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Interview: The Monocle Order

The duo behind innovative sunglasses club talks about going brick-and-mortar while staying original

by Roman Espejo in Style on 10 May 2013

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Frustrated with losing their sunglasses and also spotting the same styles on faces around them in New York, Holland-born Alex van Klaveren and Washington native Zoe Nightingale took their mutual obsession with shades, entrepreneurial know-how and knack for throwing parties to launch The Monocle Order, an online eyewear club, in 2011. Departing from the usual sunglasses-of-the-month model, it exclusively carries independent designers and coveted vintage frames. Being a card-carrying member certainly has its privileges; such as style consultations via Skype, invitations to special events and 50% off every other purchase from selected collections.

After setting up shop in Chelsea and hosting a pop-up on the Bowery, van Klaveren and Nightingale headed to Williamsburg in Brooklyn with blueprints for the first Monocle Order flagship store and showroom. Opening the doors just last week, the pair describes establishing a brick-and-mortar presence while staying true to their brand.

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What careers did you have before founding the The Monocle Order?

Nightingale: Alex is a serial entrepreneur. He started at 19 at school in Edinburgh, retrofitting old double-decker buses into Party Buses for hire, complete with megawatt sound systems and disco balls. After he sold that business, he embarked in a sundry of startups, from healthcare to the bridal world. So, it was his experience that allowed us to navigate the tricky ins and outs of e-commerce.

van Klaveren: We both had a background organizing events. We had thrown parties called the "New York Book Club," which was a supper club for our friends that specialized in burlesque, performance art and murder-mystery dinner parties. We are lucky to have a vast network we have collected over our years of being extreme extroverts—we could never have started this company without them.

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You specialize in online retail, offering services like consultations on Skype. How does the flagship store and showroom enhance the customer experience?

van Klaveren: The store is really an extension of the personal experience we try to give people online. Choosing eyewear is difficult because people are not sure what frame shape or color suits their face. The store allows us to take our Skype experience a step further. We sit with customers and listen to what they love and what they hate. Our consultants are on a mission to enhance your personal look with exactly the right sunglasses.

Nightingale: The in-store experience allows people to feel the weight, hold the lenses up to the light and see for themselves why our curated selection of sunglasses is better than our mass-produced competitors.

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How is your store different than other eyewear retailers and boutiques?

van Klaveren: We knew when we built this it had to represent us by turning what could be an arduous retail experience into a form of interactive theater. Like with everything we do, we try not to take ourselves too seriously and help people have a bit of fun—while people are trying on glasses, we have them pose on our mugshot wall.

Nightingale: Many of the brands that we carry have no representation in the US, so we are actually the only place you can get them. We have hundreds of styles that are constantly changing, as most of our designers make small batches in limited-edition quantities.

In what ways do the store design and display reflect the Monocle Order brand?

Nightingale: The design of the store came from our frustration from walking into other eyewear stores and being greeted by harsh lighting, Top 40 hits and pushy, ignorant salespeople. Our space design is clean and minimalist, with the main focal point our oak display. With no shelves or plastic underneath them, you can really see the true beauty of the sunglasses, as they look like they are floating against the exposed brick wall.

van Klaveren: We wanted our flagship store to be intrinsic to who we are and what we love. This is a tranquil space designed to be a retreat from the city and a treat for your senses. The walls are decorated with antique wood frames that showcase all the many shapes, sizes and colors of our members at our events over the years. We hope when you walk in you feel a palpable sense of warmth and community.

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Do you have plans to expand to other locations or more pop-up shops?

Nightingale: For the moment, we are marinating in our new space and taking a moment to scheme bigger ideas. We had an amazing pop-up art space last year on Bowery and Prince that was designed and decorated by our favorite street artists in New York City. It was part store, part after-hours speakeasy. This new space is the veritable opposite—sleek, grown up and sophisticated.

van Klaveren: In the meantime—because we hate sleeping or having personal lives—we have launched a new side project: creating custom vending machines that sell sunglasses at nightclubs and hotel pools. The idea came after a very late night, when both of us were looking for a pair of sunglasses to shield the sunrise. Keep an eye out for our vending machines in various hotspots around Vegas, Miami, LA and New York this summer.

Images by Amy Robinson

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