Alumni Spotlight: Casey Klugman (BFA '14)
If you’ve ever dreamed of starting your own design brand, imagined your senior thesis work having a future outside of Stamps, or wondered how sunglasses are designed and produced, we’re happy to introduce you to Casey Klugman (BFA ’14). After five years working as a designer for Ted Baker, Klugman is about to launch his first collection of sunglasses with his new brand Les Monts. And we’re proud to take a little credit — it all began here at Stamps.
Stamps Professor Rebekah Modrak interviewed Klugman recently to get all the details.
Rebekah: Congratulations on the exciting news that your brand of sunglasses, Les Monts, is about to launch!
Casey: Thanks Rebekah! And thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with you today. I’m so glad we’re finally catching up. It does come at a great time because on April 20th, I’ll be finally launching my own brand of sunglasses. It’s a project that I’ve been working on for at least a year and a half. The name of the brand is Les Monts, and it’s a collection of handmade sunglasses designed and manufactured with an artist’s attention to detail. Aesthetically speaking, the product features rich material, high-gloss finishes, exaggerated frame profiles, and kaleidoscopic lens hues. A single pair of Les Monts sunglasses incorporates over 200 steps and takes nearly half a year to produce. With all of that in mind, the product does fall into the category of wearable art.
That’s remarkable. The design of the sunglasses is beautiful! I’m excited to learn more about them because you first started designing eyewear during your senior IP year in 2013/14. You were reimagining sunglasses through designer Jonathan Chapman’s idea of emotionally durable design. And in your thesis, you described your father passing on a pair of vintage sunglasses to you, realizing that you wanted these sunglasses to live through generations, and understanding that greater sentimental attachment to objects might, ultimately, mean we consume less and waste less.
The sunglasses that my father passed on to me certainly ignited my love for eyewear, but they also ignited a love for handmade products, capable of telling a story. This was a big part of the impetus for my sunglasses collection. The name of the brand, Les Monts, is French word meaning “the mountains.” This was partly inspired by my late grandmother who was born and raised in France. Unfortunately, she passed when I was in eighth grade, before I was able to connect with her on an adult level. So, giving the brand a French name is my way of paying homage to her. The reason I named the brand “the mountains” comes from a bit of a deeper meaning, which I’ll explain as we discuss the inspirations behind the collection.
You’re re-establishing a connection with your grandmother, now as an adult, through this new collection of sunglasses. I love how you’re thinking about the possibility of connecting with loved ones through material objects. Can you describe your path, from your BFA thesis and degree at Stamps to starting Les Monts?
After graduating, I took a job with a sports advertising agency in New York. It was actually a pretty cool job. The company I worked for at the time shot commercials for ESPN and things of that nature, and I got to be on set – which I loved. At the time, I wasn’t looking for new job opportunities. But, as you mentioned, I did my thesis on the subject of eyewear with hopes that one day I could design eyewear professionally.
A year into the advertising job, a close friend introduced me to his family friend, Julie, who worked at Tura Inc. Tura Inc. is a large company that designs and distributes eyewear across the U.S. They have a portfolio of brands. Some, they own, and others that they have the licensing and distribution rights for — for example, Ted Baker. Through this mutual connection, I was able to get an interview with Tura Inc., but it was quite informal as they weren’t actively hiring at the time. I brought everything I had related to eyewear, which included a few sketchbooks filled with illustrations, and of course my Stamps senior thesis. I guess the interview went well, because about a week later, somebody in the marketing department resigned, and Tura offered me the position. I was so excited. I wasn’t particularly interested in marketing, but it allowed me to get my foot in the door. I accepted the position – which was based on a mutual understanding that, eventually I wanted to design product.
How long did it take for you to shift into product design?
I was very fortunate to be working for a company that genuinely cared about my interests. Shortly after I was hired, Tura began giving me product development work to take home. So as a new employee, I did marketing during the day and product development at night. But really it was an opportunity for me to show them how interested I was in product design, and that I was willing to prove it. After a year and a half of working in marketing, Tura promoted me to “Product Development Specialist.” It was a full-time product design role, in which I was responsible for designing all Ted Baker sunglasses sold in the retail market in the U.S. But it’s important to note that I was an employee of Tura, not Ted Baker.
