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RCA Students Impress at 100% Optical International Eyewear Show

Prototypes of innovative eyewear from six shortlisted RCA students were displayed at 100% Optical, London’s annual international optical trade event. 

Jen Cheema was announced as the overall winner from the shortlisted students: Amelia Ayerst, Marco Baitella, Marco Bajjali, Mirka Janeckova and Ting Ting Zhang. Alongside the opportunity to exhibit at the trade show, each student received prize money and Jen Cheema was awarded an internship with a leading eyewear brand.

This is the third year of the 100% Optical Eyewear Competition, which was first established when Accessories, Footwear & Millenary tutor Flora McLean was approached by the founders of 100% Optical, who were keen to create a platform to showcase the talent and expertise of RCA students.

The annual competition is open to students from across the School of Material and each year it receives a lot of interest. Discussing this popularity Flora explained: ‘The format of eyewear is really appealing, because it is based on a recognisable object. The outcomes of the competition always feel real and professional. They are also very tactile and immediately understandable. At the show people always want to pick them up and try them on.’

The competition brief asked students to design eyewear as an extension of their existing studio practice. They were also prompted to consider where they situate themselves within the design world, selecting either the Couture or Ready-to-wear category.

‘Many of the students who enter the competition are approaching eyewear for the first time, which brings with it a lot of challenges but also a lot of potential,’ Flora explained. For Textiles students the brief offers the chance to apply their designs to a specific context. 

This year’s winner Jen Cheema, who is studying Textiles, explained: ‘It was exciting to see how I could utilise and develop the materials I've been working with, in a very specific context that I hadn't really considered, or had the opportunity to explore before.’ 

For Jewellery & Metal students, the transition to designing eyewear is perhaps slightly more straightforward. ‘As a jeweller I feel comfortable working with objects placed on the body,’ explained Jewellery & Metal student Mirka Janeckova. ‘I like the scale and function of eyewear and this was an opportunity to try something new, which I really enjoyed.’

At the beginning of the project, students visited the British Optical Association Museum, which is part of the College of Optometrists. Here curator and eyewear historian, Neil Handley, introduced them to the collection and the history of eyewear. ‘A lot of the student’s references come from this trip,’ Flora explained ‘in particular they are inspired by protective eyewear such as goggles and ski masks.’

Initially students are asked to create cardboard models, from which the shortlist is selected. These are then developed into working prototypes with the support of Walter Berwick, who formerly worked for Algha Works and offers technical expertise in making frames.

This year, eyewear designers Jason Kirk and Lawrence Jenkin joined Walter and Flora on the judging panel. In making their selection they considered overall appearance, innovation and use of materials, as well as the catwalk feasibility of the overall concept.

One of the most important aspects of the competition for the students is the opportunity to showcase their work in a professional setting. ‘Attending the fair was a brilliant experience to see what the forthcoming trends are within eyewear, and to make connections with the leading figures in the optical design industry’ explained Jen. ‘It was also a great opportunity to see where my work could fit in the market, as well as being able to speak to visitors about my own work, design process and future ambitions.’ 

Footwear student Marco Baitella created glasses for the Couture category inspired by his ‘obsession with hair and bold passion for blue’. He explained how his design fits with his wider practice: ‘In terms of construction, I applied some aspects that I am using for my MA work: heat stitch, transparency and the idea of using liquids to question the reality and perception of objects.’

For Marco, 100% Optical also provided the chance to gain vital input on his design work. ‘Competitions like this are unique, they allow you to have a reality check and to understand what it is happening outside the bubble of the College. This opportunity has allowed me to experiment with eyewear design, and I am looking forward to developing this relationship further in the future.’

Alongside her internship, Jen is also planning to continue working with eyewear: ‘Taking part in the competition has helped me decide that I'm keen to learn more about the technicalities and processes involved in making eyewear, and I will be designing and developing more pieces of eyewear to include within my final collection.’ 

Last year’s winner Knitwear student Hannah Evans interned with Mondottica over the summer and is continuing to work with them one day a week. ‘It has been a great experience and I’ve learnt so much about eyewear design and the manufacturing process.’

These students are following in the footsteps of RCA graduates working within eyewear. Parsha Gerayesh (Design Products 2015), who was shortlisted for the competition in 2014, launched his eyewear range Mono at London Design Festival 2015. Emma Montague (MA Jewellery & Metal, 2012), who was involved with the judging of the competition, has recently collaborated with eyewear brand Gentle Monster.