My Card: Aneurin Smith of Nottingham spectacle design company Cosmos Europe
ANEURIN Smith would be the first to admit that the grey alleyway leading to his spectacle business in West Bridgford could benefit from a spruce-up.
Yet the unappealing approach makes the entry into his office and showroom all the more startling. Two polished 1960s mopeds flank a huge vintage Playboy poster, while around the walls are the ranks of eyeglasses that Cosmos Europe designs, manufactures and distributes.
It adds up to a company portraying itself as fashion-led and as retro in its design interests as the Vespa and Lambretta that Smith brought back from Vietnam during his world travels.
Smith, 29, set up the business a few years after graduating from Nottingham Trent University with a degree in international relations and global politics. The subject may have been more appropriate to business than Smith thought at the time, since Cosmos Europe is UK-based but has its manufacturing efforts in Asia.
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Although the spectacles are designed in the small West Bridgford office, manufacturing takes place in a factory in China owned by Smith's business partner. The company designs and makes glasses for a range of brands, including Skunk Funk, Kookai, Luke and Fenchurch. Spectacles sold by Liam Gallagher's Pretty Green chain are designed but not made by Smith's people.
Although the company also used to design and supply Asda's economy-priced range of glasses, Zero X, the focus now is very much on pricier, niche products for fashion-conscious buyers.
On the morning we met, there was a buzz of excitement because of a delivery of samples of Cosmos Europe's own new brand, called Varg. Made with titanium frames, these glasses should be in specialised opticians in a month, says Smith.
"They've got low-weight titanium frames and are really strong because they've got no screws at the hinges so have got fewer parts," he says, as a box of samples and a box of cases are delivered and taken upstairs to the business's design studio, Spear Creative.
"The market for these are people aged 25 to 50 and quite creative. The glasses will be selling for £200 to £250 excluding the lenses. We're very excited about it and we're going to be pushing the brand a lot."
It's absolutely crucial to his game that he stays on top of fashion trends and, just like clothing designers, Smith and his small Nottingham team watch fashion blogs, attend catwalk shows and talk endlessly to retailers about what styles of eyewear people are buying.
In spectacles, he says, the current trend is for a chunky retro look. The spectacle design and retail design business, however, is a tough one and not made any easier by the dominance and power of high street chains.
"The industry is growing and it's been said that it is recession-proof," says Smith.
"But in the UK the market is difficult because of Specsavers and some other really big guys."
As a consequence, Smith sees his future, and that of independent spectacle retailers, as being in the design and sale of high-end niche products.
Creating his own brand, Varg, is a means of carving out a bigger space in the niche market and, in future, the emphasis will be on the work of his Spear Creative design house rather than Cosmos Europe. Although the business's annual turnover in the UK, £250,000, is relatively small, there are only three permanent employees.
By contrast, the factory in China employs 400 people and there is another office in Hong Kong. So how did the China connection come about?
Smith himself is half-Chinese, with a Chinese mother and English father. When they split up – his father going to work as a professor in China and his mother heading to Hong Kong – he elected to remain in Nottingham and so was living alone in a flat off Loughborough Road at the age of 16.
"My mum supported me with the basics," he says. "It was very much a case of living on Pot Noodles and microwave chips at the time."
After university, he came into some inheritance that allowed him to buy a couple of houses, develop them and rent them out. That provided some income.
But he also spent a lot time at his uncle's spectacle factory in China and was asked if he would become its marketing man in the UK. When the job didn't work out, he decided to set up his own design business in Nottingham with two friends. That was the start of Cosmos Europe and Smith says that the business will remain based in Nottingham.
"The city is quite good for our industry," he says. "We've got Boots, Specsavers, Vision Express, Mondottica, which makes glasses for Ted Baker, Pepe Jeans and Converse and others, and ourselves. It's also easy for us to pop into Pretty Green because they're just in town."
As for those gorgeous mopeds: Smith rode them when he was travelling in Vietnam and liked them so much that he bought them. They still work, but require some maintenance.
"My wife told me to sell them so I put them in the showroom instead," he says.
"They do have a connection to one of our design studio's principles, which is classic 60s design."