If you’ve made it to this page, you’re probably aware that Seen is an opticians—you might even know that it’s based in Manchester. But there’s a lot more to it than that—this place isn’t just any old opticians. Local hack Sam Waller sat down with main-man Tareq Moustafa to find what sets Seen apart...
I suppose we may as well start from the start. When did Seen begin?
The story goes back to when I went out to Australia to work in the optician's industry. Working over there had a very different feel to how I’d experienced being an optician over here and I loved it. I wanted to bring some of what I was experiencing back to England.
12 or 13 years ago most people chose to go to high street chains. Independents weren’t that popular and the ones that were seemed pretty poor. In Oz, it was the opposite. A lot of people chose to use independent stores because of the higher levels of service. I wanted to introduce a different way of serving customers and create a customer focused, service driven optical store.
"It was a bit of a lightbulb moment." - TM
So in 2004 I moved back to Manchester and found the unit we’re in now. Between arriving back and the shop opening I travelled to Paris to go to a big optical trade show. At that time I was more familiar with designer brands—the big brands that everyone’s heard of—but in Paris I met a man called Jason Kirk who was a big influence on me. He's an independent British eyewear designer with his own range that isn't mass produced. He introduced me to his friends and peers, who had their own companies all around the world.
It was a bit of a lightbulb moment. I realised that not only did we need to focus on service, but our product would be independent brands that were at the forefront of eyewear across the world. There was more than just the big brands and people needed to see these styles. We opened the doors in 2005 and the rest is history.
You were doing something that was quite a departure from what else was around in England. How was the reaction at first?
It was tough. The people who were attuned to buying stuff made by independents, be it in clothing or footwear or whatever, found us naturally, because they were already looking for something like that.
But to the average guy or girl walking around Manchester, it was really something quite different. I have quite strong memories of people walking in and liking what we did but leaving because they weren’t quite ready to make a step to what we were doing.
It was tough for the first few months, but the ones who really liked what we were doing—the ones who found us and started wearing the product—started telling other people about us. It was a bit of a slow burner, but after three or four months we knew it was the right decision.
The world has changed a lot since 2005. How have things changed for Seen since then?
We started in 2005 and then the world seemed to fall apart in 2008. I’m very grateful that we didn’t change. It would have been very easy in those early stages to go and buy a brand like Calvin Klein and put it on the shelves because that’s what people were used to buying.
But what I believe happened during and after the recession hit was people started to value the things there were buying—they weren’t buying willy-nilly—there was more appreciation for quality, design and individual style. We saw people making educated purchases, and that was really good for us, as Seen clearly stood for those qualities.
Finding all these independent brands can’t be easy. How do you go about hunting them down?
We go to trade shows in places like Paris, Milan, New York, Munich and Copenhagen, look around and see what inspires us. It seems easy but it’s the hardest thing we do—knowing how to choose the designs and brands that are going to work versus the ones that won’t. Also, we’ve got a really good reputation as an independent store. This means we get contacted all the time by brands who want to be stocked on our shelves, and every now and again we get someone knocking on the door who’s doing something really amazing.
A good example is a brand called Garrett Leight California Optical. I’d heard a few sound waves about a guy who was doing stuff in California, so I sent an e-mail just to get some images, as I couldn’t really find anything online apart from the few blog posts written by people in Venice Beach. Garrett got back in touch and said he’d send something in the post. About a month later he said, “If you want, I can come and visit you.”
So he came to the store with a little briefcase of maybe three styles of frames inside. We showed him around Manchester that night, and that was it—the start of what is now one of our best-selling brands, and globally one of the hottest names in eyewear. We were the first stockist in the UK, and the second in Europe. Every now and again, that can happen.
Going back to the shop, who else is involved in it?
We have a girl called Colette who has been here since day one. Almost anyone that has been through the doors at Seen has met Colette and seen her amazing skills in action. And we’ve got a girl called Erika who’s been here for almost two years now. It was great bringing Erika in as she’d only ever worked for a high street chain. She’s a really stylish girl and that wasn’t portrayed in her old job. She had to wear a uniform and her hair had to be a certain way, but then all of a sudden she comes into an environment where she’s actively encouraged to show her personality more. She’s flourished and now has a fan base of clients that love to see her for their new eyewear styling.
And then we’ve got Neil and Graham who work here part-time, and my wife Sarah—who is probably the biggest eyewear geek on the planet. It’s a very tight, solid team and we’re all very passionate about giving the best customer service that we can.
I know that customer service is clearly a big thing for you, but what else would you say sets Seen apart from other opticians?
The thing that people comment on the most is that within a minute or two of them walking into the store, we knew what suited them. We can almost instantly get to a point where someone finds a frame they like. And that isn’t an easy skill!
Most people are used to picking stuff off the shelves and trying them on one after another, whereas here we’ll say, “Try this one.” And they’ll be like, “Oh, that’s pretty perfect.” Everyone who works here is really well trained on what works on people’s faces.