Was there a difference between sunglasses at Nordstrom, Nordstrom Rack and other stores?
Not much with regard to quality – but often quite a bit with regard to design. As a designer, it’s all predicated on what it costs you to produce the frame. When designing a frame that I expected to sell at Nordstrom Rack, I had to stay within a particular budget. For example, as long as the frame I was designing cost me less than X dollars, it would eligible to be sold in Nordstrom Rack. Frames sold in Nordstrom have a higher MSRP [“Manufacturer’s suggested retail price” or, in this case, what the sunglasses sold for in Nordstrom]. So, when designing for Nordstrom, my budget was a little bit higher. As a result, I could have more fun with the design. I could use more sophisticated materials, maybe a more complex frame construction, and add some branded hardware. It all works because the customer that’s shopping at Nordstrom might want something a bit more elaborate than the customer who’s shopping at Nordstrom Rack. So that’s the primary difference. The quality is typically comparable.
While you were at Ted Baker, did you focus on that one market the whole time?
I was promoted from “Marketing Coordinator” to “Product Development Specialist” after a year and a half. Once I started the new position, I focused specifically on the design and development of all Ted Baker Men’s & Women’s’ sunglasses sold in U.S. department stores. Sunglasses represented a smaller portion of Tura’s overall business than the optical collections, so retail sunglasses were a good place for me to start. About a year later, I was given full responsibility of the Ted Baker Men’s Optical Collection — in addition to retail sunglasses. This was a big deal for me. Ted Baker as a brand, represented an important part of Tura’s overall business. Between retail sunglasses and the Men’s optical collection, I was now responsible for designing a good chunk of the brand. I worked on these collections for the next two years, until late in 2019 when the company gave me Ted Baker Women’s Optical. I only designed and managed this collection for a year or so, before resigning in October 2020.
Were you able to be promoted quickly because the people in those positions moved on to other ones? How quickly do employees shift around in this business?
In this case, my boss was promoted to less of a product development role and a more of a managerial role. When I was employed, Tura had maybe 15 brands in their portfolio. Let’s say there were five product designers, maybe each of them had 2 – 4 brands they were responsible for. When my boss, who was a product designer, took on a more managerial role, the brands she had been designing for were reallocated to other designers – or Tura would hire another designer.
What was the range of your work like?
Surprisingly, design was maybe only 20% of my job. Some of my other responsibilities included coordinating with Ted Baker in London, sourcing materials, trend research, working with the factories to make sure the product was going to deliver on time, QC’ing the product to make sure the quality met our standard. It was a lot more of a product management role than a design role.
Even as far as design goes, it was more of an engineering job than a design job. Before a factory agrees to produce a frame, you have to sign off on a technical drawing, which basically looks like a blueprint of a pair of glasses. It’s a rendering of the frame you intend to produce, showing all angles, measurements and details of the design. As a designer, it’s my job to look at that technical drawing, and understand how that frame will look and fit once it’s made.
Was it exciting to be able to finally imagine and draw eyewear designs?
One of the biggest misconceptions for me was that I thought I’d be doing a lot of sketching. I was expecting to have time to sketch my ideas and channel my creativity. In Stamps, there was a heavy emphasis on getting your ideas onto paper, really fleshing them out, and expressing creativity. When I was designing for Ted Baker, it was a very fast-paced environment. Between the optical and sun collections, I was designing at least 75 styles to bring to market each year. When you’re responsible for that much volume, you just don’t have the time to sketch out every idea.
If you’re not drawing, how are you communicating your ideas?
My former employer wanted to be sure that our designs would produce sales. And rightfully so. Without sales, there’s no business, and I’d no longer have the privilege of designing for Ted Baker. You have to remember that eyewear is a small object. It’s all measured in millimeters, and it’s symmetrical. So, if you change the eye size by two millimeters on one side, you have to change it by two millimeters on the other side. An extra four millimeters with such a small product can make a pretty dramatic difference. Then maybe you decide to raise the bridge 1 millimeter and tweak the shape of the brow line. All of a sudden you have something that looks totally different from what you started with. This is a process we relied on to quickly develop new designs and to maximize our efficiency. It allowed us to develop new product that we were confident would sell.
