By Gloria Nicola
David Spencer wears SERAPHIN Garfield from Ogi Eyewear • Photographed by Phil Windyk
David Spencer, founder of Minneapolis-based Ogi Eyewear, loves design and loves eyewear. “I was born into the business,” he says. “My dad was an OD for more than 50 years. I grew up in his practice in downtown St. Paul and I couldn’t have designed a better role model. He taught my two older brothers and me how to use lensometers by the time we were seven.”
In 1984, Spencer entered the retail segment of the eyewear business, opening Specs, an optical shop in Minneapolis. He sold primarily high-end product such as l.a. Eyeworks, Robert La Roche and Alain Mikli. “But then I started getting younger customers, 15 and 16 year olds, for example, who didn’t want to spend $300 on frames, so I began exploring, looking for suitable product for that niche,” Spencer explains. “Not finding what I wanted, I designed some styles myself. To reach a wider audience, he would hang a “gone fishing” sign on the door of his shop and make cold calls to his competition. It didn’t take him long to learn that his competitors wanted what he had to sell.
In 1997, Spencer left Specs to establish Ogi Eyewear. The name Ogi came from Spencer’s son Braden, now a teenager, who would say “ogi ogi ogi” to prompt his parents to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Spencer laughs and says Braden speaks a lot more clearly today. To break into the national market, Spencer started scanning the Sunday newspapers, then would fly to the cities with the lowest airfares and start knocking on doors. The strategy worked.
In the early years, Ogi was a one-man operation. “I was the designer, shipper and phone answerer,” he says. “I didn’t even have a table, so I used to ship on my knees.” Then things took off, becoming more than he could handle. “Eventually I realized I couldn’t both design and run the company without running either myself or the company into the ground.” So seven years ago Spencer took on two partners: Robert Rich as CEO and Dan Lieberman as president. “It was a smart move and I think it’s interesting that Rob, Dan and I are all sons of optometrists. Another smart move was bringing in Joseph Tallier in 2008 as vice president of global sales. [At press time Tallier had just been named equity partner]. Taking on these partners has been a perfect marriage, giving me the time and freedom to design, which is what I’m best at,” Spencer notes.
Even during the recent economic downturn, Spencer has seen growth in his business. “It has been mind blowing. When things are working right optical is an amazing business. We have had a nice run all along. But I’m enjoying it more now than ever. I’m very motivated,” he says.
Spencer attributes his success in large part to maintaining his original philosophy of good quality and good design at a good price. “Even when we entered the luxury market last year with our Seraphin Collection, we launched it in the tradition of affordable luxury with quintessential vintage styling,” Spencer explains. “It works as well now as it did in 1997.”
Spencer describes his designs as naturally simple and pure. “I don’t junk things up with extra decoration,” he says. “My shapes are classic with a splash of color.” Bold colors have always been a signature of Ogi Eyewear. But he uses those colors carefully. Tortoise frames might have lime green on the back, or a frame with a gunmetal front might have hot pink on the temples. Spencer’s favorite frame color, not surprisingly, is tortoise, often paired with green, pink or purple. ”I’ve done green and tortoise many, many times,” he notes. “But fairly recently I’ve started combining tortoise with pink.”
In regard to inspiration for his creations, Spencer says, “I design every day. I don’t wait for inspiration. I still use pencil and paper. I just start drawing and let the pencil and my imagination determine where I will go—whether it be big, small, metal, plastic, sun or ophthalmic.” When he does need inspiration, however, he goes furniture shopping and also checks out industrial design. “For example, I study how bridges are constructed. I have a couple of books on bridges that I turn to. I think it’s important to know how things are made,” he explains. “Also I study faces. I frequently think of a particular face and try something that would be suitable for a narrow nose, high cheek bones, etc. But a design often looks one way on paper and different on a specific face.”
His design philosophy, in general, he says leans toward relatively simple, angular designs. “My customers are looking for a little edge without going too far out.
“I like clean Scandinavian style with an American slant,” he explains. “Even when the trend moved toward over designing and lots of decorative details, I stayed with my formula. And it works. It’s a little more classic so it holds up over the long run.”
Another source of inspiration and also of interest to Spencer is watches, which he started designing eight years ago. “My favorite part of getting dressed is picking the right watch,” he notes. Spencer originally used acetate for the watches, but found it was more cost effective to work with metal. “I’m always looking for the perfect combination of Skagen and Swatch watches,” he comments. “I like the classic, clean design of Skagen combined with the colors of Swatch.”
Although Ogi’s roots are in smaller designs, the customer base has expanded into a larger demographic group. As a result, the company has introduced a wider range of sizes and deeper, more progressive friendly frames for added versatility. And now the trend in frame sizes is going larger, Spencer says, taking its direction from the 1970s. “I think frames are becoming more like the first pair of frames I wore. It was a large, plastic, double-bridge pilot shape that typified the late ’70s. We’re currently working on a sunglass version of that style,” he notes. “Fortunately my formula works whatever the size. I just add my own twist.”
If he were not creating eyewear and watches, Spencer would like to design clothes. “I have actually thought about designing socks and underwear. I would follow the same philosophy that I use with glasses and watches… classic styles with a simple twist.” ■