Savile Row Eyewear – iconic frames handmade in London

Savile Row Eyewear – iconic frames handmade in London

Matt Bramford

At first glance, it reads like your average London hipster business: factory in the East End – check; eyewear worn by pop and movie stars – check. But the Algha Works factory, home to Savile Row Eyewear, tells a much different story. Its illustrious history began in 1898, and in 1932 it set up camp in the Fish Island area of East London.

Entrepreneur Max Wiseman saw a niche in the market and purchased an entire factory from Germany, including many of its technical staff. When it launched in London, The Algha Works factory was born, and the company began to produce frames and styles that are still produced today. The word ‘iconic’ is a much-hackneyed term, but a glance through the Algha archives reveals it readily deserves the accolade.

It was clear when we visited the factory that very little has changed since the company was conceived. Doors still bear the original name; a simple, arched logo, letraset onto safety glass, like something on the set of Mad Men. Thick, red and green Victorian-era tiles line the staircases, freezing cold to the touch. On the lower floor, where our tour begins, banks of filing cabinets and shelves secure mid-century relics, documenting the company’s past. Vibrant acetates that were made redundant in the sixties, but wouldn’t look out of place on the shelves of designer sunglasses parlours now, are stacked heavily on top of each other.

During the war, the factory manufactured Aviator styles for pilots, but it was in the 1950s when the company became a household name. With the establishment of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), Algha Works secured the contract for the production of government-subsidised frames. In its heydey, the factory’s 200 staff would produce a staggering half a million frames every year. They continued to provide the nation with specs until the deregulation of the British eyewear industry (let’s not get into that) and the company was reborn as Savile Row Eyewear in 1988.

Photo: Matt Bramford

Photo: Matt Bramford

Each floor of the factory is packed with enormous, archaic machinery. Some machines look tired, some have been abandoned completely. The ones in use creak and whirl their way with the help of Savile Row Eyewear staff. When we visited, the factory was in full swing, and our tour guide led us along the production process. It can take up to three years to learn the different, bespoke processes that the Algha Works factory has established, and the staff we chatted to – some who’ve worked on site for decades – know that these ageing and temperamental machines only add to the character of the business.

Savile Row Eyewear produces two distinct products: rolled gold ‘classic collection’ frames and acetate frames, both with many variations. All styles are based on original designs, many of which are patented. The iconic ’round eye’ frame, worn by John Lennon, is one of the biggest sellers. It is produced in a variety of styles, with a range of customisable options, from the ‘W’ bridge (which sits directly on the nose) to the ‘Padded Bridge’ with notepads. Leather has been introduced to some styles, and nostalgic sun-clips are available for most frames. All are etched with the desirable frame made in England hallmark.

On the top floor of the factory, where perfect products are ready to be delivered, cabinets showcase styles of the past. From the NHS styles marketed in the 1950s and 1960s through to some pretty radical designs of the 1970s and 1980s, it’s wonderful to see the company’s history documented in display cases. You can imagine the haute couturiers of Paris salivating over these designs: none of them would look out of place in the most stylish sunglasses shops across the capital.

Frames are stocked globally and retail online. We were left wondering why Mr Wiseman’s secrets remain relatively undisturbed. The story of outstanding craftsmanship, traditional quality and unrivalled designs is the stuff most brands dream of, yet rarely achieve.

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