At Tura, we were taught to design within a merchandising pyramid. If you think of each collection as a pyramid divided into three sections, the bottom of the pyramid is the largest section. That represents the mainstream product in the collection. These styles are fairly simple, nothing fancy. They’re your bread-and-butter styles and you’re banking on them to sell. These styles represented the largest part of the collection.
Since the middle section of the pyramid is a little smaller than the bottom section, it represents a smaller portion of the collection. In this section, you can have a little more fun with the design. You’ll have less of these styles in the collection than the mainstream styles, but they’re important because they allow you to work in some creativity and innovation.
Finally, at the top of the pyramid are your editorial styles. You may have just a couple of these styles in the collection. They’re your most innovative concepts. They’re the most fun to design, but they’re typically harder to sell. Regardless, they serve an important purpose in the collection. These are your “wow” factor frames.
By using a merchandising pyramid, you can develop a balanced collection that reaches the entire spectrum of consumers. It’s an important exercise, but generally speaking, I think there are always creative limitations when designing for another brand. Ultimately, it’s never going to be your complete artistic vision. It’s your job as a designer to understand the artistic vision of, in this case, Ted Baker, and then design congruently within their parameters. I was always aware of this. I knew that, ultimately, I wanted to one day launch my own brand and execute my own vision. So, it was important for me to stay the course for as long as I needed, knowing that the experience would provide me with all the tools to do this. Along the way I got great experience designing products that would be sold in Nordstrom, Nordstrom Rack, and in many other stores throughout the country.
Were you making technical drawings like this for your BFA thesis in Stamps?
Not exactly. Although, for my thesis I was 3D modeling my illustrations in Rhino, prior to 3D printing them. My professional work has never required me to create these technical drawings. Each factory employs technicians who use a special software to create these renderings. I may send the factory a concept to start with, for example a sketch. Or I might send them a technical drawing of a frame that already exists in the collection and say, “We’re going to change the construction. We’re going to change the eye size, bridge size etc.” The factory will then implement those changes in the technical drawing and return it to me for approval. At that point, I may have some fine-tuning comments before approving the drawing for production. It’s very much an engineering job. Not much of my educational experience would have prepared me for that. When I began the job, I assumed that it was going to be far more design than engineering, but I think a good eyewear designer needs to have a good feel for both.
How did you learn all of the engineering skills on the job? Were your employers open to you asking questions?
Yeah, that’s the only way to do it. You just have to keep practicing the craft and asking lots of questions. I was very close with my co-workers, many of whom had been designing eyewear for a long time. Luckily, I could always bounce ideas off them, or get a second pair of eyes. Until after a while, I began picking up on the nuance of eyewear design myself. For example, when I started out, I would have never known that round glasses are typically produced in smaller eye sizes than square, rectangular, or other shaped glasses. That’s just how round frames best fit the human face. If you produce a round frame in the same size as you would a square frame, the glasses will end up looking oversized. There are little nuances like that. It’s impossible to know these things until you’ve spoken to people who have that knowledge, or you’ve done it over and over, OR you’ve received samples that look horrible because you didn’t know. When you’re new to something, you want to be in an environment where people care about your improvement. There was a wealth of knowledge around me at Tura, and people who wanted me to grow as a designer. I’ll always be very appreciative of those who helped me learn and grow during my time with the company.
When you walk around New York City and see people wearing glasses, do you notice that they’re wearing the wrong frame for their face or the wrong size?
It’s funny because I always notice the design, but rarely do I consider whether they’re wearing the right or wrong frame. I guess that speaks to the fact that I’ve always identified more as a designer than an engineer, but either way I’m staring and it’s a horrible habit. I am curious to see what people are wearing — the color, shape, design, brand. As a designer, it’s important to have your finger on the pulse of those things. There have been a couple really cool moments when I’d be on the subway and would see somebody wearing one of the frames I designed. That’s an awesome feeling.
As you were designing for Ted Baker, or Tura, how did your BFA thesis and your own visions for eyewear factor in?
The Stamps art school had encouraged me to think dynamically and to problem-solve abstractly. And I was excited to apply those skills to my work experience, but didn’t always have a chance to while designing for Tura. So, eventually, I decided I needed an outlet — a way to continue channeling some of that abstract thinking. Almost every night after work, I’d go home and work on creating my own eyewear brand. At the time, it was nothing more than a hobby and a creative outlet. But I did take it seriously. I developed a brand, logo, and products that I wanted to be perceived as “artform” even more so than “object.” I was very fortunate to work with some extremely bright people at Tura, who gave me the tools to, ultimately, take this hobby and make it into something real.
