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Catherine Federici makes sunglasses
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Catherine Federici makes sunglasses
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Catherine Federici makes sunglasses
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"Even if they weren't commercially viable it didn't matter, it was about the learning process."
Conversations
1 January 2010

Catherine Federici makes sunglasses

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Fernando Barazza

Kate Bezar on Catherine Federici

Seven years ago, Catherine Federici and her husband Marco decided to start a sunglass brand. They took her industrial design education and experience gleaned from years of working in optometry stores, threw in their life savings and created ISSON. It’s a tough gig, sunglasses.

ISSON has to compete with multi-national companies and large luxury brand houses, but they’re holding their own and the great frames Catherine designs now complement thousands of faces, not only in their base Australia, but worldwide. Here’s Catherine’s story.

This story originally ran in issue #22 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

KATE BEZAR: Is this space yours?

CATHERINE FEDERICI: Upstairs, yeah. This space, where we have our meetings, we share with George Skoufis [in Paddington, Sydney]. I used to work for George the optometrist [downstairs] when I was still at uni and studying Industrial Design. My part-time jobs since I was 15 were always in optometrist stores, first at the local optometrist where I grew up and then when I moved to the east I found a job through the Yellow Pages. I just thought, I don’t know anyone here and I have six years of optical experience working part time, so I just opened up the Yellow Pages and randomly called a few people …

Did you always work in optometrists because you loved glasses?

No, no. I fell into it because my elder sister was working in the local optometrist and when she left they said, “Do you know anyone else?” and I just said, “I’ll do it.” I really enjoyed it. It was sort of technical and had fashion, sales, customers … I eventually started doing other things like frame repairs, soldering and tinting lenses and really liked that hands-on, making stuff aspect to the glasses. My local optometrist wasn’t really cutting-edge in fashion so it wasn’t until I came to the eastern suburbs and worked for George… he was dealing in really avant-garde, crazy, unique product all from overseas trade fairs so everything he was stocking you couldn’t find anywhere else. My mind just exploded. I thought the designs were crazy and his customer base was awesome; they were so open and receptive to new things. It was just like opening a can of worms as to design, how it related to people, what they got into and what people were willing to receive – it was just crazy. George has this amazing eye for what fits and suits people. He would just say straight out to people, “Look, this is the only one for you here. If you don’t buy that one you may as well just leave because I don’t want you to buy anything else that’s not right.”

That’s a gift.

Yeah. I used to think, George, you can’t say that to people, but he was really right and people respond to that; they trust him. He knows his stuff and he wants people to look good and have something that’s unique and special to them. I learnt a lot from George in those early days. From there I finished my Industrial Design degree…

So you were studying part-time?

No, I was studying full-time and working part-time. I think it was about two years that I worked here before I finished my degree and by then I had sketch books full of designs and was being really experimental.

Designs for glasses?

Yes.

So throughout your Industrial Design degree did you know you were going to go into designing glasses?

Not initially, but by the end of it I definitely thought, I’ve got this amazing industry knowledge and I really love glasses and how they transform a person’s personality. Industrial Design was the basic information I needed for how to manufacture and produce, but it was all my experience and dealing with people like George that taught me how design became an extension of someone’s personality. It was really – it might sound crazy – psychology-related design that had a bit of fashion I really needed – it was more about how people reflect their persona onto others.

Glasses are intensely personal.

Intensely personal. I always liken it to shoes, or perfume, or jewellery. People can try to buy you those things, but there’s just something that either makes it or breaks it. I’ve found that it’s so true that the eyes are the window to the soul. Your eyes are the first thing that people look at to read you, you know: your integrity, how genuine you are, what the true meaning is behind what you are saying. The eyes are just such a focal, important point… more than shoes and jewellery and all those things.

This story originally ran in issue #22 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #22 of Dumbo Feather

I love your glasses.

Thank you. I started wearing these two years ago and I can’t get rid of them. I just love them so much. You get a bit fixated. There’s a connection to the way the product makes you feel.

