You've been framed

There are no men in white coats in Jason Kirk's shop, just beautiful hand-made glasses, says Hester Lacey
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Buying A new pair of glasses is not generally an exciting experience. A chap in a white coat with seven pens in the top pocket will flog you a pair of John Lennon-style wire frames or something unobtrusive in clear plastic - much the same as your last 10 pairs. This will take place in an antiseptic white clinic under glaring fluorescent lighting. Yawn.

Jason Kirk Originals in Covent Garden looks more like an art gallery. The floor is metal, the walls are rough brick, the lighting is artful, and each pair of frames is reverently displayed on its own elegant little wooden shelf. This is not by chance. "All our frames are hand-made and they are lovely works of art," says the eponymous Kirk (slightly myopic, today wearing "Neville" frames in azure blue that match his shirt). "Usually you see rows and rows of frames that all look the same - except that one might have a Calvin Klein label and another might have an Armani label. Here, each frame has its own display area, because we want to say: 'Look at this.' We wanted to do something non- medical; we wanted to create a fashion atmosphere."

Kirk is not an optician, although optics run in the family. "My grandfather, Sidney Kirk, was a famous optical manufacturer, and my father is an optician," he says. He had just been made redundant from a sales and marketing job five years ago when fate took a hand and threw him into the business, too. "I was helping clear up at my father's practice, and I found 200 pairs of my grandfather's old frames, dating from the Thirties. The coolest ones were from the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. I started copying them and redesigning them afresh - I tried to find the essence of what made Sixties and Seventies frames, and update them to bring them into contemporary design."

The result is a cornucopia of shapes, colours and patterns, wonderfully wearable and desirably collectable. "The way we design is quite different from other manufacturers," says Kirk. "We talk to fashion designers and take their influences, not what they are making now, so that we remain one step ahead. And we don't just look at clothes, we look at furniture, cars, films for design inspiration."

Many Kirk Originals frames are made from original Fifties and Sixties materials. He travels the world looking for old stocks of acetate, old joints, old sides, old trims. Others are made from contemporary materials, but the design has a definite retro flavour. And they are flying off the shelves. To keep up with demand, Kirk has just opened his own factory in Clapton, east London.

Each frame in the range of 400 has its own name and history. "Alfie" was inspired by Michael Caine; "Starlet", narrow and elegant, recalls the glamour of the Sixties. Prices fall between pounds 130 and pounds 180. "They are underpriced if anything," says Kirk. "I know people who will spend that much on a pair of shoes." (Also on sale, for considerably less, are copies of Topsy and Tim Have Their Eyes Tested, for customers of the future.) So, who buys Kirk Originals? "They are not label victims. They are people who are into design, into art - and lots of bands." Would he care to name-drop? "Ooh, yes. Oasis, Adam Clayton, Seal, Stephen Dorff, Mick Hucknall..." And having bought one pair, they often come back for more. Which, says Kirk, is just as it should be. "Your glasses should reflect your personality," he says sternly. "You shouldn't have just one pair. You've got more than one pair of shoes, one shirt, one pair of earrings. Glasses are an accessory, and they are the first one that people see. You need different frames for different environments."

Two qualified opticians are on hand, but they wouldn't be seen dead in white coats. In fact, one of them, Jeremy, models in the Kirk Originals catalogue in a hip magenta suit and blond, demi- goatee beard. And they won't test your eyes, though there is a nod towards more standard optometry in the old-fashioned eye-test chart stencilled on the back wall. Customers bring in their own prescription, or it can be read off an existing pair of prescription glasses. It can take up to an hour to find the right pair of frames. "We give proper advice. The people who work here know what they are talking about. I have told customers not to buy frames that make them look stupid. Well, my name is on the frames and I can't afford to have someone looking stupid. We look at face shape, cheekbones, jawlines and also what people are wearing, the way they speak, the way they present themselves."

Kirk has made the business into a family affair; his wife Karen, a graphic designer, handles their publicity and corporate work. Until six months ago, when the business moved to Covent Garden, it was housed in their dining room at home, and their son Eden is already a Kirk Originals enthusiast, at the tender age of two and a half. "He'll be delighted if he needs glasses later on, he loves them," says his proud father. "One of his first words was 'glasses'."

Kirk Originals, 36 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LA, 0171 240 5055.