One entrepreneur disrupting a classic business model, and successfully so, is Rosario Toscano, CEO of Akoni, who this month oversaw the launch of a new range of eyewear for Valentino.
Though he created Akoni just four years ago, he has already developed an impressive signature business, including developing Balmain eyewear in another partnership.
Thanks to their linkup with Akoni, unlike any major runway fashion brands, both Balmain and Valentino now offer sunglasses made in Japan and not Italy.
“When you think fine watches you think Switzerland. When it comes to eyewear it’s Japan, the best of the best,” insists Toscano over coffee in a 1st arrondissement showroom.
The result is significantly more sophisticated eyewear, albeit at a stiffer price point. But also, more notably, eyewear that looks much more in harmony with other products like handbags, shoes or jewelry, produced by either Balmain or Valentino.
“If you look at Luxottica, Marcolin or Safilo, the price goes up every year; but the quality does not!” snorts Toscano, who despite his name is Sicilian born.
“If you put a frame of a brand like Balenciaga or Dior next to their handbags, you feel a disconnection. Because it’s like they just added a logo to a frame,” insists Toscano.
“We are different, we want to create a product that is exclusive so when it sits next to bags and shoes you feel it is the same. We start from scratch and work directly with the designer,” continues the Akoni CEO, stressing how closely they collaborated directly with both Olivier Rousteing and Pierpaolo Piccioli, creative directors of Balmain and Valentino respectively.
In his previous position in Dublin at California-born eyewear specialist Dita, Toscano also handled the eyewear license of Thom Browne, where he learned that fashion brands could create very high-quality eyewear. “It’s not true they have to be a license making cheap quality and high numbers!” he says with almost religious fervor.
Hence, the new Valentino eyewear captures some of the grandeur of couture with oversized frames; titanium inserts and sculpted shapes. While Balmain’s shades riff on Olivier Rousteing’s rockstar aesthetic, punchy lines and string graphics. They come with names like Boy Wonder and Admirable. Plus, in the spirit of Rousteing’s Balmain Army, the eyewear channels the traditional ornaments of French officers’ uniforms, reflecting the importance of military influences upon Balmain designs.
This sort of quality is not cheap. In terms of average price point – Balmain retails at €800, though rising to €1,700, and funnily enough these are their best sellers. While Valentino is priced around €600.
Toscano believes in tight distribution. Forget the 20,000 plus doors in which brands like Tom Ford or Armani retail. Balmain currently retails in 1,000, and Valentino 700. Chanel, whose distribution model Rosario reveres, he estimates reduced to 3,500 doors lately, from 5,000 previously.
“We believe there are only 2,500 to 3,000 doors worldwide that can best represent these products,” argues Toscano.
Trained as an optician, and boasting a master’s in business from Trinity College Dublin, Toscano is not your typical eyewear licensor. He is very clearly targeted at the top end of the market and believes, like many, that the creation of Kering Eyewear and now Thelios at LVMH has completely changed the rules of the game in luxury eyewear. In fact, it was their existence that led him to create Akoni, spotting a gap in the upper market.
In effect, Akoni signed similar deals with the Italian giants. A ballpark figure for an eyewear license with a fashion marque is around 12% of wholesale revenues.
Luxottica, he estimates, spends 20% of wholesale price on product and a further 30% on marketing. Akoni by contrasts spends 50% on product.
“Our idea is you are wearing this frame to represent yourself. You are not meant to wear a logo,” underlines the driven Akoni CEO.
This year, Akoni will puncture 30 million in annual sales, not bad going for a brand born during Covid.
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