Les Monts Doesn't Want to Be Just Another Sunglasses Brand
Ted Baker alumnus and Les Monts founder Casey Klugman talks charting his own path, the importance of giving back, and his thoughts on whether design school can ever really prepare creatives for the rigors of starting their own business.
It’s a rite of passage for designers to strike out on their own after honing their skills in-house at an established brand. For Les Monts founder and creative director Casey Klugman, launching his own eyewear label was top of mind from day one as a design school undergrad. With his love of eyewear ignited by a special pair of vintage specs, Klugman set out to learn everything he thought he needed to know, delving into the ins and outs of the business as the product manager of Ted Baker’s eyewear collection.
With the launch of his own line of artisan-made eyewear earlier this year, Klugman talked with Surface about the unglamorous gig that taught him everything he needed to know about being his own boss, the importance of having his hands and eyes on every single product, and why philanthropy is inextricable from the Les Monts brand.
Your fashion background includes experience as a designer of Ted Baker eyewear. What inspired you to found an independent eyewear brand?
I dreamt of launching my own eyewear collection before I began designing for Ted Baker. When I left to study at the University of Michigan, my dad gifted me a pair of his vintage sunglasses and I fell in love with them. That singular moment galvanized my interest in eyewear. It wasn’t until I began my professional life that I became educated on how eyewear was designed and fabricated. A few months in, I learned only a small portion of my day-to-day responsibilities were design-related. To my disappointment, the job required me to do many of the less glamorous aspects of product management like communicating with the factories, managing my budget, managing the production timeline, quality-controlling the product, and researching other brands. Looking back it was the perfect job for me—it would teach me everything I’d need to know to launch my own collection.
Tell me about what the name, Les Monts, means to you.
I gave the brand a French name (“the mountains” in English) to honor my late grandmother Josette. She was born and raised in France, and sadly passed away before we had the opportunity to connect on an adult level. There’s so much I wish I could talk to her about today. Giving the brand a French name is my way of paying homage to her.
I’m also a big believer in branding and storytelling. When you build a brand, you need to ask yourself questions like: what do I want this brand to represent? What message do I want to convey to my customers? How should my brand make them feel? In asking myself these questions, I realized my brand was ultimately about creation and process. More specifically, the dedication, devotion, and expertise required to create something special. Metaphorically, I thought of it like the journey up a mountain—one inherently filled with ups and downs.
Creating a single pair of Les Monts spectacles is a journey. Our frames can take nearly six months to produce, and require at least 200 unique steps. That’s the ethos of Les Monts: greatness requires dedication and devotion. Equally important is the idea that there’s also great value in the trials and tribulations. Les Monts aims to inspire people to take chances; to push themselves to climb their metaphoric mountain. One may discover great value not only at the summit, but on the way up.
You’ve mentioned that even when you were in a technical design role, creating eyewear for Ted Baker involved more of what you described as engineering than design. What does your day to day look like now?
I’m a one-man team, so there’s a lot of ground to cover. I’m required to do something different each day. I really love that. Each time a frame is ordered, I do a final hand-polishing in New York City before shipping to my customer. Some days are spent meticulously hand-polishing frames and shipping orders. On other days, I may be creating content for our Instagram page, improving the website, or communicating with the factory, editors, or retailers. Ultimately, my goal is to improve upon the day before. To do that, I just try to move the ball forward each day. On some days, the proverbial ball won’t move forward very much, and I know that’s okay. On other days, the ball will move forward quite a bit. It’s all in an effort to keep my business fluid, adaptive, and dynamic.
I don’t think there’s a way to anticipate what your day-to-day will look like when you venture out on your own. There’s no way for me to predict what it will look like six months from now. In the early stages I probably underestimated the amount of overall work that my business required. I had a very simplified expectation: that I’d be at home shipping orders, and that would be the majority of my work. Truthfully, there are so many different tasks that need to be addressed on a daily basis. And those change depending on the state of the business. Today, I’m much more comfortable with being uncomfortable. I’m very much learning on the fly and I’m okay with that.
While the name Les Monts is French, you’ve stated that much of the manufacturing process takes place in a small village at the foot of the Dolomite mountain range. Why did you seek out this community?
Les Monts is produced in a region of Italy responsible for exporting a large percentage of the world’s Italian-made eyewear. There are dozens of eyewear manufacturers in this community, many of which have perfected their craft over generations. In my experience, a business is only as strong as the relationships it’s built upon. While it was imperative to find a factory that could execute my designs at the highest level, it was just as important to find one that I could build a relationship with. I felt really good about Italian-made eyewear, having had some familiarity with it from my former employer. I sought out a factory that could not only deliver a world-class product, but one that would allow me to meet the individuals responsible for crafting it. The close-knit relationship I share with my factory is an important part of Les Monts brand DNA. It lends itself to a more personal brand experience for my customers.
You mentioned in an interview with the University of Michigan that your BFA degree didn’t necessarily prepare you for the engineering aspect of your previous product development role. What do you think about the role of degree programs that seek to prepare students for founding their own design businesses, or hitting the ground running in design roles after graduation? Drawing from your own experiences, is that something that’s really possible to prepare for?
The University of Michigan has an engineering school and an art school. It’s important to note that engineering courses weren’t part of the art school’s curriculum when I was enrolled. If I had taken basic engineering courses, would I be more prepared to do what I’m doing now? Maybe, but probably not. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with some brilliant people at my former employer. I think it was best to learn the engineering component from my colleagues at Tura.
I don’t think any singular degree, program, or job could truly prepare me for what I’m doing now. It’s more reasonable to say a combination of my education and work experience made me as prepared as I possibly could be. But I’m not sure that you’re ever really prepared when you venture off on your own. I think it’s normal—and frankly healthy—to be somewhat unprepared. Part of what makes this experience so valuable is the amount of learning that takes place in the process.
Why did you decide to build a philanthropic partnership with Mental Health America from the very beginning of Les Monts?
One of the coolest aspects of having your own brand is that you get to decide who you want to empower, and who you want to give back to. I’ve always wanted to highlight the importance of well-being. While mental health conditions are extremely prevalent, I don’t believe the subject gets enough attention. Throughout my life, there have been important people who have—at some point, in some capacity—struggled with mental health. There have also been times when I haven’t been in the best headspace. Les Monts’ annual donation to Mental Health America is a way for me to honor anybody who has ever struggled with a mental health condition. My hope is that Les Monts can transcend traditional brand ideologies and become a beacon of optimism that inspires.
What’s next for you, the brand, or your team?
Each day is different from the next. I typically don’t know what I’ll be doing on a day-to-day basis, which is what makes this venture so thrilling. I do know that it can be difficult to purchase eyewear without having the opportunity to first try it on. It’s undoubtedly my biggest challenge as a business. There’s a great deal of value for my customers to experience Les Monts in person. Some features or design elements are just better served with an in-person experience. I want prospective customers to have the opportunity to pick up our frames; to feel the sculpting and beveling of the material, the substantiality of the product, and the inherent value within. In light of this, it’s very important for us to build a physical presence. An important next step will be getting the collection into the right stores that want to carry something unique and special, rather than relying purely on volume.