09 Dec FLEYE X Annette Saust Estø
The name FLEYE is short for ‘Fine Looking EYE’ and the Danish eyewear label sure has a fine eye for stylish designs with a unique edge. EYEWEAR magazine decided to pay the label a visit at their manor estate offices in the countryside outside of Copenhagen. Although we had already seen online photos of the place before our visit, the setting turned out even more rural and remote than we had imagined. To put it mildly, the estate that houses FLEYE’s headquarters could also accommodate a sizeable golf course, with room to spare. We enjoyed talking shop with co-founder and owner of FLEYE, Annette Saust Estø, while enjoying a nice view from the terrace. And we were highly impressed with the large amount of energy the 54-year-old with a penchant for healthy living invests into her multifarious activities: Multi-tasking at FLEYE, traveling for work and pleasure – including trips to the world’s high-mountain ranges – and not to mention being a grandmother to seven grandkids. As you will see, the future of eyewear is looking mighty fine in the Danish countryside.
Hi Annette, we’re sitting on the terrace of Barfredshøj Manor House, home of the new FLEYE office. We’re overlooking the garden, or better yet, the park, which is way too big to do a lunch walk. I had expected a design-driven and internationally renowned Danish eyewear company to be located in Copenhagen or Aarhus. What brought you here?
We ended up here because we were already spoiled by having a similar location when we started the company. To save the cost for renting an office, we started in my old dower house in the country side where I lived with my husband and four kids. A huge old house with a big garden and a nice view across the fields. But not large enough?
FLEYE grew rapidly, and we soon needed more space. We started looking for a new place where it was possible to take the train or the car for work, and with easier access for delivering goods and picking up parcels. But all the places we looked at did not have any outdoor space for lunch or a nice view of the sky. Then finally, Lars found this amazing place. There’s no train station nearby, but it only takes 25 min by car from Copenhagen.
It sure is remote. What are the advantages of being located in the countryside?
You feel relaxed as soon as you arrive at work because it’s so quiet here – hearing the birds singing, looking at the deer and the hares. It’s amazing all year-round… The light is changing from season to season. For those of us who are spending a lot of time in big cities, it’s a nice contrast.
Speaking of contrast, let’s change the subject. Give us a short lowdown on the story of FLEYE. When and why did you start the company?
It’s really a coincidence how I started designing frames. When my kids were young, I could not even draw anything they could recognize! But at the former company where I worked as a sales manager, I was working with a quite lazy designer as my boss. He designed the frames and I sold them. When I complained about the long time it took to get new models he said: “If you think it’s that easy, why don’t you try for yourself!” So I faced the challenge and started drawing at my kitchen table one evening. The skills from my work as a teacher at the optometric school were very helpful, and I found out that I did not have a problem drawing frames. It felt very natural for me to do it. So I developed a lot of new models. In fact, they ended up selling much better than the models my boss had designed.
So what led to the founding of FLEYE?
After a while, my two colleagues Lars Halstrøm and Hanne Rosenvold Anderson and I mustered up the courage to start on our own. We founded FLEYE simply because we are passionate about eyewear design. We all had many years of experience from the optical business working for other brands but we had our own ideas about how great eyewear should be invented. So we created a concept of feather-light and allergy-friendly eyewear in innovative color combinations. And soon our new Danish design brand took off.
What kinds of background do the three of you bring to the company? And how do you complement each other?
Actually, our strengths and personalities are surprisingly different but together we form a symbiotic partnership that works amazingly. Lars, born in 1970, is the Sales Director of FLEYE. He is the son of an optician, so he grew up surrounded by eyewear. Hanne, born in 1958, is the CEO of FLEYE. She has a degree in business and leadership but her approach to work is very hands-on. I was born in 1959 and work as the Head of Design & Marketing. The triangle pattern in FLEYE’s visual universe is a symbolic reference to our trio.
As the only man and 12 years younger, it must be hard for Lars to survive in this strong matriarchy.
Lars loves women. So he “married” Hanne and I when we started FLEYE. In fact, at his real wedding four years ago, he began his speech by telling his wife Rikke that he was already married to two older women. [laughs] People from the optical world said to Lars in the beginning: “How can you start a company with those ladies?” But actually it was his idea, Lars was the one who approached us about it back then.
What was the biggest challenge while establishing your own company?
To get the right idea. Why should anybody buy frames from you? There are already so many nice companies making nice products. When we had the idea, the next step was to find the money. We added our savings together and agreed on paying ourselves no salary until we had customers paying for our products. I still remember the day. One year later, we got our first salary, and I have never been so happy about a salary in my life! It filled up a huge gap.
Annette, how come you don’t have your own office? It can’t be a space problem, right?
No, it is because I am travelling a lot. And when I am here at our head office, I want to be close to the staff that I am responsible for. I like to have people around me. Also, I never work at my desk. It is always covered with samples, papers and materials. When I design the frames, I work at home or while I’m travelling either for business or pleasure.
FLEYE is characterized by the colors black, white, blue and orange? Is that the exact orange of your hair color? And what was first, the hair – or the company color?