When someone who wears glasses all the time takes them off you sort of don’t recognise them anymore because they’ve become such an intrinsic part of them.

Definitely. It’s like moustaches. When someone shaves off their moustache you think, what’s wrong with you? You look so different!

So you did some other, kooky part-time jobs along the way?

I did. I did a bunch of design things through my brother, like tattooing. You probably heard about the tattooing? The other thing with me is that I’m really literal; I’m really gullible and I’m a nerd. I am an absolute nerd. A nerd in disguise. That’s one of the reasons why I thought, I’m going to step out of my skin and learn how to do this tattooing and take it on as a technical nerdish thing. Like how does it technically work? How deep does the needle go? What are the ramifications? Show me a good one and show me a bad one … The thing is that it’s so easy to hide from the world and you have to push yourself out. I’ve always found it a little bit hard to express myself and being a bit nerdish and literal and gullible people can easily play a joke on me. Maybe I take things too seriously; I don’t know what it is.

Could it be naivety?

Yeah, absolutely. I’m always shocked at how ridiculous, or how hurtful, or jealous other people can be… I think because I’m like that, especially when I was younger I always felt more inspired to push myself to do things out of my comfort zone.

I was so inclined to just stay in my own headspace and stick with the one or two friends I had, I didn’t need anything else in my life. Almost like I could have been a real introvert.

There’s obviously another part of you that saw that and went it’s not …

It’s not entirely me as well. Definitely and I have pushed that boundary all the time and it’s been a real internal boundary … There is so much about life, and movement, and children, and things that are just so beautiful, it’s so easy to just miss them if you are caught up in your own headspace. So it’s definitely been a real challenge. But yeah, because I’m a bit of a nerd, coming at something from a technical viewpoint has always been a lot easier for me. Even now when it comes to designing a house or having a baby, if I can have certain things in place that are technically proven then I’m 90 per cent of the way there.

You’re comfortable with the functionality and the rational side of it all.

Very much. What’s been a real challenge with this business is that there’s running a business that’s commercially viable and there’s also designing things that are tactile and beautiful to touch and may not necessarily be something somebody wants to wear. That’s the other challenge. Something I’ve been talking about a lot has been the contradictions in life. Like me being a nerd that’s always pushing out and letting myself live and explore and be spontaneous … and having the same contradictions in business. It’s always been a real struggle and I don’t think I’ve achieved a good balance up until now.

How come?

Well, we launched the first collection in 2003. That’s six collections where I was focused on things other than what I should have been focused on. I was putting the business mind before the creative mind. I think it’s because my husband and I went into this business together and it took everything we had saved and we put our lives completely on hold.

I mean that. I’m almost 40 and I left having a baby for quite some time. Any money that we were going to save to buy a house just went into the business. Everything was focused on the business so it didn’t make it easy to be creatively free because there was just so much riding on it. I know now that was a mistake. A lot of people said to us, “Maybe one of you should stay working and one of you should run a business”, but I always said from the word go, if we are really going to make this happen, leaving it all to one person is almost just as much of a risk. This way we’re all in together. Marco and I work so closely. We’re the yin and yang. We’re the one person. You just can’t achieve everything; even two of us can barely achieve the things we need to achieve. From the word go we were going pretty good, but with fashion there’s always ups and downs; one year you’re hot, the next year you’re not. It’s the same with all brands; it doesn’t matter which you are.

Absolutely.

Soon we sort of had to bust a move and go, right, we’ve got to do something different otherwise we’re just going to get the same result. That saying has spurred me on to change. I live my life by a lot of sayings, but definitely ‘Do what you’ve always done, get what you’ve always got’ has been a major catalyst in changing direction. Every time I found that what I was doing was not working it was like, ok, you’ve gotta do something different, or expect the same! So we already had a decent supplier base and we started selling them other products – great, beautiful products from other eyewear designers like us. We’re now distributors in Australia for l.a. Eyeworks, Cutler and Gross, and another brand from Japan called Kame ManNen. The best thing about those brands is that they suited our company profile as designers and creators ourselves because they were the same, not licensed brands. Those brands have also grown along a very organic path. Thankfully, taking on those businesses has allowed our business to become more stable. Sunglasses are just so seasonal and it balances things out throughout the year; we have more customers to see, more product to sell and now we’re at this great position where I’ve been able to go, “It’s all about the creative.”

