Kirk Originals

by Eric Twardzik

Kids can be cruel. A select few possess a preternatural gift for it. In hindsight, the first revelation of this truth was when a student entered the classroom with newly prescribed glasses. In the early 90s, few things could be as socially damning to a prepubescent as a prescription for corrective lenses.

“Pointdexter.” “Geek.” “Milhouse.” And that unimaginative mainstay, “Four Eyes.” Since age 13, Fred’s been in glasses. At 16 he realized he could turn what was a liability into an asset and enthusiastically adopted a bold, tortoise acetate frame. Since then it’s been a 20-year revolving door of thick tortoise specs. They’ve become a signature of sorts, growing larger with each passing year.

The latest sojourn on that pilgrimage is Kirk Originals, a crafter of sunglasses and optical glasses that are designed in London and then painstakingly made by hand in England, Italy or France (three countries that know a thing or two about style).

Margate optical  ($302), archival tortoise sunglass, and  Monte Carlo  optical ($262).

Margate optical ($302), archival tortoise sunglass, and Monte Carlo optical ($262).

The company’s DNA goes back to 1919, the year its namesake founders chose to leave behind the garment and button business for the eyewear one. Kirk Originals came about in the 1990s, when a trove of mod-era Kirks were discovered in a trunk.

“It was based on that find,” says Gordon Ritchie, Managing Director of Kirk Originals. “That was the ethos of this company—we were going to recreate the original shapes and designs from the 50s and 60s.”

Liam Gallagher wore Kirk Originals during his famed Glastonbury Festival performance in 1994, and soon pairs were decorating the nose bridges of Morrissey and Mick Jagger. Ritchie has a psychological explanation for their success.

“Those elements of classic styles are timeless. It’s like they’re embedded in our psyches.”

Liam Gallagher, Oasis frontman, wearing Kirk Originals at 1994's Glastonbury Festival.

Liam Gallagher, Oasis frontman, wearing Kirk Originals at 1994's Glastonbury Festival.

The mid-century, architectural designs of the Made in England collection by Kirk Originals were enough to make us fall in love—even before we heard the story of their construction. It begins with cellulose acetate, the plant-based, nearly mystical synthetic compound used by the best eyewear makers. The type Kirks uses come from Mazzucchelli 1849, an Italian maker with six generations of experience.

From start to finish, each pair of glasses is made by a single craftsmen. The process begins by hand-dyeing the acetate, which is then cut into shape. Once the desired shape has been achieved, the acetate is heated and pressed in a mold to build the bridge.

Then the real fun starts: the shaping and carving of the glasses with a hand file, which takes a full 72 hours and ends with smooth, remarkably round edges. The thickness of the acetate—an impressive 8mm—makes such shaping possible, and allows the temples to be installed without any visible pins, thus preserving the ultra-clean, modernist look. The process ends with enough buffing and polishing to turn the final product into a reflective surface: perfect for a discreet teeth check after broccoli rabe.

After all of that, the glasses are finally in our hands. But when we position them on our noses and tuck the edges behind our ears, brushing away errant locks of hair and adjusting burglar caps, we’re not ourselves anymore. The rounded edges of the Mason channel David Hockney as we venture to the bodega for Advil. The Aviator-style Reed allows us to be Steve McQueen for an afternoon, no chase scenes required. The Harvey in tortoiseshell turns a coffee run into a live-action remake of North by Northwest.

Kirk Originals aren’t simply accessories that block UV rays or make cocktail menus in dimly lit bars readable. The dedicated carving process transforms each pair into something more: a disguise. And as any moonlighting private eye can attest, selecting the right disguise is key.