hard and are really committed, they’re successful in the end. But it really depends on how you measure your success on your objectives as well, you have got to set the right objectives. We talk about how we don’t have millions in the bank but we are happy, and we are comfortable and healthy. We just enjoy ourselves. We love going to work!” 

Read the article at www.2020mag.com