Lefteri: That’s fascinating how you’re finetuning weight and balance to really give that emotion that you want the athlete to feel. That’s really interesting. Let me go back to some of those unique materials – O Matter, X Metal, Unobtanium – how do they evolve? At what point do you say: we will give this material a name, we have something really exciting, we want to christen it – when does that happen? Or do you start out by saying you want to develop a whole new material?
Garfias: I think from the design department we’ve always got our opinions on things and we’ve always got ideas. We’re the design department! We’re creative, we come up with ideas, they’re not always adopted or used, but I think marketing plays a good role and has a great interaction with us and we talk about things like this and why it’s doing what it does and what the performance benefits are. And then to name something and give it a tagline makes it brand-centric, and the consumer thinks this is special, they thought about it, it’s not a generic name for the material, we own it, we can talk about it as our special secret formula, it makes the story more compelling. We talk about emotional competence, that’s key too.
Thompson: Thank you for noticing that, Chris: this is steeped in our history. Some of the names go back to the 70’s (long before I started working here!) and we still use them, they’re still recognisable, and they carry a compelling story – like Unobtanium, O Matter – both of those are pretty old names. It’s a concerted effort. I think the most important part is that we’re conveying a new technology or innovation in a way that’s accessible and digestible to the general public. We want people to immediately recognise the benefits of the material or the competitive advantage that this Oakley technology provides. Sometimes we use a trade name to represent a cluster of materials that perform in a similar way; we don’t necessarily need to get down to molecular level of what the materials are. But we do get down to what the consumer cares about: what does it do for me? I don’t care if it’s this plastic, this resin, this so-and-so, instead: what does it do for me? I think by coming up with brand-specific names we can tell that story. A great recent example of that is our Prizm lens technology – the name Prizm is accessible. Everyone knows what a prism is. Whether it’s from a grade school science project, or the ubiquitous Pink Floyd dark side of the moon album cover, we’ve all seen it. We know that prisms are transparent, and they have to do with color. Oakley Prizm technology is having transparent lenses that are designed to enhance color and contrast specific to the environment. So, if you’re snowboarding you can see features in the snow you might not necessarily recognise with a standard grey lens. Or if you’re mountain biking you can see differences in the terrain that are specific to the various tones of brown and green you would see on a trail. So, this is powerful and useful, it doesn’t matter how Oakley invented it, or how it works. What matters is the consumer recognises the benefit, and the value it brings.
Lefteri: You must have great relationships with your materials suppliers?
Thompson: Yeah, absolutely. We also have chemical engineers within the EssilorLuxottica network. We are vertically integrated and, in addition to our supply base, a lot of innovation comes from within. So it’s a mixture of both: we’re challenging industry to bring solutions back to us, and we’re bringing them from the inside out too.
Lefteri: Yeah – you’re a great case study for other organisations – not just in sports, but in electronics, appliances, cars – in terms of how to bring about innovations. That’s great to hear. Before we leave materials, is Unobtanium something that you developed? Because you do have it trademarked, right?
Thompson: We do. Unobtanium is a funny one. Did you see the movie Avatar that came out a few years ago, where they went to this planet, for Unobtanium? Meanwhile it was a name we’d been using for decades. I don’t know if you want to include this for the interview. It’s just a fun factoid.
Lefteri: I just wanted to make sure it was your name that’s become a part of common usage and it was part of Avatar so I wanted to make sure that it came from you…
Garfias: It was part of Oakley a long time before. It came from Jim Jannard creating the first grip, Jim’s the founder of Oakley.
Thompson: So before we made goggles, or eyewear, we made Motocross grips for motorcycles, they were made out of Unobtanium, which is kind of a proprietary blend.
Garfias: Yeah, so as your body heated, your hands gripped this material, and with the sweat, it became stickier and sticker on your hands.
Thompson: Which was so important for BMX and Motocross. That has an application in nose pads, and ear stems, as well: as you sweat as an athlete, if those touchpoints become more tacky with sweat, that’s a huge benefit.
Garfias: Obviously, we don’t make grips anymore, but the grips now transferred to our eyewear – the properties are the same, like JT said.
Lefteri: What’s the product you’re most proud of, Nick?
Garfias: Wow – That’s a tough one! I’ve been a designer and now I’ve got a great team that I’m very proud of and I feel I’ve given them the legs to fail and succeed – mostly succeed! – but definitely to use both of those to their benefit, and to bring the next of what the future is, and I think currently I have to say I’m really, really impressed and proud of Kato. I think it started life as a thought in our secret chasm, it was not exposed to anybody within the building, it was just a design exercise for us, it was provocative question as simple as: how would you rethink the next high wrap? It didn’t focus on an athlete specifically, but how do reinterpret that, how do we tear down what we know as a brand and rethink something? And I think that they took the idea and created something that was very, very provocative and very compelling – with a team obviously – and we managed to bring what was a design thought and a brand statement to life, with everyone’s help. It is the prodigal son of innovation for us.
Thompson: Chris, high wrap means it follows the anatomic features of your face more closely. It wraps around your face. If you look at the Kato frame, it looks like fabric draped over someone’s face. It’s a wonderful piece.
Lefteri: Fantastic. Last one for you Jonathan – what are you most looking forward to at the K show?
Thompson: I love the K show because it confronts you with things you probably wouldn’t have found just by Google searches or by your own means. You’re walking around the show and it sounds a little silly but it’s like a treasure hunt, there’s a small booth here, or a large booth there, you look at each one, you try to pull something out that will solve a problem you’ve had, maybe it’s a decades-out problem, something kicking round the back of your mind. You’ll have these Aha! moments, even if it’s not immediately at the show, you make connections and relationships to explore further. Kato is a great example. There were some unique challenges around Kato including how to build an optically correct injection mold to achieve the geometry that the design team proposed. Last year at K show we made a couple of key connections to make those optical-level tools.
Garfias: I’ve never been to the K show but I remember an old employee tell me how awesome it was and impressed he was to see a complete hydraulic stamp sideshow. I need to see that!
Thompson: Let’s go Nick – there’s lots of schnitzel and beer too, it’s a good time.
Garfias: Right up my alley!