Maybe that was just the journey you had to go on.

When you’re a start-up sunglass brand it will take you 40 years to become an enduring brand, like it has Cutler and Gross. They are a 40-year-old brand. l.a. Eyeworks are also 30 years old, but I still can speak to people in the optical industry and they’ve never heard of either of those brands. It’s such a slow, spiralling organic path, it really is. I think having worked with those other brands has just let me accept our brand, ISSON, for what it is and for the journey that is ahead. I think that after this global financial crisis … You know, those big brands could afford the advertising so they could control the magazine editorial and it was just so hard for us cut into all that and convince the real shoppers, the people with the income and the inclination, to buy sunglasses … It was just really hard to cut through all that. I’ve just found that things are now starting to fall into place and it’s given us the opportunity to really be creative.

So what does that mean for how you work?

Every year I am designing a collection. Like little children, every single one has a personality of its own and I hope that they speak to people. They may not and, you know, that’s fine; that’s just how it’s got to be. This new collection is so different.

They are signature pieces, a signature style that was me and had been suppressed and hidden.

It was all about experimenting. Before my ideas were always about things that would be flattering, and now it’s just like I’m carving a statue out of a piece of wood that’s completely abstract. It’s not of anything. That’s how I feel about these new designs. It was like, I have no idea what I’m doing, I’m just going to put this paintbrush to paper and I’m just going to keep going and whatever comes, comes. That’s just how it came. It was a process of carving, chopping, cutting and curving and the pieces ended up as these organic forms that you couldn’t really peg as, “Oh, that’s just a nice big wraparound like the Dior” or, “That’s just a typical Ray Ban aviator” or whatever. I hope that nobody could say that any one of my designs are like anything they’ve ever seen before. This year I designed the collection sitting inside The State Library. I went there every day for a few weeks and just sat in total silence, which was awesome. I guess in a way I relived my uni days when I was solely focused on a project.

And the whole business aspect wasn’t even an issue back then was it?

Business, child, being a wife, being everything, a sales person, even being a designer was sort of away. It was just me and a piece of paper surrounded by a really intense energy, this academic energy. When you step into The State Library, more than any other library, there are so many reference books around and people there with a purpose: to absorb knowledge. It just seems that everyone is intensely learning something. I can’t describe the feeling when I sat in there amongst these other people. I guess it was their focus. You can feel other people’s focus on what they were doing and it helped me focus as well. When I would get tired of designing or sketching I would go and walk up and down through the shelves picking up all sorts of random books. The only way I can really describe it was that there was this academic feel to everything I did. It really did take me back to uni days. When you’re at uni you could just be so much more experimental. You could explore ideas and even if they weren’t commercially viable it didn’t matter, it was about the learning process.

I really feel that I did my best work when I was at uni and I saw what other people were doing, pushing boundaries. I really admire that. I wish we could all be more like that … and it be commercially viable as well!

So when does this collection go on sale?

Around the first week of October it will be in shops. I’ve taken my punt on colours and quantities and there you go. It’s a really long production lead time. It takes about 10 months from the start of the design process to delivery. Already I have been surprised at the number of retailers that are really liking what I have done and I kind of think to myself, you idiot, why didn’t you bloody do this before, but, like I said, there was just so much riding on things before. It was the fear of failure. Which is crazy because when you start your own business you have to put that fear of failure out of your mind. You have to be really optimistic. You have to have a thick skin as well because once you start something, your friends, your family, industry peers, other people are going to be polar about it. They either want you to really succeed or they are dying for you to fail so they can say, “Ha ha I told you so.” There’s ego pressure as well.

