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MARIE WILKINSON

MARIE WILKINSON

Cutler and Gross is a strong force in eyewear design and exquisite quality. Each pair of Cutler and Gross sunglasses or optical frames is entirely handmade and, from design to production, follows 42 steps that have been set in place since the first pair was handcrafted in 1969.
Today, the creative mind behind Cutler and Gross is Design Director Marie Wilkinson, who joined the company in 1982 as an apprentice under Mr. Cutler and Mr. Gross. She’s the mastermind that balances the heritage of Cutler and Gross with today’s hottest trends.
We recently caught up with Marie and talked about the state of the independent eyewear industry, the secret behind the perfect frames, girl power and her ultimate London’s guide.

How did you fall in love with eyewear? How did it all start?

I WAS A HUGE Peanuts fan when I was a teenager and I loved the transformative effect sunglasses had on Snoopy, for when he wore the super dark sunglasses he became Joe Cool.

At the time I was working as a Saturday girl for Ernest Barber, a highly regarded optometrist in Essex, who saved me from filing record cards and encouraged me to see interesting cases in his eye examinations.
He imported French frames and Skaga from Sweden and I noted the way he recommended a frame and led the choice of glasses for each client.
I went to City and East London College to study frame making and dispensing. A friend had interviewed for a pre-registration post with Tony Gross and told me that ‘Cutler and Gross’ ‘are very eccentric and have their own frame maker and sheets of colored Perspex lining the walls of the workshop which you would love’ and sure enough, when we met, Tony Gross declared that he was busy and he needed to hire an optician but did not like opticians as he did not consider them creative enough and I said that I wanted to make glasses and not be a shop manager, and there and then we decided we were made for each other.

Tony Gross and Graham Cutler

The first time Tony Gross showed his sunglass collection in Paris, he was so busy, he called the shop and asked me to take the first flight out to Charles de Gaulle and meet the most illustrious fashion buyers from Barneys New York, Browns, Beams, Joyce Boutique and Joseph - it opened my eyes to the world of retail fashion and to skills required to select fashion that people will want to wear.

Last year you celebrated 35 years since you started working at Cutler and Gross. What would you say has been your biggest challenge? What has been your greatest victory?

Keeping all the plates spinning without dropping any!

Seriously, I wanted to share the genuine joy I felt when I wore my first pair of glasses (oval tortoiseshell) at the age of 8 years, of experiencing the world in a new way and of how people’s perception of me changed.
When I arrived at Cutler and Gross, I discovered that Tony Gross and Graham Cutler had already paved the way for a revolution in eyewear, where their clients were excited to buy and collect glasses that were a statement of their own style and taste.
The biggest challenge was when I first arrived at the shop and found that none of the clients would let me assist them - they were fiercely loyal to Mr. Cutler and Mr. Gross and would not countenance an upstart like me! I needed to find a way to make my mark and I asked the frame maker George Smith, who was making fabulous oversized frames in Perspex to teach me how to adjust these challenging glasses to fit the clients perfectly and back then this was done using a Bunsen burner. I became extremely adept at adjusting frames and soon the clients were asking for me.I do feel that I have a special responsibility as a link between the founders and the team (now of 100 people in our factory and shops worldwide) to share the stories and promote the special spirit of Cutler and Gross to a new audience.

How is working in fashion different today than from when you started out?

Certainly there are many more eyewear designers now than there were in 80’s and in this way our clients are more informed and have a great appetite for new designs so I feel like I have a new job and rigour each day.

What is the philosophy behind this brand? And what are the main qualities of a pair of Cutler and Gross eyewear?

Graham Cutler and Tony Gross met at optometry school and immediately created a formidable duo in 1969. They boldly introduced the idea of eyewear as a fashion accessory infused with glamour and creative aesthetic at a time when optical frames had a purely medical function.

The main qualities are timeless style and craftsmanship. The design principles are honesty and integrity combined with certain sex appeal.
Mr. Gross says: “People who wear glasses should not feel separated from glamour.”
Mr. Cutler says: “If you buy a handcrafted pair of glasses or sunglasses, you want to see the tiny inaccuracies, the straight, raw edges of the plastic, the pins - they give character, make them unique to the wearer. The Cutler and Gross customer has always been an individual. Eccentric maybe, but a rare breed, certainly.”

How does your design process look? Talk to us through process. Do you start with the material or do you do sketches?

We have 2 design teams.
In London we consult the archives and create a mini collection based on style families.
We are very interested in the shapes, the context in which they will be worn and the colours.
From here we will connect with the Cutler and Gross team based in Italy and create sketches that are further refined into technical drawings and 3D renders.
Colours are next – and we look at the latest coloured acetates and metal finishes as well as creating new colour samples, unique to us.
Our ‘infamous’ names are often born at this point - humble potato, granny chic and sweetpea.
Then comes the production process from where we take the samples and the product stock. So we always have a immaculately finished product to show. In turn, this leads to a seamless ’design to production’ process: the famous 42 step process.

