Interview with Elena Doukas: Design Director for GLCO and Mr. Leight

Interview with Elena Doukas: Design Director for GLCO and Mr. Leight

Garrett and Larry Leight are household names here at Seen, widely known both in the industry and by anyone with a knowledge and passion for independent eyewear brands. But one name you may have not come across just yet is Elena Doukas, the Design Director for Garrett Leight and Mr. Leight.

Elena has been working alongside GLCO founder, Garrett since 2010 when she applied for a job in his first store through an advert she saw online. Very quickly she began to design eyewear alongside Garrett for GLCO and, more recently, for his father Larry as part of their joint venture, Mr. Leight.

But how exactly did she go from selling eyewear on the shop floor to designing it for two of the best brands in the business?

We caught up with Elena to find out a bit more about her unconventional journey into the world of eyewear design, her prediction for the next big eyewear trend, and where we need to visit next time we’re in Japan…

Hi Elena, thanks for agreeing to chat with us. Starting things off from the beginning, we’ve done our research and you’ve had a pretty unusual journey into the eyewear industry, how did you come to work with Garrett?

Yes, Eyewear design was a calling I never knew about until I met Garrett.  I had been working in the apparel industry and realized I liked design but was becoming discouraged with the issues we were facing as an industry due to fast fashion.  I decided to go back to school for business, but wanted to keep working. I knew I wanted to do something with accessories because I could see people still valued the quality and design of a good handbag or shoes, but I wasn’t quite sure what that was.  I saw Garrett’s posting on Craigslist, (yes Craigslist), and after the interview knew I needed to work in his store.

“We didn’t have time to question anything we just had to move forward.” 

So how exactly did you transition from retail to design - was that something you’d always wanted to do?

I started with Garrett in his retail store, and had told him I had gone to school for fashion design and had worked as a designer in the apparel industry, and that it was my goal to get back into design. Within the first year of working for him at his retail store, he announced he was starting his own eyewear line.  

Mr Leight

When he asked for me to be his design assistant, I at first turned down the position because I was still going to school and working in the store and thought it would be too much. He came back to me a week later and talked me into it. I’m very glad he did. I continued to go to school, work in the store and would work on the collection with him at night.  It is a time I will never forget because we didn’t have time to question anything we just had to move forward. We showed the first collection end of that year.

“I see the level of craftsmanship and quality that goes into the product. I leave the factories feeling accomplished”

Having worked in apparel, would you say that working in eyewear differs from other areas of the fashion industry?

Consumer goods are changing so fast and I purposely left the apparel industry because it was clear that businesses either didn’t care or couldn’t compete and were cutting back their quality standards.  When I first came to eyewear it was extremely inspiring for me in that it was a new challenge and aside from helping people look good, I was helping them see. Now working with the factories, I see the level of craftsmanship and quality that goes into the product.  I leave the factories feeling accomplished, something I never felt in apparel. So many other industries are cutting back on their design process to stay competitive and the product quality suffers.

Mr Leight Hanalei

I love eyewear because it can be something you wear everyday, and people then are willing to invest in a quality frame.  However, we still have the same threats every other industry is facing, which is why it’s more important than ever to educate people what quality eyewear is and how independent eyewear brands are better for the world around them.

How did Mr Leight come about - was it something you, Larry and Garrett had been talking about for a while?

Mr. Leight was a dream of Garrett and Larry’s, and I knew they wanted to create a collection that honored the Leight family legacy.

“[We] wanted Mr. Leight to feel like an elevated version of the Garrett Leight collection”

We’ve been fans of GLCO for many years now and the brand is only gaining more popularity here in the UK, how would you explain the main difference to anyone considering investing in a pair of Mr. Leights as well?

First of all, thank you! The Garrett Leight aesthetic has always been based on Garrett’s own vision, which of course incorporates a lot of his upbringing in design and eyewear. He was influenced by his family’s brand and growing up in Venice, CA. Mr. Leight is a collection based off of Larry’s aesthetic, so of course there are many similarities as they have so much of the same design DNA. And when we created Mr. Leight we didn’t want to fight against that, and wanted Mr. Leight to feel like an elevated version of the Garrett Leight collection.

Garrett also wanted to give Larry a platform where he could design and not be held back, so Mr. Leight has more ornate pieces.

 Elena with Mr. Leight founders, Garrett Leight and Larry Leight

A quick glance at your Instagram tells me that you spend a fair amount of time hanging out with Larry and Garrett, is working alongside people you get on well with an important part of your working relationship?

Yes, I can’t imagine not getting along well with the people I work with, but more importantly not being able to push each other.  Both Garrett and Larry have been great mentors to me, and I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by people that challenge me. We also have a great team at the office, and I now have about 7 people that work in design and development.  It’s very collaborative and all of them bring great ideas to the table. I love that we can have a really challenging project that we all work hard on together, and then every month still try to get together as a company to go and grab drinks or attend a Dodgers game after work.  You get the best work from happy people, and that’s always been an environment we strive to keep at GLCO.

What does a typical working day look like for you?

