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Polette CEO on showrooms, new markets and sustainable eyewear

By Huw Hughes

11 Mar 2021

Fashion |INTERVIEW

“Producing glasses costs less than 10 euros per pair. So why pay 500 euros?” That’s the first thing you see when you land on the website of European eyewear brand Polette.

The company was launched 10 years ago by Pauline Cousseau and Pierre Wizman, two French expats who were shocked to see how cheap the retail prices of glasses were in China where they met, and where many of the industry’s biggest brands manufacture their frames.

Unlike traditional opticians, whose physical stores are stocked similarly to those of fashion retailers, Polette uses a direct-to-consumer model, whereby shoppers buy online and the glasses are sent directly from the factory to their home. By cutting out all intermediaries between the manufacturer and the customer, the business keeps its pricepoint low, with a pair of glasses selling from 15 euros.

The Netherlands-based company originally launched as a webstore but has since opened a number of showrooms across major European cities, including London, Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels, where shoppers can get free eye tests and browse frames. The company has also selected three new cities where it plans to open showrooms in the near future.

FashionUnited spoke with Polette’s co-founder and co-CEO Pauline Cousseau about the company’s online-first strategy, its expansion to new markets amid the pandemic, and the launch of its first sustainable collections.

Image: Pauline Cousseau

Could you tell me a bit about Polette’s current expansion plans?

We launched in Spain in September with a website and we’re now preparing to launch websites in Germany and Italy in the coming months. We then plan to open our connected digital showrooms in Madrid, Milan and Berlin.

Do you know when these showrooms will open?

It’s too early to say at the moment because it has been very complicated with the Covid situation. We don’t have a clear date because we don’t know when people can have a normal life again.

What has been the response to the launch of the Spanish site?

We are happy with the result. We are not so well known in Spain - the market was not very big for us but since launching the website there we have seen that they really like our products and our brand.

The Spanish market is not an easy one: they buy less online compared to some other markets and you can find some glasses for very affordable prices in Spain. So I am very happy about the first results we’ve seen.

It’s quite an aggressive expansion strategy at a time when many brands are being a bit more reserved. What’s the thinking behind it?

The thinking was quite simple: in every crisis, you can find opportunity. We have always had this business model of selling completely online directly from the factory to the customer, so the pandemic was a good growth opportunity for us when people can’t really go outside and shop anymore.

In these times of crisis and doubt and fear, the worst thing to do is to stay steady. You have to be on the move and find opportunities and invest. That’s why we are being very dynamic and active and on the lookout for new opportunities.

And a part of that strategy is opening showrooms?

Yes. A lot of companies like Ace & Tate and Jimmy Fairly started online and then went to almost 100 percent retail. We were and always will be an online company. What I mean by that is we don’t sell from stores - we have connected showrooms visitors can come to, and then they buy online.

I believe the future is online but I also believe that in the future human beings need to have access to environments like this, like beautiful showrooms where you can really experience the product and the brand. That’s why our focus is to develop showrooms like this across Europe and have flagships in every big city.

Image: Polette showroom

How has Covid impacted your showrooms?

Last year we closed our showrooms in every country for three months, but recently every European government has said opticians are an essential service so we have been able to reopen. We have a maximum of 5-8 people in the showrooms at a time.

As you can imagine, those locations aren’t what they used to be right now, which is sad to see. A lot of them have been hit really hard during Covid, but we have chosen showrooms in very trendy locations and we have loyal visitors there, so we are already seeing visitors queuing in front of our showrooms to get the Polette experience again.

You opened your London showroom almost exactly a year ago now. How has it been in the UK since then?

I can’t go into figures with individual markets but we are happy with our performance in the UK. A lot of people in the business used to tell us that in London and the wider UK you either do really well or you fail - there is no middle ground. When we opened our Oxford Street store the event was crowded. We also had a lot of influencers working with us. We really had a great start.

Then a few weeks later we had the lockdown so the activity went right down. It’s frustrating because we feel like we kind of lost what we created a year ago. But it’s still a very good market and people there like our brand and the price point.

And how are your biggest markets France and Belgium doing?

They have been very good. People there value us and love the brand and we’ve been seeing steady growth, so no complaints.

And your home market the Netherlands?

The Netherlands is a great place to develop the brand. Our first showroom opened in 2016 and we see visitors queuing and a lot more Dutch people knowing our brand. Dutch people love affordable products, but they also need to know that they can trust the quality and the service, which we have been able to satisfy them with. So overall after four years here we are very happy to see them wearing Polette.

In November 2020 you launched your first sustainable collection made from eco- acetate. Could you tell me a bit about that?

We launched our eco-acetate glasses last year, which are 61 percent bio-based. They are made from plant seeds and contain less than 1 percent DEP [Diethyl phthalate]. The frames are already 60 percent biodegradable after 150 days. We are currently working on making them 100 percent biodegradable.

We also launched a recycled collection made from the offcuts and scraps of acetate. I am very proud of the collection because we really had to fight to create this sustainable product with the help of our producers and factories. I am very proud of the team in charge of this project and their accomplishment.

We are also the first brand to do it and we didn’t have big investors backing us up, but we did it, we made it happen. I’m very proud of that.

Image: Polette eco-acetate collection

Do you have any more sustainability goals going forward?

We want to be fully sustainable by next year. That means not only our frames but our accessories, the packaging, everything. I think sustainability is one of the strongest value of our company right now.

Looking ahead, what do you see for the coming years?

We want to be the leader of the glasses industry. We have huge plans for expansion in the future. Right now we are focusing a lot on innovation. We already have a mobile app with a virtual try-on feature for the frames, for example. We want to keep developing features like this so we have an operational system that allows visitors and customers to feel completely independent, so they can navigate the website and get access to any information they need and then purchase. Customers have the tendency to easily switch and change their way of consumption, so we want to always improve what we offer.

Looking back at 10 years of Polette, do you have any particular highlights?

Opening a showroom in Paris was very emotional for me. I’m French and having a showroom in the same place where I used to go as a little girl with big sparkly eyes was huge for me. It was the same in London. I couldn’t believe that a girl from the countryside in France had opened a showroom on Oxford Street. To see my family and friends at the opening, that was a very proud moment.

Main article image: Polette eco-acetate collection