You've Been Framed
Hollywood’s favourite eyewear designer, Tom Davies, on making a spectacle of himself and kitting out The Matrix
By Tom Davies
February 14 2023
One of the greatest pleasures of my job as CEO and designer of my bespoke eyewear label, TD Tom Davies, is meeting fascinating people. To bespoke someone, I need to get to know them. Your eyewear defines how people perceive you, so I not only make your nose look smaller or stop the frames from slipping off your face, I ensure I’m expressing your personality.
Everyone has a fascinating story to tell – not just celebrities (although I see a lot of those), but the person who understands that great glasses can’t be loved when they cost £100 and are 2-for-1! When I’m chatting to my customers, the most important part of the process is getting to know them. And so it was that I found myself in front of Ranald MacDonald, CEO of Boisdale and Editor & Chief of this fine publication. I was asking my usual questions for the fitting, but he turned the tables on me and persuaded me to share my story.
I graduated from university in the UK with a major in film history and the rest of my degree was modular, including life drawing, animation, and photography, which really suited me. I travelled to Hong Kong in 1997 and was offered five jobs within two weeks of arriving. I was initially going to be a mobile phone designer, and only went to the interview for a product designer out of politeness. But the owner of the company convinced me that eyewear was the world’s most important area of design. He was right!
While the main route into eyewear design is from fashion design or optometry, my very first job was frame design, which my degree helped with. You genuinely change people’s lives for the better with this area of design. I realised I faced a major problem about three days into my first job: most people really hate their glasses, which I hadn’t appreciated before. There are very few people (I’d like to say they are my customers!) who genuinely love their eyewear. If you are one of those people who thinks glasses make you look older, or unattractive, or uncomfortable because they don’t fit, or who wishes you never had to wear glasses again, then know this: made correctly, glasses can make you appear younger and better-looking while being comfortably balanced on your face so they don’t bother you in the slightest.
During my time in Hong Kong, I used my employer’s workshop to re-make frames from my collection to properly fit friends and family. Small changes to size, colour, and shape worked wonders. I developed a set of design principles that brought symmetry to the face, and I found I could achieve different effects with different thicknesses of materials and small design details.
When some fifty happy people started reordering more and more frames from me, I told my boss I was off back to London and set up my own brand. In the early days I had my bespoke glasses made in a factory in Japan. I charged £5,000 for each frame and they cost me £1,000 each. Then, Chairman Lee of Samsung in South Korea blessed me with an order of such magnitude that I had enough money to set up my own factory and back I went to Hong Kong.
I spent another year hiring and training a team to make bespoke eyewear and over the years the factory grew to 100 staff. In the meantime, my business went global, and I sprouted up in 70 countries with 1,000 outlets around the world and offices in Asia, America and London, where I now have a factory and five shops. I’ve developed a system where I can train someone to do what I do and charge 10% of what it costs to see me personally. Each year I could fill Wembley
Stadium with people wearing my bespoke glasses.
There are no supporting businesses in the UK where I can buy raw materials such as hinges and screws, so my vision was to move the bespoke business to London, then move broader production and component supply to China. I can tell you I am the embarrassed holder of more than two million air miles and frankly the travel was starting to get to me. People had long ago stopped calling me a young designer, so at age 40 I decided to bring the entire production to London. That took two years of planning and in 2018 I opened the doors in West London to what I think is the finest eyewear factory in the world.
Then there was a funny flu going around and my flights started getting cancelled. My factory in China closed its doors during the first wave of the pandemic and never reopened. When Covid hit, I lost my entire sales line. Then my London factory closed. I was alone there every day, determined to keep it all together. I felt like I was the only person in the world going to work. It was incredibly lonely. Like everyone, I was in a state of shock. I’d spent 20 years building something epic, I had just started paying myself properly as a CEO that January, and I even had a test drive booked with McLaren (although I doubt my wife would have actually let me buy it). Then everything stopped.
You can’t keep a good spectacle designer down, though. I had to re-learn how to make glasses and busied myself making frames out of a meteorite I bought off Amazon and putting the photos on social media. Restarting the machine was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It took the full suite of entrepreneurial skills and some turbo charging. It’s not been easy, but when lockdown lifted we launched London and I’ve been fighting to keep up with orders ever since!
I'm hiring and training in London now. In a poetic way, I’ve flown Chinese frame-makers over here to train a new generation and all my stores have re-opened, my exports to America are booming, and soon they will in Europe too. I’ve opened a new office in Germany so hopefully the problems of Brexit won’t impact my exports.
While the business aspect of my brand has its highs and lows, the design aspect always brings me joy. I’m in negotiations with a British production company to make a TV show about my bespoke glasses business. I’ve mapped out a six-part series and one episode would chart how I created eyewear for The Matrix Resurrections, the fourth film in the series. I hope to pass my screen test later this year!
I’ve worked with The Matrix costume director, Lindsay Pugh, and you can watch a film about us on my YouTube channel, where we discuss how we approach the design of these iconic frames. I usually get a script to read when I’m working on eyewear for a film, but there was a lot of secrecy around Matrix IV. I was given a few precious nuggets of information and all the concept artwork. Initially I was asked to make two frames for a specific scene. By the end of the process, I made more than 300 frames and they feature significantly throughout the film. Every single frame in the film has a purpose and meaning attached to it.
Some of my finest work is in the Disney film, Cruella, which is based on the character from One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Watch carefully and you will see that Emma Stone’s character first appears with open, innocent eyewear that then becomes more ‘Cruella-ish’. The Baroness character (Emma Thompson) works the frames well. At the start of the film, they are pert, strong and dynamic. As she starts to lose ground to Cruella, these qualities subtly fade. There wasn’t a big plan to make a film full of eyewear. I was only tasked with making “amazing” sunglasses for the Baroness. But once I read the script and highlighted why every pair of glasses could make an impact, the costume designer Jenny Beavan let me go wild. After all, everyone in the Seventies wore glasses as there was no such thing as laser surgery and good contact lenses were decades away.
My pitch to the production company is that everyone hates their glasses yet 95% of over-40s need some form of corrective prescription. There is nothing positive on TV about glasses, even though we wear them every day. We eat food every day too, and there are lots of programmes about that. Glasses are loathed and considered medical devices, while I want to make them treasured accessories. Fingers crossed, the show will happen.
I’m mostly looking forward to travelling to Antarctica, where you can join hunts for two-million-year-old woolly mammoth tusks. I want to turn them into glasses! They are essentially frozen ivory, but as they are so old they are not protected. Since we work so well with buffalo horn, I know I can create something amazing. Another plan is to visit the Moroccan desert for unusual meteorites. Some of these contain iron. Imagine making glasses out of the building blocks of the galaxy!
These are the stories I tell on screen, but I bespoke for characters in real life: you. What do your glasses say about you? Do you wear them as an accessory? Do you feel confident in them? If not, a pair of bespoke spectacles or sunglasses will define you in a positive way, and make you look and feel epic. Come visit one of my stores or ask for the master. Either way, we will have a long chat all about you!
Find your perfect frames at tdtomdavies.com
Wayne Hernandez | Soul & RnB
22 December 2023
Boogie Wonderland | Funk & Disco Classics
23 December 2023
Shakatak | Jazz-Funk
11 January 2024
The British Collective | Soul & RnB
12 January 2024
Muddy Waters Jnr - Mud Morganfield
17 January 2024
Burns Celebrations and Frank & Dean Show
23 January 2024-25 January 2024
Piper, Haggis + Frank & Dean Hootenanny!