“Eyewear couture”: how Topology is using technology to address eyewear’s fit problem

by Marjorie van Elven
29 Aug 2019

You’ve probably heard it a million times already: the future of fashion is personalized. As new technologies allow brands to customize products and services according to customer’s tastes, lifestyles and past purchasing behavior, consumers will grow to expect to get a personalized experience almost everywhere. “Data is the new oil and artificial intelligence is the oil drill”, said ecommerce expert Jorij Abraham, from the Ecommerce Foundation, during a panel in the last IAF World Fashion Convention. “Retailers who fail to offer customers a personalized experience will be swept away by competition”, added fellow panelist Jeff Strader, from Go Global Retail.

Topology, a company founded in 2013 in San Francisco, is the perfect example of how these developments can reshape the eyewear market. The brand uses 3D facial scanning and augmented reality to create custom-made glasses which are “guaranteed to fit” each and every face. To buy Topology’s glasses, customers must first download an app (currently only available for iOS) which takes over 20,000 measurements to develop a millimeter-accurate model of their face. This model is used to reshape the brand’s designs along 21 different dimensions so that the glasses don’t slip, squeeze or slide. Once the perfect fit is calculated, the customer goes on to choose the style, color and shape of her specs, previewing the choices with a virtual try-on. Et voilà: a few weeks later, a made-to-order pair of glasses arrives in the mail, engraved with the customer’s name.

Topology has recently caught the eye of New Look Vision Group Inc., which acquired an equity interest in the company earlier this month, allowing it exclusive rights to retail Topology products in Canada and other selected markets. The brand will debut in 15 stores across Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia from October, with a wide national roll-out planned for the first half of 2020.

Speaking with FashionUnited about the company’s growth path and future plans, founder and CEO Eric Varady emphasized that, while its business model sounds pretty cutting edge, the main idea is actually to go back to basics. “In the beginning, all eyewear was bespoke! Once upon a time the only way to get glasses was to have someone make them for you by hand. Once mass production techniques were developed, it made eyewear faster and cheaper to produce, but it sadly undermined the utility of the product”. Read the full interview below.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you and what did you work with before founding Topology Eyewear?

After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, I spent the first 10 or so years designing and manufacturing complex implantable medical devices, such as pacemakers and defibrillators. I worked on a technically-challenging and life-saving product, and though it didn’t make for compelling dinner party conversation, it was the best imaginable learning ground for making highly-quality products, at scale, with no tolerance for error.

How did the idea for Topology's business model come about?

When I was dating my then girlfriend, now wife, I went shopping for glasses and couldn’t believe how hard it was to find a pair that both fit me comfortably and looked good. She told me at the time: “I’m the one that has to look at you all day, so I get final say on what you wear on your face!” But six hours and countless stores later, she gave up in frustration, and I was still left without new glasses.

After a considerable time puzzling over why it was so challenging to buy this seemingly simple product, I realized the answer is that every single human is very different, whereas all eyewear is mass-manufactured in enormous batches for identical faces. The industry needs to assume a one-size-fits-all approach, but it simply doesn’t work well. That’s the true underlying problem with all stock eyewear -- it was made for someone else’s face, with someone else’s aesthetic sensibilities.

The logical and inevitable solution is to make each pair from scratch for one person at a time. In other words, completely bespoke, or “custom-tailored” as we now call it. It would compete on a completely different axis than all stock eyewear, offering not only a better fit, but a wider choice of colors and materials, and superior optics. However, to succeed at scale it would also need to be within the price range of existing designer stock eyewear. [Editor’s note: each pair of Topology glasses costs 349 US dollars]

I was actually surprised by the price point, considering each pair is unique and made-to-order. I was expecting it to cost a lot more. How have you managed to achieve such competitive pricing for a bespoke product?

Thanks! We hear that from many customers, especially those already spending more than 1000 US dollars for designer frames. To date, we have deliberately kept the pricing simple and accessible because consumers are self-serving from home in a direct-to-consumer scenario. But we will soon launch a new range with 4 times more styles than our current offering, with existing styles also getting a refresh. New higher-end materials such as buffalo horn and titanium are also on the roadmap. More importantly, we will shortly begin to sell in physical retail under the consultative guidance of a trained optician, who is now transformed into an eyewear stylist. Physical product samples will be on display, and additional levels of customization and materials may only be on offer in retail. As our offering becomes more established and grows into professional channels, the price strategy will likely evolve.

Can you tell us in more detail how customers’ faces are mapped? How does the Topology app define the perfect fit for each customer?

Many people now know that all recent iPhone and iPad models include a TrueDepth sensor that can take precise measurements of a person’s face, which is what powers FaceID. 30,000 invisible dots are illuminated onto one’s face, and the sensor records their precise 3D positions.