I have had this orange hair for 25 years! I only took a break for three years because I wanted longer hair. So during that period I had my natural brown hair color. When it became long and very nice, I developed breast cancer, and the hair disappeared during chemo. We started FLEYE right after this period, and the graphic designer who suggested these four company colors had never seen my orange hair! So when my hair started to grow out, I colored it orange again and now it fits perfectly with FLEYE. [laughs] It’s very practical because I’m easy to recognize and people remember me.
The color of your hair, but also your multitasking job and private hobbies such as high-mountain expeditions are not exactly typical for a 54-year-old woman. Where do you get the energy?
I have always had a lot of energy and like to explore things. My husband and I both like hiking and mounting climbing. Not too extreme, but trips where you push yourself a bit further than you think you can. So now that all the kids have left home, we have time for this. First we did Kilimanjaro, where we both reached the summit and last year we went for the Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America at nearly 7000 meters. We spent 14 wonderful days in the most stunning area of a natural park, and almost made it to the summit. During the summit night there was a snow storm. Only 400 meters before the summit we had to turn back and walk down to camp due. They closed the summit for the next three days so we didn’t have the chance to try one more time. But we will be back in 2016 – we HAVE to try one more time!
You are an extremely busy woman. Is it safe to assume that there was no time for family and kids in your life?
Three husbands, four kids and seven grandchildren… [laughs] I try to do my very best to see all of them as often as possible. I have been so lucky that I’ve had my kids when I was between 20 and 30 years old. Having grandchildren early is nice because I still have a lot of energy to play with them. But I am not the kind of granny they can call in the morning for babysitting when a child is sick. I hope I will be that one day.
Well, you do have another ‘baby’ to take care of. What are the special characteristic of your products?
Eyewear is not just about improving eyesight. It’s about communicating who you are. So we want to design eyewear that helps people underline their individual personalities. One of our signature design features is the beta-titanium nose pad wire on all frames. We received a Red Dot Design Award for this feature. The adjustable wire makes it possible to fit our glasses to anyone’s anatomy. Plus, it also serves as a cool little design detail since the wire loops in and out of the front of the eyewear. Another trademark of FLEYE frames is the customized clip-on. You can get a matching, polarized sun clip-ons for almost all our frames. It matches the shape and color of the individual frame 100 percent. The clip-ons are designed for each frame, so you get a cohesive look that integrates the clip-on beautifully. Finally, all frames are light as a feather, even when they have an expressive frame design. Most people are surprised when they try on a FLEYE frame. Lightness and comfort are crucial to us.
Which materials do you use in your frames and why?
We only use allergy-friendly materials like acetate, beta titanium, carbon fiber and natural horn. Apart from their allergy-friendliness, these are also very lightweight materials.
Your glasses are not only very light, but often highly colorful. Why is that?
It’s so boring with only brown and black frames. If you add some color, it attracts attention when the frames are on the wall, in the window or on someone’s face. We like to make combinations with bright colors on the temples and more calm fronts, but also sometimes go wild with patterns and colors in a crazy mix. We not only play it safe when we design or combine colors, we also dare to go to the edge. And sometimes the crazy ones actually become bestsellers!
Compared to some other labels, your glasses are rather bulky. How do you make sure that voluminous glasses won’t become too heavy?
It’s all about the materials we use. They are very lightweight, so the frames may look heavy but they’re surprisingly light. We also have a range of thin, feather-light styles for the more classic customers.
On an international scale, what are other strong markets – and where’s the business rather tough?
We have a very strong position in Northern Europe. Although we’re doing well in this region, we’re still experiencing a great potential for expansion, especially in the German-speaking countries. Germany is Denmark’s largest export market, and we know FLEYE can grow even stronger there.
How do you help opticians to sell your product?
Great question! We are not interested in ‘one-night-stands’, so to speak. [laughs] We don’t want to sell a lot of frames to an optician, and then just leave. When we win a new customer, we are entering a long-term collaboration, and we are both working towards the same goal: the optician should have as much success with our frames as possible.
What are some concrete examples of your support?
For example, if it should happen that certain models are not moving out of the shops fast enough, we give the optician an option to exchange these for more saleable models. It makes the customers feel secure that they are not left with unsellable products. We also focus a lot on designing our own point-of-sale materials. It should be an experience for the customer to buy a pair of FLEYE glasses. For example, when a customer comes to pick up his new glasses, he is handed a little gift bag including a big microfiber cloth and a foldable carrying case – all with a special FLEYE design.
Is ’service beyond product’ an important issue at FLEYE?
From the very beginning when we founded FLEYE, service has been at the core of our business philosophy. I think any optician will agree that service is vital to keeping customers. If you will allow me to brag a little bit, FLEYE has actually won the ‘Supplier of the Year’ award three years in a row from one of Norway’s leading optical chains. And in the annual internal surveys of Denmark’s leading optical chain, their staff always rates our service much higher than our competitors’.
How does that reflect in your staff and internal structure?
Of course being service-minded is a trait that we look for when we hire new sales representatives and customer support staff. But we also make sure to have multi-lingual staff. So for example, when a German or Austrian customer calls our free hotline, we speak their language. Our warehouse is located here in Denmark to ensure fast delivery. And our frames are not just delivered in boring, brown boxes. We believe it should also be a sustainable experience for the shop staff to receive deliveries from us, so we have designed our very own colorful, re-usable gift boxes. Our customers are always so excited and happy to receive these.
Annette, thank you very much for your hospitality.