Founder: Chris Mantz
Company Description: 100% locally made optical frames that are created from familiar materials telling a thoughtful story, and presenting a unique aesthetic via innovative manufacturing.
Date of Interview: May 2015
Chris Mantz is the owner, founder, visionary and manufacturing guru behind Drift Eyewear, a Chicago-based optical frame manufacturer and wholesaler that makes each individual frame, end to end, in their Chicago west loop facility. He believes that sourcing and manufacturing locally is the right way now and the right way for our future. He believes in thoughtful approaches and high quality production. He believes in patience and the power of an organically grown brand – as he has proven with Drift Eyewear.
On a story behind a product:
Chris values the story behind materials and products and believes that their customers do as well. He shares the story and the background behind Drift Eyewear’s “Delta Blues” line.
“They are made from 100 year old cypress wood that was logged around 1904. They were basically cutting down a lot of cypress forests in the deep south to build structures in the north. They would cut down all these logs and float them down the river. Some of the dense logs sank to the bottom and have been there for 100 years – sitting in the mud of the Mississippi. It’s changed the color and the grain structure to this really beautiful deep green, and some have streaks of purple and orange. It has completely changed the coloration and texture of the wood.”
That’s the “delta” half of the story. The “blues” half is that “the blues men of the deep south started around the same time and would travel between plantation and logging camps to play for these captive audiences. I love the blues. It’s pretty much the quintessential American form of music.”
On making locally:
To create quality products with this type of story, and innovate the manufacturing needed to leverage these special materials, Chris is 100% confident that all sourcing and production must be done locally.
“Local, in my opinion, is the most important thing – wherever you are. Creating a beautiful, durable, functional product with a unique story behind it really has to happen here.”
“One of the biggest challenges was that the material was extremely fragile. I didn’t want to be limited by what we could or couldn’t use, so we developed a different method of manufacturing that allows us to use what we want. It had never been done before.”
“It’s important and necessary that you have an intimacy with the product. You have a day to day ability to control quality and see what’s going out the door. From the standpoint of research and development and speed to market it’s bar none. We can get products from ideation to paper to CAD to prototype in less than week! You have complete control. That’s the beauty of it.
“Your lead times are shorter. Your attention to detail and quality are greater. Your prototyping is easier. Your end product is better. You can see it. You can feel it. You know through wearing it that it’s there”
“It (manufacturing) was here (US) post-war. Optical is labor intensive. Rather than pursue automation in an industry that didn’t’ have it, it just went to a cheaper labor market. The pursuit of inexpensive labor has taken most of the manufacturing industry out of this country. However, what we’re seeing now is that automation is more cost effective and capable, and allows us to do things that were previously impossible at competitive prices. At that time, it HAD to go. But now, it also HAS to come back – without question.”
You can read more about it in their Drift Eyewear journal.
On growing slowly:
Chris started the research and development for Drift Eyewear in 2009 , launched in 2010 and brought on a first round of investment in 2012, and then another round in 2013.
“There are a lot of different ways to start businesses. What I know now is that if I’d had $250K when I started, I would’ve blown it. I wouldn’t have used it responsibly. It’s almost like the process of growing this company and brand organically and slowly has allowed us to learn on the fly and not make huge mistakes that could’ve ended our business.”
“I see them (Drift Eyewear frames) all the time now. I never say anything because I’m wearing the same glasses so it’s always a little weird. It’s flattering though, ya know? Especially when we’re in different states. We have some amazing people wearing our glasses. It’s insane. We have legit fans!”
“We get knocked off on a monthly basis, if not more than that. We’ve done very little in terms of marketing and our website is terrible. We can’t make the product fast enough! For us to go out and spend on a big marketing or media campaign doesn’t help because ultimately it just makes people want a product that they can’t have yet!”
On what’s next:
“The key is the ability to have our hands on everything and to design things that have never been possible before.”
“From a designer’s perspective, there’s a freedom that we have here that is profound. I want to offer what we’re capable of to a much larger audience – we just have to get there.
“Drift is applying its aesthetic and vision to other optical products. We want to be the premier boutique US optical brand.”
After our chat, Chris is kind enough to take me on a brief tour of their manufacturing workshop that boasts various machinery, tools, materials and frames in different stages of production. “Doing this type of manufacturing is the key, and it will really help us produce things that are completely mind blowing. No one even knew it was possible. That’s the goal!”