When did you shift from designing as a creative outlet to the very real fact of launching your own eyewear brand?
In April of 2020, Tura, along with many other businesses, faced a difficult reality in the wake of the pandemic: they could end up having to go months without sales. As a result, almost the entire design team at Tura was furloughed. When that happened, I picked up my hobby, which was my mock eyewear brand, and started to take it more seriously. I’d say “Alright, what would it cost me to start this business? What licenses do I need to apply for? Do I need to form an LLC? Which factory would I produce with?” It was thrilling to be asking myself those serious questions.
I was asked to come back to work towards the end of June 2020. But by that time, I was so inspired by the challenge of turning my hobby into a job, my heart was no longer into designing for Ted Baker. At this point, I felt like my project was in a good place and it was time to go for it. I spoke to friends and family to make sure that the people I put my trust in supported the decision. Everybody said, “Go for it.” On the surface it seemed like a risky endeavor, but there’s so much value and experience to be gained by trying something like this. It was going to be a first-rate educational experience at the minimum. So, I resigned from Tura in October 2020 and was ready to roll up my sleeves.
Were there any surprises or challenges when you started?
The first few months on my own were difficult. At my old job, I’d go into work with a list of tasks that I needed to get done in a given day; a list that was often predicated by my boss. I’d cross things off the list as I went through the day, and leave work feeling a sense of accomplishment, and productivity.
When I was on my own, that list was no longer predicated by my boss. It was incumbent on me to outline my goals and daily responsibilities. It took time to understand just how disciplined I’d have to be. I’d have to set goals by the day, by the week, by the month, and by the year. But once I did that, I was able to get into a rhythm and start feeling that sense of accomplishment again. For me, that’s a feeling I need each day to stay motivated.
What’s your design sensibility for the brand and the collection?
In addition to paying homage to my grandmother, the brand is geared towards creative individuals who add vibrance to everyday life. If you think of the world as a black-and-white coloring book, these are the people who color it in — making it a world worth living. Perhaps they write a song that moves you to tears, or design a building that changes your expectations of what a building should look like. To me, these are very important contributions to everyday life, and I wanted to create a brand that honors these contributors. Les Monts, “the mountains,” is symbolic of the uphill journey these fearless creatives — any many others — must endure as they find their footing and ultimately make their mark in the world.
From a design standpoint, I wanted to create something I was proud of. As we touched on earlier, there are limitations when you’re designing for another brand. Ted Baker already had a handful of signature details. It was my job to decide when and where to implement those details, but what I really wanted to do was to create my own set of signature details. That’s part of what makes a brand “yours.” Les Monts sunglasses have several signature details that you won’t find in any other brand.
I’ve also always wanted to work with thicker acetate. While that’s not a signature detail per say, it does give Les Monts a bit of a signature aesthetic. Thicker acetate is more expensive, but it affords you the opportunity to take a more artistic approach to design. I think of acetate in the same way I would a piece of marble. If you have a very thin slab of marble, you’re limited as to how you can sculpt it — your sculpture probably won’t have much dimension. But, if that slab is double or triple the thickness, suddenly you have more material to manipulate. The dimension of your sculpture will be more dramatic, and potentially more interesting. Acetate as it pertains to constructing a pair of glasses is similar in some respects.
You prefer to work with cellulose acetate, which sounded like a plasticky material when you first told me about it, even though you describe it as handmade. I looked it up and learned that it’s a natural compound from wood pulp and cotton.
That’s right. Cellulose acetate is regarded as the highest quality plastic you can use when it comes to producing plastic eyewear. The other option is “injection plastic,” which is exactly what it sounds like. With injection, you have a mold in the shape of a frame. Liquid plastic is injected into that mold. It comes out in a few minutes, you slap a logo on it, and it goes to the store. Injection is convenient. It can cost $5.00 or less to produce a pair of sunglasses. But there are significant drawbacks from a quality standpoint. Injection frames not adjustable and the material can’t be manipulated after it’s cooled.