"To the average guy or girl walking around Manchester, it was really something quite different." - TM
But there’s more than just what works for someone’s face... it’s about what style that person has as well. We’ve got people who come here with pretty outrageous senses of style, and they want something that highlights that, so for them, it’s not about what fits the face, it’s about what makes them stand out more.
Some of the crazy stuff we’ve got doesn’t ever really perfectly suit anybody, but on the right person it just works and they look amazing. The style of an individual is a massive influence on how we help them choose frames. I think our ability to pick a frame out is what people love about coming here.
And another thing is that we actually care about what people look like. If someone chose the wrong frame and they looked really bad, we would tell them. We don’t want anybody wearing stuff that clearly doesn’t work for them. We’re honest—it’s not just about selling the frame.
The combination of those two things means that people come back again and again and bring their friends and family along for the experience too. Aside from that, I think the store looks pretty cool too, so that attracts folks to pop in.
Seen is a pretty good name for an opticians. Who came up with that one?
I want to take the credit for it, but the truth is that I was having a conversation with my friend Mary back in 2004. I was talking about all these designers like Jason Kirk, and I was saying how they made glasses that people wanted to be seen in. I kept saying the word “seen” and she noticed that, so she said, “Well, you’ve said ‘seen’ a few times, so why don’t you call your shop Seen?” And that was it. It instantly felt right.
Yeah, it definitely fits what you guys do. I know that you lot put a lot of effort into your eye tests. Can you talk us through this a little bit?
I’m a qualified optometrist, and I’ve always believed that the journey into buying some glasses starts with an eye examination. You need to know what lenses are best to put into these frames. Or first of all, whether you need glasses or not.
Eye tests are often performed in quite a rushed manner, the results aren’t always that accurate and we’ve seen a lot of people with prescriptions that don’t seem to work that well for them. Every day we get somebody walking in that hates their existing glasses and we’re able to put things right for them.
Our team of optometrists always take the time to make sure we get really accurate results and it’s something I’m quite passionate about.
As well as finding the right lenses, people also want to find the right frames. How do you help with that? I know a lot of people can rush when buying glasses.
As I said earlier, this is something we work hard at getting right. Interestingly, although the UK is quite a fashion forward country, in eyewear, we’re way behind the times compared to Germany, France, Japan and the Scandinavians. In those countries wearing glasses is part of your personality and it expresses a side of your character. Over there, buying new glasses once or more a year is kind of like a family day out—it’s something really important to people.
One thing I’ll always remember was a guy who came into Seen in the first couple of months we’d opened. He was really well dressed, but he probably had the worst pair of glasses he could have on... they were awful. You could tell he’d spent a lot on his suit, his shoes and his watch, but on his face, the thing people look at when they’re talking to him, he had these awful glasses.
"Eyewear can be something you can use as a fashion statement and to portray your personality." - TM
I think most people still perceive glasses as a bit of a commodity—they need them, so they just buy whatever they’re shown. That’s most people’s experience of going to an opticians, to them it’s like filling your car with petrol.
But in the UK things are slowly changing, and that’s down to the number of good independent stores selling good glasses. Most people don’t know that this stuff is out there, but the more good stores there are, the more people will start to realise that eyewear can be something you can use as a fashion statement and to portray your personality. Way more than a pair of shoes ever can in my opinion!
Glasses can do a lot of things for you. The number of people who come here and their life changes for the better because they’ve found a nice pair of glasses is amazing... maybe they meet a girl or a guy or just start to feel really good about themselves. They can make a big difference.
Some people are renowned for their glasses—they almost become their trademark. Who are your top glasses wearers?
I always look back to Michael Caine. Particularly in the late 60s and into the 70s, he was wearing some amazing glasses and used them to enhance his own and the character of the part he was playing. He was an icon, he still is an icon. Harrison Ford and Steve Mcqueen could wear the hell out of a pair of sunglasses too.
And then you’ve got glamour icons like Audrey Hepburn and Sofia Loren. They made it socially acceptable to wear sunglasses. Go to any square in Italy and the first thing you see is 90% of people wearing sunglasses... it could even be cloudy and they’ve still got their shades on. Sunglasses aren’t driven by climate over there, it’s part of their image and they just look cool.
This might be a bit of a daft question, but if you had to wear one pair of glasses for the rest of your life, what would you wear?
That’s a tough one. I love wearing sunglasses. The first thing I do when I walk out the house is put a pair of shades on... and then I realise that it’s raining. But right at this moment if I was only going to have one pair, I’d seek out a really good round frame.
Brilliant, I think we’ve covered a lot here. One last question, what can we expect from Seen in the future?
Well, we’ve just launched our new website retailing a selection of the eyewear we have in store. We’re not selling all our brands online—a lot of styles we want to keep exclusive to purchasing in-store with the help of the team.
We’ve launched the website with Garrett Leight and slowly over the next six months we’ll be adding more brands like Mykita, LGR plus some new brands that we’re pretty excited to bring to Manchester. I’ll keep those under wraps for now though...
Beyond that, Seen is starting to outgrow our humble home. Perhaps a little expansion of premises would be a good thing. And then... is there going to be another Seen open somewhere in the UK? Who knows...