I start my day from home, which is when I find myself the most productive.  I’ll head into the office right after as I like to work out of there and be able to work directly with the team.  Other than that, it feels like nothing makes up a typical day at Garrett Leight!

"It may sound cliché but I do have a notebook that I try to have at all times with me."

Can you give us an insight into the design process?

The design process is about a full year from the time we have an idea to when it’s available in stores.  It can feel long, but every step is important to make quality product from an original idea. We start sketching ideas in illustrator and then after narrowing down the designs we like will ask a factory to prototype them.  It takes about 8 weeks to receive a prototype. Once we receive it we do rounds of fittings before we make a tooling, which essentially is the engineered cut out of the design the factory follows during production. The factories we work with have experience in aerospace, lock hardware, and costume jewelry so they’re very precise and follow an efficient manufacturing schedule. 

Mr Leight sunglasses

Where do you draw inspiration from and do you ever see something that inspires you so much you just have to start sketching?

Yes, this happens often.  It may sound cliché but I do have a notebook that I try to have at all times with me. I have the pleasure of working with Larry Leight, Garrett’s father who has served as a great mentor to me. He’s an icon in the eyewear industry and his first brand was inspired by the 1920s and 1930s American vintage optical frames. Throughout his many years in the industry, he has collected vintage frames from every era and continues to draw inspiration from them. Whether it’s a shape, a detail, or even packaging, looking to the past can often guide our future.

I have always been inspired by eyewear as being a transformative accessory for any given person in addition to being an actual medical device which often times people forget about. Part of my design process is taking cues from both modern and vintage fashion, but never sacrificing fit and comfort. Our customers care about their appearance and want to purchase quality eyewear that identifies with their own unique, personal style.

Speaking of vintage fashion there is a distinctly reminiscent feel to many of the Mr. Leight designs, seen particularly in frames such as the Makena S and Koloa S, for example. Was this nostalgic feel something you always wanted to explore with Mr. Leight?

Yes, very much so.  Mr. Leight is a tribute to Larry’s past as much as it is his future. I’ve never met anyone so precise in their references.  He knows almost every frame and decade of style and loves to recreate styles that are the epitome of that time period.

Mr Leight Makena

Mr. Leight is made in Japan, how would you describe the approach the Japanese take to frame manufacturing? How does this translate to what the consumer will experience when wearing Mr. Leight?

Japanese eyewear manufacturing is still very much done fully by hand, and is usually made by several small factories instead of one larger factory. One of the reasons we chose to make Mr. Leight in Japan was because of Larry's long time experience working with Japanese factories, and many of the people I have worked with on the collection are still working at the factories today.

Making frames in Japan you start to see the process to make a collection is really made by an entire village of experts. There is the best plating acetate factory, plating factory, sample maker and tooling factory, acetate material maker, etc. It was an amazing experience to work with true experts and people that have known Larry from the beginning of his career. As far as what the consumer will experience when they wear Mr. Leight is always the ultimate test if we've done our jobs well! I hope that when you wear Mr. Leight you feel the quality, but also see the hand working on the frames. They are not pumped out of a machine but made fully by hand, which I think gives a welcomed inconsistency that makes frames unique and genuine.

 A team trip to Japan with Larry and Garrett

Do you manage to get over to Japan fairly regularly and what are your favourite things to do when you visit?

I do love Japan! It’s one of my favorite places because all of my favorite things are there. There’s amazing food, great shopping and the most relaxing spas. I love food and enjoy eating a meal that’s prepared so thoughtfully. I also love shopping for glasses, and find some of the best vintage glasses in Japan. I like to end my trips with some type of onsen experience, and many Ryokans (a Japanese Inn) are actually quite accessible and don’t have to cost a lot to enjoy.

Collaborations are something GLCO is synonymous with, any in the pipeline for Mr Leight?

We have played around with a few ideas, but after doing many with Garrett Leight we realize that the best collaborations happen the most organically. We aren’t in a rush to push something to happen. 

GLCO and Mr Leight have some seriously high-profile fans, do you ever design a frame that you just know would just be a perfect match for someone in particular? If so, what frame and who do you see wearing it?

I think I reference someone almost with every design, but usually it’s the diverse group of people that Garrett and I are friends with that end up being discussed.

Finally, we all know clear frames have been big for a while now, any predictions for the next big eyewear trend?

I’m sure the exact opposite will be in trend soon if it’s not already. When I first started working for Garrett and we didn’t have the GLCO collection, I wore very thick dark burgundy frames. They’re a vintage French frame from the 60s, and I’ve pulled them out to wear few times recently! 

Tareq and Elena Doukas

Our Tareq and Elena hang out at the Mr. Leight launch in Paris back in October 2017

Thick dark frames it is! Watch this space.

A huge thanks to Elena for taking the time to chat to us and give us an insight into what it takes to research, design, and manufacture some of the incredible frames we have here at Seen. We can't wait to see what Elena, Garrett and Larry come up with next! 

Garrett Leight and Mr. Leight glasses and sunglasses and available online and at our store in Manchester. Swing by and check out the collection.