I love handmade goods. I love the fact that they’re enriched by the human touch, so injection never made sense as a material for me. Cellulose acetate is a sustainable, high-quality, handmade material. Manufacturers have been working for generations to perfect these beautiful slabs of rich material, which can take several months to cure after they’re made. Producing eyewear from cellulose acetate is a far more hands-on process than injection. It’s truly a magnificent material to work with.
You also have several options when it comes to making metal frames. You can use nickel silver, stainless steel, or if you’re producing a high-end collection, you might choose to work with titanium. Titanium is completely hypoallergenic, highly flexible and extremely durable. But more than anything, it’s known for its featherweight properties which provide optimal comfort. It’s more expensive to work with titanium than it is other metals, but if we’re talking about comfort and quality — in my opinion, the price tag is warranted.
How do you start your design process?
When you’re designing a cohesive collection, many of your designs are going to have the same, or similar, details. This is important because that thread of consistency makes the collection recognizable. The frame shapes may change dramatically from one to another, but those signature details make it so each frame feels a part of the same family. So, I first studied how other brands utilize signature details, and what types of signature details they use. Then, I created my own version of signature details for Les Monts.
To give you an example. This is called the “temple tip.”
In Les Monts, the shape of the temple tip is a signature detail of the brand. It represents mountain ridges, a nice parallel to the name Les Monts. This specific temple tip shape is not something that you’ll see in any other brand.
Next, I developed a custom hinge for my brand. Aesthetically, it’s similar to the tip shape, but it’s a completely unique detail that you will not find in any other brand.
For Les Monts, there’s a very heavy emphasis on craftsmanship and the handmade process. It can take five or six months and a couple hundred steps to execute the complex design of my frames. During this time, each pair passes through the hands of several artisans who have been perfecting their craft for decades. This idea of wearable art object certainly lends itself to a niche market, but that’s what I’ve always been interested in.
What’s the economic side of this?
Generally speaking, the more detail you put into a frame, the more it’s going to cost you to produce it. Which means you have to sell it for more than you would a very simple frame. When it comes to the economic side of product development, I think it filters into two philosophies or schools of thought, more or less.
The first would be a process that is very common in corporate fashion. This process consists of designing a product and then stripping it down or using substitute materials, in an effort to increase or meet margin. For some companies there’s nothing wrong with this method. At the end of the day, you need to meet margin in order to stay in business. I just always hated watering down the elements of a design that made it special.
The other school of thought is the approach I’m taking with my own brand. I have a vision for a very special object, which ultimately takes a lot of expertise to produce. It’s also more expensive to produce than frames I’ve made in the past. But I am not willing to water down that vision. So, I communicate to my factory, “This is the product I want to make. These are the details; these are the materials I want to use. Let me know how much it will cost to produce a pair, and I’ll figure out what I need to sell it for.” I think if you believe in your product, this is an approach that makes sense. At the end of the day, you want to bring your ideas to life. You don’t want to bring 50% of your ideas to life.
So the sunglasses are more like art objects?
Absolutely, that’s the type of product I’ve tried to create. Every frame is handmade by experienced craftsmen in Northern Italy. It takes several months for each pair to be produced. It’s a limited-edition collection, so nothing is mass-produced. I make, at most, 100 pairs of a color before it’s discontinued. But what I like most about the collection is that while I’m creating something with exceptional quality, Les Monts products will always be imperfect. No two pairs are exactly the same. That’s what you get with handmade goods. And while it’s virtually impossible to notice those subtle imperfections, they exist in every frame, because they’re made by hand. And there’s something about that which I’m attracted to.
It’s not a philosophy we necessarily subscribed to at my former employer. But it’s part of what I loved about my thesis — that people have a connection to the object and it resonates with them, as my dad’s vintage sunglasses did with me.
Where can we purchase them?
Les Monts launches on April 20, 2022. That’s when I’ll begin accepting pre-orders. Pre-orders will last until May 20th, at which point pre-orders will be fulfilled, and orders will begin shipping on a standard schedule. Initially, Les Monts sunglasses will be available exclusively through the website. I’ve started to contact some boutiques, who I hope will consider carrying the collection, so I’ll keep you updated there!
And each sale contributes to mental health awareness?
