State Optical takes aim at Warby Parker with Chicago-branded glasses made in the USA

Key Points
  • State Optical is a start-up that touts its Chicago roots with luxury glasses manufactured in the U.S.A.
  • The frames retail for $320 to $420.
Nastia11 | Getty Images

A Chicago start-up wants to ride the trendy eye-wear movement — with luxury spectacles designed and assembled in the U.S.A.

State Optical, co-founded by Scott Shapiro, Jerry Wolowicz, Marc Franchi and Jason Stanley, launched in early 2016 to tap into what they saw as a growing demand for domestic products.

"We thought the market was different than it was 20 years ago, not because of patriotism, but because of craft culture and the craft movement," CEO Shapiro told CNBC.

Smartly dressed with a pair of his own State frames in gray, Shapiro said the company set up in Chicago to tell an authentic brand story. The brand heavily promotes the city's iconography, and features the Chicago skyline on its presentation boxes.

"Chicago fits the unique balance of fashion and sophistication and blue collar," said Shapiro. "It's about the work and it's about the craft."

Source: Nitram242 | Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, frame designs are all named after streets in Chicago, such as Armitage and Ravenswood. Each frame has 21 precision drilled holes set in the temples, a homage to Illinois being the 21st state of America.

The frames, which retail for $320 to $420, bear a "Made in the USA" stamp on the inside.

While some of the materials are still sourced from overseas (Italian acetate and hinges from Germany), all the manufacturing is done in the U.S.

According to Shapiro, that created some difficulties: Many American craftsmen had not seen a frame being made before. "Fundamentally it's going to be more difficult and expensive to manufacture in the U.S.," said Shapiro. "The cost of labor is higher even now between the U.S. and China."

Still, Shapiro insisted domestic manufacturing gives State an advantage in the quality of its eyewear. By producing the frames in the U.S., Shapiro said, the company can spot quality or production issues and correct them early.

The stakes are high in the fiercely competitive eyewear market, which is expected to grow to nearly $130 billion worldwide as demand increases for prescription eyeglasses. The U.S. market is dominated by Essilor and Luxottica with 19 percent and 13 percent, respectively, according to data from Euromonitor. Earlier this year, the companies announced a merger to consolidate every part of their eyewear manufacturing businesses.

Being an upstart also means needing to develop brand awareness very quickly, experts say, especially if the company hopes to become relevant overseas.

"There are local companies that have large market shares already," said Ayako Homma, senior analyst at Euromonitor International.

Homma said Warby Parker jump-started awareness of its own U.S.-based brand through convenience by letting customers choose several frames online and shipping them to their homes to try before buying.

Shapiro, however, remained optimistic about State.

"We know that most people don't associate 'Made in the U.S.A.' with luxury," said Shapiro. "When [the customers] put that frame on, that almost likely will be the first time they will try on a frame made in the United States."

Correction: An earlier version had an incorrect retail price for the top of the range. It's $420.