Go with us inside London’s General Eyewear, a treasure trove of deadstock vintage frames in a quiet corner of Camden Market.
North London’s General Eyewear has been a constant over the past few years, providing us with beautiful frames and encouraging us to take a risk with an essential item. Stocking thousands of deadstock pieces, your average optician this is not. Housed in a former Victorian horse hospital known as “The Stables,” owner and founder Fraser Laing continues to unearth forgotten stocks of original frames from across Europe, bringing them together in this hidden corner of Camden Market.
Vintage eyewear provides the reference point for nearly every modern optical brand. When it comes to eyewear, the phrase “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” looms large. For those looking to bypass the reproductions and go directly to the source, General Eyewear offers the opportunity to pick up a frame from decades past. The real deal –be it two-tone ’60s NHS spectacles or fine ’40s French wire frames — the store’s range runs from the everyday to the truly outrageous.
Buyers with the perfect pair already in mind head straight to the store’s bespoke service. The General Eyewear team will build a unique, truly individual pair from the ground up. Customization includes even the finest detail: the color of the screws to the finish of the acetate. The options are endless.
An in-depth knowledge of eyewear history, the team’s ability to create and recreate has seen its skills employed by film, television and fashion folk around the globe. Whether it’s Eddie Redmayne’s glasses in “The Theory of Everything” or something off the wall for designer Katie Eary, the guys are constantly occupied by projects big and small. Trying not to get distracted by our next new pair, we stopped by the store for a chat with Fraser Laing and general manager Fabio Ribeiro to find out more.
Can you talk us through your background?
Fraser: I spent my formative years in Naples as a partner in a gallery which sourced and sold high-end 20th-century design pieces. I moved back to the UK to do a film degree at the London College of Print, now the London College of Communication. On graduating, I set about starting the eyewear business.
How did the Camden store first come about?
Fraser: When I moved to London, Camden Market was a genuinely interesting and stimulating place and had a cultural identity which I really liked. I started off here importing design pieces from Italy. A few chance finds led me to develop the eyewear side of the business, which had always been present, but almost irrelevant. I started tracking down small factories and workshops in France, Italy and the UK and quickly learned to buy, not only the old stock, but prototypes, drawings and materials. That’s how I acquired our historical archive which is now an invaluable design resource for us.
Fabio: I was very young when I first came across Fraser’s much smaller original shop. I’d been working in optics for years and naively thought that I knew what glasses were but when I first walked in, I felt as if I was having a religious experience. Fraser had hit the nail on the head, even back then. I gazed around in awe at objects I had never even dreamt of, and not to sound cheesy or dramatic, I knew then that I wanted to be an eyewear evangelist!
Tell us more about your bespoke service.
Fraser: We’ve always done bespoke, right from the start, usually for films or musicians. However, a few years ago, we put together a capsule collection of handmade frames which we felt truly reflected our own taste. This collection was very successful, and interestingly, became the basis for many customers to develop their own ideas for bespoke frames. We’ve continued to develop this collection which now consists of 50 different models. These are consistently the models which our bespoke frames are based on. [Besides] documenting the techniques of old makers we know, I also go to antique markets in search of old handmade pieces in acetate and real tortoiseshell which we study in order to understand and revive obsolete frame-making techniques.
Most of your vintage frames are deadstock. Where and how do you source your collection?
Fraser: We do a lot of research and keep in touch with old spectacle makers who help us source unused stock among their colleagues.
Fabio: I once read an article about a Parisian flat that hadn’t been opened in 60 years, and within it were some of the greatest artistic works the world had ever known. I imagine the awe of that discovery is very much like uncovering an untapped cache of vintage eyewear. It’s like being a modern-day treasure hunter — [there’s a] thrill of the hunt. Fraser has a gift akin to a truffle pig. I’ve seen him find eyewear in the most unexpected places.
Talk us through some of your favorite eyewear brands, past and present.
Fabio: For me, it’s Alain Mikli. I love that I can just hold one of his pieces and I know it’s his. Whether it’s the shape, silhouette or color, it strikes you immediately as his, like a signature. I’ve quoted him more times than I care to admit. I think the most complicated thing to achieve in eyewear is simplicity. To me, eyewear is reminiscent of sculpture. It’s a confined medium with narrow constraints; it has to fit on a face after all, but within that boundary, so much can be done and expressed. Some of the greats in eyewear design who inspired every shape we see today were rumored to have been on either heroin or hallucinogenics. That doesn’t really surprise me given some of the things I’ve seen. In terms of historical brands, Amor has always spoken to me. Their style is so unique. If we were French, it would be ubiquitous to us, but in the anglophile world we just never come across them. It still has a shock factor.
Can you tell us about some of your latest projects in film and fashion?
Fabio: One of the big projects we worked on recently was Eddie Redmayne’s glasses for the Steven Hawking biopic, “The Theory of Everything.” We worked closely with the very talented costume designer Steven Noble, and Eddie, to get the look just right. I’d spent some time researching what Hawking wore throughout his life and searched our archives to find the perfect matches. We then checked what best suited Eddie’s face within the parameters of what we could work with. With glasses, 1mm here or there is everything, so you’ve got to get it just right — especially for film. In terms of fashion, I’m afraid to open my mouth for fear of breaking any number of non-disclosure agreements we’ve had to sign over the years.
You have a loyal customer base who return time after time. What would you say is the appeal of vintage frames?
Fabio: I don’t believe that vintage frames are really what people are after. I think people are starved of amazing eyewear and it just so happens that to really find a comprehensive choice, you have to look at vintage. It’s why we don’t call ourselves specifically anything to do with vintage eyewear, because at the end of the day, we’re simply about amazing eyewear that gets us excited and hopefully our customers, too.
What are some of the prized pieces in your collection?
Fabio: To me, that’s a bit of a Sophie’s Choice. In terms of the collection in-store, there are so many beautiful objects — it’s too difficult to say. One of my favorites that we sell are WWII gas mask glasses that sit flat against your face and allow you to lie on your side. It’s difficult to explain the importance of that unless you’re a glasses wearer. It’s such a contemporary issue but the reason they do that is so you can wear a gas mask on top of your glasses securely. Again, there’s a beauty in a very functional piece being repurposed for the modern age.
In my personal collection, my most prized piece is a pair of 1940s railway man glasses. They were originally designed to be worn while shoveling coal into the furness hence the dark lenses to protect your eyes when looking into the fire. They’re so simple and functional — the epitome of workwear. I think there’s something really interesting about workwear as fashion, the practical as the ornate.
Visit General Eyewear at Arch 67, The Stables Market, Chalk Farm Road, Camden Town, London NW1 8AH