This is one of the most exciting parts of the project for me. I’ve partnered with Mental Health America, the nation’s leading nonprofit mental health organization, and will be donating a portion of annual revenue to the organization in support of their continued efforts to promote mental health for all. Through this initiative, Les Monts also hopes to generate conversation on the subject of mental health, and to destigmatize the subject as a whole. Although, I think today people are more comfortable talking about mental health than ever before, which is fantastic. But there have been many people throughout my life — people who are quite important to me: friends, family, mentors — who have at times struggled to be in the best headspace. There have been times when I haven’t been in the best headspace. Mental health conditions are extremely prevalent. If you haven’t experienced a mental health challenge yourself, chances are somebody you care about has. This initiative is my way of giving back.
If we can jump back to your time here at Stamps, how do you recall your time here?
I didn’t have the easiest time in art school. In fact, I rarely got grades that I was proud of. I think my proudest moment throughout the experience was my senior thesis. Initially, I had no idea what I wanted to do for my thesis. I had a sketchbook filled with illustrations of sunglasses, but that’s all they were: illustrations. Then someone said, “Why don’t you bring those illustrations to life?” I remember not knowing what that meant. In the moment, it was hard to fathom that could mean “physically make the sunglasses” because I didn’t know where to begin. But that’s what it did mean. Luckily, the resources at the art school are truly unbelievable — I hope students take advantage of them as much today. So, I enrolled in a class that taught Rhino during my first semester senior year and learned how to 3D model a 2D rendering. From there, I was able to send my 3D renderings to a 3D printer to have them fabricated.
At the time, I didn’t know if my thesis would have any bearing on my professional career. But there’s a great quote by Steve Jobs that says “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” It means that while we all hope our actions today will yield the results we want tomorrow, the truth is you can only answer that question in retrospect.
It’s so true. I really believe that much of learning happens in retrospect, after time passes and we reflect back on what we learned. You were part of former Dean Bryan Rogers’ foundation program, which had many more conceptual classes in the first two years.
The way the art school trained me to think about things was so valuable. I learned to think more abstractly. Not just, “Is this going to be practical?” but to think more outside the box. I think that’s where great ideas come from.
For my senior thesis, I 3D-printed several pairs of sunglasses from my sketchbook — one for each of the individuals I lived with during my senior year. The idea was that each frame had a story to tell about the wearer. Each frame also had a compartment where the wearer could insert a memento as a way of keeping a specific memory close to their mind. For example, one frame that I designed for a friend contained dirt from the Polish forest where his grandfather hid during World War II. As you can imagine, this was a very abstract concept for most of the companies I interviewed with after I graduated. But some were able to see past that abstractness and appreciate the thought that goes into a concept like that. I think what I got most from the art school is a way to think about things differently, and that is so important. Fast forward to today, and I see that parts of my senior thesis have informed the story of Les Monts. Letting your ideas evolve is really important. In my experience, rigidity is often the enemy of creativity.
A nice reminder to our students. The other aspect of your senior thesis that was remarkable at the time and even more in seeing what you accomplished after graduating, is that your thesis advisors, Professor Michael Rodemer and myself, had no expertise in eyewear. Michael is knowledgeable about craft. And I could advise about the psychology of objects and our attachments. But you learned so much on your own.
I was extremely fortunate to have you and Michael as my thesis advisors. I had a lot to learn on my own, but what I learned from you and Michael was more valuable than what I could have learned from say, a professor with expertise in 3D printing. You both helped me understand the importance of emotional durable design and how to tell a story through my creations. That’s branding 101. I’m not sure you can have a successful product without understanding the story it wants to tell. And, while you were always generous with your time and thoughtful with your insights, I never felt as though you and Michael held my hand throughout the process. There were plenty of healthy moments of “I have no idea what I’m doing,” and I appreciate you allowing me to learn through my mistakes. I discovered the value that exists in failing. But I also discovered that I crave a challenge. That was true throughout my thesis, and it’s been true in bringing Les Monts to market. Learn by doing and value the process.
Fall 2022 Update: According to Casey, the launch went well, and exceeded his expectations. He is continuing to build awareness of Les Monts, and launching new styles including some that were highlighted recently in Luxury Travel Magazine. You can follow Casey’s journey through the Les Monts website.