How did you try to put that out of your mind?

I’ve found it very hard. I always try to hide that from people because I feel as though it’s a weakness, lacking in confidence in what I do. A lot of people have always said that I wear my heart on my sleeve and things like that. It’s definitely one thing I’ve tried to hide but, sitting here now…

With this new collection I’ll either really succeed or really fall flat on my face.

I’ve just got to accept whatever comes. When I saw a lot of other brands who were young like me achieving things that I wasn’t able to achieve I really found that hard. I felt ripped off in a way because I was so deserving. We worked so hard… Is it all about the fashion wankers? Is it all about that? Do I have to be…?

Do I have to play that game?

Yeah. I’ve always resisted playing that game, to my detriment. I hope that, in the end, I guess because we’ve got that enduring thing, that long term vision, I hope that not having played that game will one day… I call them ‘wankers’, but it’s the people that just seem to be full of empty promises but they’ve got the gift of the gab and they can somehow pull in investors. They don’t have a creative, passionate bone in their body and it’s all about their ego. I found it really hard to get my head around to accepting that I wasn’t going to get the same accolades as other brands or other designers who are so fiercely and intensely marketing themselves to a crowd…I wanted that credibility, but I wasn’t prepared to do what they were doing. It was hard.

You’ll be surprised, in the long run. That doesn’t buy longevity.

I hope so.

It doesn’t. Producing beautiful design consistently will do it for you.

I really hope that it comes down to passion and the love of design. The Australian market is our biggest market, but they’re so far behind the rest of the world. I think Australians, in general, don’t really care so much about individuality and style. We seem to be more fixated on what everyone else is doing rather than what we like ourselves. It’s like we’re all lacking confidence so if it doesn’t have a brand name splashed on the side then it’s like, I won’t have the confidence to tell my friends I bought this because I really loved it. Time and time again I’ve heard from retailers how our frame would just look amazing on somebody and that they were saying to somebody, “This is the frame for you, it suits your face; it’s beautiful on you; it’s everything you said you wanted,” but the customer needed the big thing on it that said Dior or Chanel. Even though it didn’t fit them and didn’t suit their face it just needed to be that thing to validate them. So, anyway, with this global financial crisis even the big brands that are in our market are struggling. They are struggling because they had poor business practices.

Well, people just get lazy don’t they?

They do get lazy. Retailers got lazy. Staff got lazy. People weren’t passionate about what they were selling, didn’t have the confidence. We need more George Skoufis in the world. Actually, Australia has probably got only three optical shops like George’s.

Really?

Yup, probably three or four, one in each major capital city. That’s not a lot. For 20 million people and all these brands there are very few retailers that actually know what they are doing.

I guess as well as competing with the designer brands there is also a massive market out there for the $20 pair that might get you through one summer.

That’s it. The sunglass market is very disposable and it’s quite small, no matter who you are, it’s a very small market in Australia. It’s been an interesting ride, but it’s amazing how many people have found our brand through the internet. Over the years people would find us whether they’re in the US or, recently, it’s been France and Malaysia; they’ve bought our product over the net without even seeing it. It’s been great for us. I wish we could find more people like that or they could find us.

So you obviously look after the design side of things and do the sales.

Since I had the baby Marco took over the sales, but I’m just coming back in this month to look after the ISSON sales and marketing aspect with the girls. I also do a bit of accounts work. Up until recently I was looking after all the data entry and the book work and the BAS. I still pay the bills and chase people for money. I talk to currency brokers and all sorts of things. So I wear many hats! It’s always a challenge.

It would be good if I could just strictly be a designer and that’s all I did.

One day. There’s another woman I’ve interviewed for this issue who said, “Don’t ever go into business with your partner” so I’m intrigued to know how you guys have made it work.

