Jeffery Yau gazes out the window of his conference room at a sprawling view of Hong Kong. “Luxury eyewear as it is today didn’t exist 20 years ago,” he says. “I still remember trying to find shop space at a high-end mall and the landlord said, ‘We don’t need an optical shop here, thanks.’” But what the landlord didn’t recognise was that Yau’s vision was no ordinary neighbourhood store where you’d go to refill a prescription for contact lenses.
At the time, Yau, was already a business magnate as founder and CEO of Europe Watch Company, one of the largest authorised retailers for the likes of Rolex and Patek Philippe in Hong Kong. Work led him to travel the world and he discovered niche eyewear stores in places like SoHo in New York City and Aoyama in Tokyo where passionate owners sold unusual frames that he could not find in his home town. So he replicated the concept with his first standalone shop in Tsim Sha Tsui in 2001—but with his own flair. “As a Chinese person, I wanted to create something more reflective of my heritage, so I came up with the name Puyi with my wife,” he says. “It’s the name of the last emperor of China and also the Chinese name for round-shaped spectacles. I felt the name fit everything I had in mind.”
Over the years, Puyi Optical has become a destination for luxury and collectible eyewear, and 2021 marks its 20th anniversary. The brand has grown to include subsidiary labels Glasstique, Reflections, Point de Vue, Vault, O-O Shop and O-O Vision that together boast 900 employees across 86 shops in 23 cities in Greater China, including Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Yau says launching his first stores in mainland China was a challenge and turning point for the business. “I actually failed once in the early 2000s and had to close all our stores shortly after opening because the market wasn’t mature enough, but then I decided to try again after 2006.” The move paid off during the pandemic, when mainland China’s ability to control its spread early on, and the resulting economic boom, led to uninterrupted growth for Puyi Optical.
While ongoing social restrictions foiled plans for anniversary celebrations, they didn’t stop Yau from rolling out collaborations with Puyi Optical’s longstanding partners, including Linda Farrow, Gentle Monster and Kering. “We’ve become notorious in the industry for being quite demanding,” says Yau with a laugh. “Brands know partnering with us means we’ll have many changes and requests, but they’ve come to trust our expertise in knowing what the Asian customer wants, so we’ve actually become involved in advising even their development side.”
One of said developments is the “Asian fit”, a catchphrase that eyewear brands have begun using over the past two decades, referring to certain adjustments made to frames to suit Asian face shapes. “Fifteen years ago, there was no such thing,” says Yau. “Asians were wearing European fits, which means the glasses would be floating off the nose bridge or would be too small for their faces. Now, brands—and I’m talking about big brands like Chanel and Gucci—have to adjust because the clients are more mature and if something doesn’t fit right, they won’t buy it.” Where Yau’s expertise is valuable to his partners is in defining what exactly that fit means, and understanding the many nuances within Asia. “It’s not just about more support in the nose bridge; northern Chinese people have bigger heads than southern Chinese, for example, and the Japanese still prefer small, thin shapes, so it’s not so simple.”
This rising class of Asian consumers is also behind two of eyewear’s next big trends, according to Yau. The first is jewellery encrusted eyewear; the most expensive piece Yau ever sold was a frame by German brand Lotos with diamonds lining its arms for a whopping HK$6 million. Several million-dollar frames can still be found at select Puyi Optical flagship stores. Technology-infused lenses will also be a hallmark of the future, with brands like Gentle Monster already creating smart eyewear that incorporates microphones. Yau was the first to bring German brand Zeiss to Asia in 2017, using its technology to create highly customisable frames and, most recently, even antibacterial lenses.
As for what he has in mind for the next 20 years of Puyi Optical, Yau has his sights set on staking a flag in the already-crowded markets of Japan and South Korea before moving into Singapore and Malaysia. “I feel very fortunate that I’ve gotten to help develop the industry,” he says. “Today, if you look at all the high-end shopping malls, you’ll see a Puyi shop, because they now believe in this product and category, and know it belongs next to luxury fashion and accessories. And I’d like to think that maybe Puyi had played a role in making this change in attitude, and that’s what I’m most proud of.”