When you say Cutler and Gross you immediately think of London. Is there a special relationship between the brand and the city?

Mr. Cutler and Mr. Gross were habituees of Soho and it was the friendships that they formed here that created the early customer base of artists, musos and designers for their shop in Knightsbridge.
This urban lifestyle has informed the glasses not to camouflage the wearer but to celebrate sartorial style.

National Portrait Gallery, London

London is filled with amazing places to see, delicious foods to eat and quirky spots to find. What’s your ultimate London guide?

Favorite place to eat: St John’s restaurant
Favorite place to enjoy the afternoon tea: the Oscar Wilde Salon at the Café Royal
Favorite place to go dancing: Chelsea Arts Club
Favorite art gallery: National Portrait Gallery (all those faces!)
Favorite fashion boutique: Dover Street market

We've got a challenge for you! In just one word (or maybe two if you struggle) - how would you describe British style?

Ironic.

How would you describe the Cutler and Gross way-of-life?

Collaborating, eating, drinking, laughing.

Opticals are one of your trademarks when it comes to personal style. How do you think wearing glasses can alter one’s entire look and the perception people have on them?

Playful empowerment – where the frame design is 5% nostalgia for the way you might have loved the glasses your mother / father / grandparent / hero wore. And then 95% newness and surprise at how the frame can empower you and emphasize the bravest most beautiful aspect of your face and personality.
I like to experiment wearing different frames and then like a dog owner who resembles their dog (eventually) my hairstyle, clothes integrate and it all comes together.

What’s your golden rule of style?

To be effortless in your style.
I think if you are comfortable in your skin and with your choices then your style will radiate.

How big is your eyewear collection? Describe us some of your favorite pieces.

My collection spans 35 years and I have more than 120 pairs of Cutler and Gross designs, which is like a personal record of my Cutler and Gross career.
1083 Mondrian’ is a special multidimensional piece as it demonstrates the skills at our factory where they made colored landscape in acetate before cutting the frame shape.
The ‘0822’ from 2008 is an optical aviator which inspired the ‘0847’ being designed for Colin Firth as Harry Hart in the Kingsman movies - it reminds me of such a special working relationship with the costume designer Arianne Phillips.
The red ‘Gingham’ sunglasses designed with Rei Kawakubo are very special to me as are the ‘Scoobies’, which we made for Giles Deacon.

'1308' light tinted sunnies

What trend in eyewear are you most excited about this summer?

The Slice (thin frames) - in the acetate version with a 80’s influence; like a sharp Fontana ‘gash’ across the face; my favourite ways of wearing it is in ‘1294’ in ultraviolet as an optical and as a sunglass in model ‘1295’ in black with silver hardware for extra Ramones attitude, and then in ‘1308’ in the Precious collection; Slice with its punk attitude, subverted by being plated in 3 microns of the most luxurious 18-carat gold and made with the latest flat base dalloz lenses with the anti-reflective coating on the outside of the lens to create a colourful clarity.
Oh I could go on....!!!

Cutler and Gross '1295' Culter and Gross '1294'

Who is your ultimate eyewear icon?

Selecta girl - her glasses are integral to her look which is playful and irreverent to me.
The image is a publicity poster from the US brand Selecta which was given to opticians to display in their stores in the late 70’s / early 80’s.
I love this image of this independent girl, like the characters in the movie ‘Working Girl’ she is suited and looking great in her glasses.
I found this poster in the Kurtzenberger vintage shop in Germany when I used to visit with Mr. Gross in the 90’s and it resonated somehow with me as a reminder of a time when I first landed the job of my dreams with the most iconic optician in the whole world.
Tony Gross passed away on 6th March this year and I am so grateful to have worked and known him and to have been encouraged by him and to see the impact he has had on eyewear and people's attitude to eyewear.
I meet many eyewear designers who say they would not have become eyewear designers if it was not for him.

Independent eyewear designers are becoming more and more popular, resonating with more knowledgeable, discerning consumers. What do you think sets them apart from the regular luxury brands?

With independence comes the possibility to choose how your glasses are made and by whom - through our 7 stores we are in touch with our clients. They know we invest in our staff, design and production and that fact that we do not spend money on advertising allowing our quality and reputation to be discovered by the discerning Cutler and Gross Club members.

Cutler and Gross '1301' Cutler and Gross '1270'
Cutler and Gross '1310' Culter and Gross '1298'

Let’s talk about girl power and the influence of female designers. What are the names that have helped to change fashion forever? Women that celebrated their gender while challenging the world around them.

Rei Kawakubo, Vivienne Westwood, Katharine Hamnett, Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Barbara Hulanicki, Stella Mccartney, Phoebe Philo and of course Miuccia Prada.

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