I couldn’t think of a better person to run a business with. So many times we have thought to ourselves how amazing and lucky we are, not only on a relationship level but, because we’re in the relationship together personally, we have the same long term goals. Our decisions are based on the same ideas for the business, whether it be the brands we bring on, or what we’re planning for the future, or the reason to stop doing something. We’ve always seen eye to eye. There have been a few times where Marco will be more conservative than I in certain areas, but I think it’s like the yin and yang I was saying before. We’ve had to learn how to listen to each other; he’s got to trust me when sometimes I’m going to be a little bit more risky or outrageous, and I have to listen to him when he’s being more cautious. It has definitely paid off. There was a time where I thought, we need more investment; we need more debt to take it to the next level. He was always, “A business should be able to pay for itself and re-invest in itself and a little bit of debt is ok but not too much” and I am so glad I listened to that. When the shit hit the fan last year and consumers stopped buying and spending … Because everything we sell is imported, Australia doesn’t manufacture really any optical frames or sunglasses, we found ourselves having to still maintain the debts we currently had and all of a sudden the exchange rate dropped dramatically. Fifty thousand dollars worth of debt suddenly became $90,000 worth of debt and at the same time sales just slowed. It was a real double whammy. I think if we were carrying more debt and had to service that on top of the normal bills … I think this is why a lot of big companies went down because they were carrying massive amounts of debt and just to service the debt alone and stay afloat became too hard. We got over our hump in three months. Within two weeks we changed everything – the way we did things, very quickly and it was the best thing we did. So that was the perfect time when I had to listen to Marco.

Yeah.

We met on the bus after school. I was 13 and he was 15.

No way!

So we’ve known each other a long, long time. We haven’t been together all that time, we had about six years apart … So 25 years I’ve known him and we’ve been together for 19. We know each other really, really well. That probably helps in running a business. We’re that sort of cliché where people say they’ve married their best friend. We did. So we’ve been really lucky. That’s helped running a business, having a baby, living together, travelling together; everywhere we went it’s always been together.

And what was he doing before you started ISSON together?

Marco was working. His background is in Civil Engineering. I think he just fell into that really by accident. He should have done something like Industrial Design. He is more of an industrial designer than I am, probably because he has got more patience.

He makes guitars too doesn’t he?

That’s right. In the time that we were apart he lived in a house full of musos and he got into bass guitar and started making bass guitars from scratch. He’d find really beautiful, specialty pieces of wood, whether it be ebony or birds eye maple … Starting off with planks of wood and designing and cutting, doing all the electronics and inlays, doing the frets and everything himself. He has made a few. The last one was probably the most technical, with a sliding pick-up – it was just amazing, a beautiful piece of art slash technology. Everybody wants to touch it.

And I hear you’re about to start on another big project.

Building a house, yeah. That’s crazy actually. We’re in the throws now. We really wanted to build a shipping container house. It was our dream. We were probably going to do it up in the bush somewhere, maybe Mount Colah, even Berowra, somewhere really quite isolated. It wasn’t going to look like shipping containers; it was more about the design challenge behind the shipping containers. What people have done with shipping containers globally is just amazing. We’ve bought a few books and Marco made a scale model, but after investigating the costs of the containers and the welding and the plumbing and everything, we think it’s going to have to be our next project. It’s just we’re a bit time poor and on a tight budget for this first house. Builders don’t want to touch it because it’s not their typical building material and who knows how long it’d take to get through council. So, putting that to one side unfortunately! We really wanted to do it.

But you’re still going to build?

We’re still building, yeah. Just got the builders happening on the weekend actually. Marco’s designed the house and we’re squeezing our whole lives into it. It’s going to be great.

A State Library, got that in there?

No, no! But it’s going to be a great little first nest, down near the beach near Warriewood. Even though we didn’t grow up in the Eastern suburbs we feel like we get enough of it here. We love it, but we also hate it. We’d love Charlie, our little girl, to grow up near the beach. We always grew up near bushland so it was creeks … Marco remembers finding yabbies and things like that in the creeks and just having that chance to explore. It’s the perfect place because we’re just near the Warriewood wetlands and there’s a rare mahogany forest down there and heaps of places to go and explore.

