Second Sight

Updated: 2013-04-07 07:45

By Rebecca Lo (China Daily)

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Second Sight

The products in Vintage Glasses are displayed for nostalgic appeal. Rebecca Lo / for China Daily

Paul Lai believes that groovy spectacles allow their wearers to assume different identities. Rebecca Lo discovers that his Vintage Glasses are supplied to a client list that includes celebrities such as Zhang Ziyi and Andy Lau.

One evening last year, I walked from an appointment in Hung Hom to meet some friends for dinner in Tsim Sha Tsui. Along the way, I passed a small shop with a simple yet striking glass front that showcased some of the most distinctive glasses I have ever come across. After being advised that the wire-rimmed spectacles I admired were over a hundred years old and not for sale, I found a pair called Rachel that I immediately coveted.

They featured a built-in nose rest and the wide plastic lenses were framed in a fine granite pattern. A row of left facing swastika made up a decorative silver band along the earpieces - which I learned was one of Vintage Glasses' signatures.

Another detail was its double set of vertical screws to connect the earpiece to the frame. Trying them on, I felt like a completely different person.

Paul Lai grew up with two grand passions: films and glasses. The Hong Kong native loved that artists and actors wear funky spectacles that are more fashion statements than for correcting vision.

In his favorite movies, glasses become an intrinsic part of the character that actors portrayed. Clark Kent, anyone?

After leaving school, Lai lived for a few years in Tokyo and began to collect glasses that caught his eye from the wide selection available in Japan.

He gravitated toward antique, contemporary and cool shades with beautiful details and craftsmanship.

Though he got a day job when he returned to Hong Kong, he began to hawk glasses in front of trendy local boutiques featuring up and coming designers in Tsim Sha Tsui in the evenings. Lai was 18 years old and it was 1996.

"I made a 3-by-3-foot cart out of wood to display my glasses," recalls Lai.

Lai's cart can be easily opened and closed. It had wheels to facilitate quick escapes from occasional crackdowns by the cops. He found that after awhile, the boutiques themselves were his best and most reliable customers, as they dressed up their mannequins with his glasses.

Many shop owners gave him a break and sold his glasses on consignment, finding that their style suited the trendy apparel they were offering.

Lai finally ditched his cart after one too many arrests and began going door to door with suitcases full of glasses. He was one of the first to break into D-Mop and I.T. when those brands were still up and coming.

"I wasn't afraid to enter any boutique, no matter how fancy, to sell my glasses. And I was lucky: A lot of times, the owners were there and were willing to look at my products," Lai acknowledges, chilling out in the sixth generation of Vintage Glasses' retail space, a small shop in a nondescript building in Tsim Sha Tsui where his father operates a sushi restaurant downstairs.

His dog Yazoo keeps a steady watch, and there are just as many memorabilia to films and celebrities as there are glasses on display. A large chandelier dominates the room, and display cases include antique cabinets and handmade furnishings.

Lai sources his products from Japan, Italy and England mainly. He will often find collectibles while on holidays in flea markets.

Initially, he went to shops and sought out people about to retire so that he can buy their entire collection of eyewear.

Then he began to go directly to their factories and began producing his own label, Vintage Glasses, in different manufacturing facilities across Guangdong province, Japan and southern Vietnam.

His glasses are limited editions, with 100 being maximum quantity produced for any particular style, with prices ranging from HK$500 to HK$10,000 ($65-1,300) for a pair.

He enjoys working on special projects such as commemorative editions of spectacles worn by legendary musicians such as Kurt Cobain and John Lennon. "I love dreaming up these types of projects to remember and pay homage to my favorite artists," Lai says.

His shop is set up more like a showroom, with hundreds of models on display. He carries Linda Farrow's collection, perhaps best known for a whimsical black flip-up Mickey Mouse sunglasses design sported by Lady Gaga.

Lai counts actress Zhang Ziyi as a customer, and sold her more than 20 pairs of glasses and sunglasses when she was in town in a private sale.

In addition, he has worked closely with the Hong Kong film industry over the years supplying props for movies such as the upcoming Blind Detective starring Andy Lau.

"The glasses are an integral part of his character, since he is blind in the movie," notes Lai. The actor has become a big fan of Vintage Glasses, and can often be seen sporting Lai's products off the set.

Eason Chan's circular black specs made famous in his 2010 concert in Macao were also supplied by Vintage Glasses. For the 30th edition of the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2011, Lai worked with the organizers on a campaign to outfit leading filmmakers and stars in custom-designed black and bronze glasses.

"My customers can be roughly divided into two categories: The very fashion conscious and vintage glasses collectors," says Lai.

Recent trends include thick plastic frames with metal trim along the earpiece and nose piece. As Lai enjoys strong relationships with his factories, he is able to produce very low quantities and entertain unusual requests or custom designs.

"Collectors tend to be older and may not wear them but will seek me out every once in a while to see what new products I have. My best sellers are labels that have a lot of history - and those are the products that I love personally. If you're looking for Dior or Gucci, then you're looking in the wrong place."

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