Boasting oversized, cat’s eye and butterfly frames, and prints such as tortoiseshell, the avant-garde eyewear created by French designer Emmanuelle Khanh, who died at 79 on February 17, 2017, made a splash in fashion during the 1970’s. The products were handmade in the Jura region in France, and contributed to female emancipation. Despite disappearing in the early 1990’s, the brand was relaunched by Didier Marder, a former LVMH executive, who has been reissuing and reworking the company’s original flagship models since 2008.
The 1960’s saw the explosion of a pop-music revolution in France known as yéyé, whose name was derived in part from the French pronunciation of the chorus “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” sung by The Beatles. During this time, the liberated Emmanuelle Khanh was twiddling her thumbs in her native Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood in Paris. She decided to abandon her career as a model and the closed world of haute couture to become a prêt-à-porter fashion designer, a choice which would soon see her nicknamed the “French Mary Quant”. Her objective was to create affordable clothing for modern, active women. “Haute couture is dead, I want to design for the street… A form of socialist fashion for the general public”, she said in 1964.
Adopting a pioneering approach, she used revolutionary materials for the time such as denim, plastic and Chenille fabric. Her creativity knew no limits, offering bold shapes in punchy colors, sack dresses with asymmetrical lines and transparent umbrellas, which were all a hit with trendy bohemians such as Françoise Hardy, Catherine Deneuve, Diane Keaton and Jane Birkin. As a visionary yet discrete designer, Emmanuelle Khanh built her reputation, creating a style that championed the emancipation of the 1970’s woman, the era’s newfound values of freedom and daring, and a thirst for independence.
Excess and extravagance
Instead of merely putting up with her near-sightedness, Emmanuelle Khanh flaunted it with pride. After all, if you have to wear glasses, they’d better be eye-catching! She designed a pair of oversized, colorful glasses in 1972, making a radical break from the style of the time. “She was the first person to see glasses as a fashion accessory”, says Didier Marder. The brand’s iconic model “EK 5050” has since been rechristened “L’Authentic”, and offers a frame in black acetate and smoked glass lenses. This particular model was worn by Emmanuelle Khanh herself. Another flagship model, the “EK 8080” also has an XXL frame available in the designer’s three favorite colors: ivory, red and black.
Eyewear had finally become a fashion accessory. The “EK 1000” model and its brass bar was even proudly worn by the first hip-hop bands in the early 1980’s. But Emmanuelle Khanh was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1995, and her name was gradually forgotten. It only reappeared in 2009 after Didier Marder relaunched the branch. “The real question was how could we kick start it? There was far too much competition in the prêt-à-porter market. But eyewear seemed to be a good business model, especially as Emmanuelle Khanh had successfully adopted a very “arty” approach, even though she was bound by patent regulations”, he said in an interview with the French newspaper Libération.
Eyewear made in Jura
The brand renewed its ties with the know-how of artisans in the Jura region, a nerve center in the optical industry, and began working with two cutting-edge companies: Oyonnax, a specialist in acetate production, and Morez, which focuses more on metalwork. The optician Anne & Valentin and the design studio Peter & May Walk also use the skillsets offered by these two factories, which are rarely manned by more than a dozen artisans. The creation of a single pair of glasses requires no less than 80 steps, and a total of 150 hours’ work. This artisanal expertise explains the high price of the brand’s eyewear — around 300 euros a pair — and their limited sales figures, with around 15,000 pairs sold per year.
Sheets of acetate – a plant-based plastic material made by combining cotton flowers with wood cellulose – make up the frames and are imported from Italy. The acetate is planed and cut into slices before being hot pressed so the artisan can shape the material to match the curves of the face. The frames are then polished for a week to achieve a perfect shine, and assembled with three-pin hinges – the brand’s quality trademark – before being polished one last time and fitted with lenses. The team at Emmanuelle Khanh then gets to work on the style.
Flagship models reissued
The brand focuses half its energy into revamping established models such as the iconic “EK 5050”, sold at 420 euros a pair. The other half of its activity is devoted to releasing a new collection every season. The company also designs limited-edition luxury series which offer the possibility of customized name engravings. One such model was the 2010 edition of “EK 80/80”, crafted in boxwood. And other designers are invited to contribute their creativity. The French brand Inès-Olympe Mercadal teamed up with Emmanuelle Khanh in 2014 to design the “EK 5050 IOM” model. An artisan tanner coated the glasses in metallic leather boasting colors used in the Atelier Mercadal stiletto collection, and the extremely limited-edition eyewear was sold at 600 euros a pair.
The Emmanuelle Khanh brand is now developing collections for men and children, as well as accessories such as hats, bags and gloves. The poshest among us will be spending this winter shooting down the slopes in Aspen and Megève wearing “EK 1969” ski goggles, the brand’s latest craze as it moves into the world of sporting goods. But expect to pay out 385 euros a pair… Luxury “for the general public”, but luxury all the same.
Article published in the June 2016 issue of France-Amérique.