Will you still do this commute? Do you have to have your offices in the inner burbs?

I think we do. It’s been really good for stylists and to be close to media and all that sort of stuff. It’s not us, but we feel like we have to be here. I think the expectation is that being fashion related … It doesn’t cut it if you are outside the Eastern suburbs which is just so crazy because the whole thing about fashion is about people pushing boundaries and thinking outside the box. That’s what I find most frustrating. They want you to think outside the box but within their box. I’m not big on the aspect of fashion where people are following things just because it is. I’d really love for Australians in particular to be a little bit more discerning about what they themselves like and have the confidence to just throw caution to the wind. If you want to wear purple pants and a yellow hat … I see this really cool girl, she’s always wearing things like that old TV show Little House On The Prairie – long florally, flouncy skirts and she rides this big old push bike around. She just looks so kooky. I love her. Does she care what other people think of her? Nope. I just so love that about people. I really love that.

Whenever I see someone doing their own thing and happy in their own skin, I find them the most inspiring thing in the world.

There is so much about life that is expectation driven. Socially, we’re so bound by rules yet you often hear people talk about freedom and amnesty, and I think, we are so imprisoned. We imprison ourselves. It really is crazy. Like, I’m big on euthanasia. I think if you want to end your life, if you are terminally ill, I mean for God’s sake … If it doesn’t affect other people and you can still be a happy person who can achieve positive things, I think take all the drugs you want to take. Skip down the middle of the street if it’s safe, whatever. There’re just so many rules to protect people from hurting themselves. We are heading for the Star Trek scenario where there is one energy supplier, one supermarket, one type of clothing … one of everything. We’ll end up in this communist-type environment where everyone is the same and there will be no need to fight because you have the same house that I have and you wear the same shoes that I wear and we all go to work and get paid the same. I sound so extreme saying all these things (laughs). We can look at the supermarkets in Australia and we’ve really only got two major players. Even in the optical industry there’s one Italian company that owns about 50 per cent of all optical and sunglass retail outlets in Australia. They’re manufacturers, licensees, distributors, retailers and everything, so all the brands that they license and produce themselves are secured a place in retail by purchasing retail space. That means there is no chance that I can sell my product to instantly 50 per cent of retailers. Then there is a whole other bunch of discount groups, so that’s another 40 per cent gone. I just think, what opportunities will there be for my child to become a designer, to create things herself? If somebody wanted to start a car company, it would just be impossible. New business is all about innovation and being avant-garde and you’re in a very small part of the market because the other 95 per cent is controlled by the big industry who have the marketing dollars and the distribution base and they will not let anyone in. I find that disheartening, that those sorts of opportunities are going to be diminished. I feel that Marco and I are one of a last generation to have an idea and want to make it and sell it ourselves and hopefully one day be a successful, big company. I’m quite affected by the limited opportunities. We aren’t able to protect our local businesses more; our farmers are being affected now because we’re importing so much more food and vegetables. I think around the time I started studying Industrial Design, the manufacturing industry in Australia was just being cut. Even as an Industrial Designer, how many companies can you go and work for? Who is making anything here? I encourage my daughter that she can do anything she wants, not only as a female but anything she wants she can achieve. I really wonder, when she is 20 years old and struggling to find a job or start something, how valuable that lesson would have been or just more torturous. I think she will find it hard, you know, ‘I thought I could do anything.’

But Mum you told me!

Yeah. We’ve taken a very macabre turn … I’ve talked your pants off! I just really do believe that if Gucci can do it, I can do it. Why not me or why not my daughter or why not you? A lot of people have said that I’m in the toughest part of the industry. Not only is it fashion-related but it’s sunglasses – it’s seasonal. Optical frames can stay around for three or four years, but my designs have got to change every year, for a six month period. But I am adamant. If Gucci can start off selling saddles, then why not?

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Fernando Barazza

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