We use this sensor to build a 3D map of your face that is used to craft you the perfect pair of eyewear. We understand not just the size of your head, but the unique contours and positions of your nose, cheeks, and ears, as well as the precise placement of your eyes when focused at different distances. We then use this 3D map to provide you a photorealistic virtual try-on of a product that does not yet exist, but is already adjusted in 20 different dimensions to fit you. And of course, from these 3D measurements and surfaces, we then can sculpt the perfect pair of eyewear just for you, as well as fit it with the fully-compensated state-of-the-art optics, including digital progressive lenses, with precision that exceeds the tools available in most retail stores.

We make everything from scratch in our production facility in San Francisco. To demonstrate the uniqueness of your eyewear, we include in the box an engineering schematic of your pair, and we engrave your name on the inside of the temple arms. So it’s not about finding the closest pre-manufactured stock frame to fit your measurements, but rather crafting something new to match your measurements. It’s like a couture dress, or a bespoke suit, but for the most important and demanding aspect of your wardrobe that you wear everyday: your eyewear.

What were the main challenges you faced when starting the company? What are the main challenges now?

We were founded in December 2013, although the early years were mostly me and 1-2 others in a small industrial garage solving the early technical challenges and writing our initial patent applications. It took years to refine the software and the manufacturing to get to the level we are at today, which is a cross-functional team of 30 people, all under one roof: leadership, software development, design, production, customer service, etc.

I’d say the challenge always comes back to the same thing: people’s expectations and assumptions. People accept that glasses either look or feel good, they think that annoyances such as your eyewear slipping down your nose, leaving nasal red marks, or pinching causing discomfort, are just part of the typical eyeglass experience. Most people have never experienced how good it feels to wear a custom-tailored set of eyewear. Our customers have said things like “it feels like they are floating on my face,” but until you try it for yourself, it’s hard to convey what you’ve been missing. So, the challenge has been getting people to open their mind to believe that glasses can, and should, be objectively better.

This challenge applies not just to customers, but also retailers, investors, journalists etc. There has been so much debate about making glasses cheaper (and rightly so: stock eyewear should be inexpensive) that not enough consideration has been given to making eyewear fundamentally better! And by improving the product, you also vastly improve the shopping experience. Glasses are the only product we own that is on our face, 16 hours a day, every day, for 2-3 years. They are not just a fashion accessory, but an indispensable medical device.

Topology has raised over 13 million USD to date, including the recent investment by New Look Vision. How will the capital injection be used? What can we expect from this partnership?

The investment is focused on evolving Topology from a direct-to-consumer offering to a solution tailored for optical retail and the professional practice. We will be moving from iPhone to iPad Pro, and redesigning the experience from one that is designed for a consumer shopping at home to one that is guided by a trained professional in-store. We are also vastly expanding our eyewear styles available, but deploying physical signages, finished frames, and color swatches to each retail partner location.

Many consumers are worried about privacy and how companies collect and share their data. As Topology uses a 3D mapping of the customer’s face, one cannot help but wonder how the company handles this data.

We take privacy extremely seriously. First and foremost, we’re an eyeglass company: we only capture customer’s data in order to make eyewear. That’s our business model, we don’t use customer data for any other purposes. Customer reviews and testimonials are our lifeblood. Behind the scenes, we have implemented a lot of technology to further enhance privacy: anonymization, encryption, unguessable strings, and where-possible, on-device processing. We also restrict access to customers’ data to only those team members that need it in order to produce customers’ orders, or to respond to customers’ inquiries. Finally, if a customer requests that we delete all data that has been stored, they need only ask us, and it is immediately wiped.

Topology’s website says you check each and every pair of glasses personally before they are sent to the customers. As the company grows, how do you intend to ensure your quality standards are met?

Yes, we’ve already scaled beyond this point, and we have worked hard to institute my quality expectations into the processes and practices of many more people on the team! Having previously worked in the medical device industry, I learned that quality must be instituted at every process, task, and stage of the production process in order to ensure exceedingly high yields and tolerances - which is absolutely critical when you’re making a one-off of every part of every frame.

Having all aspects of the company being housed in the same building means I can regularly spot-check not just the quality of our final output, but the quality of every process on our production line. Everyone on the production team also knows they can message me at any time to come over to assess any challenging situation. Lastly, if a customer chooses to come to our San Francisco facility to pick up their final pair, I try to free myself up so I can personally assess their satisfaction with our product.

Speaking of Topology’s San Francisco HQ, it features a showroom titled Bespokery where customers can try products on. Any intention to open more Bespokery locations?

The Bespokery is our workshop/factory where we make everything from scratch, and upstairs we have a customer area that folks are welcome to visit to see in-person physical samples of every color and style. We are excited to expand swiftly by offering our product in existing optical locations across North America. Our Canadian partnership has recently been announced, and shortly we will have some other exciting partnerships to share. There’s always the future possibility of Topology-branded pop-ups or flashship stores. We’re very excited for what the future holds.

Any more plans for the future you’d like to share?

More stores, more styles, more materials, and forever improving our accuracy of frame and optical fit. We’re building from scratch an entirely new category of eyewear: custom-tailored. We firmly believe it is the future of the premium segment of our industry.

Images: Topology website and Facebook