Who Is: Thomas Ferguson - Part 1 and Part 2

Our interview series continues with Thomas Ferguson of Focus Group West.

The Place: Los Angeles lunch spot, Tart Restaurant

Clad in a casual dark jeans/t-shirt look (and great sunglasses) Thomas looked like a celebrity incognito as we dashed into the restaurant of his choice for a quick drink and some nachos. It’s obvious that Thomas has great taste and an understated sense of style that always seems just right for the occasion. I found myself wanting to drill him on trends, movies, music, and of course, what I was wearing. Refraining from the latter (just to be on the safe side), we got into a great conversation about his work with FGW, history in eyewear, and on what he finds inspiring.

DP: Since everyone in LA seems to be a transplant, I always ask interviewees: What brought you out to Los Angeles?

TF: Well, coincidentally, this actually is my 10th year here. I celebrated over the weekend. It’s been a long and interesting 10 years. I moved out in creative pursuits and stumbled upon a part-time job, working for a small eyewear company doing PR and things took off from there. I ended up becoming a licensed Optician and became an assistant manager at a large chain dispensary. Within no time, I found myself as full-time manager with my own store. Next thing I knew, I was moving on to REM to venture into the wholesale side of the business and found myself drawn to the creative aspects of design and development. One thing lead to another and 10 years later here we are.

DP: How did you end up doing what you are doing?

TF: I started working as a design assistant for Blake about 4 years ago.  It was for the launch of Carolina Herrera Eyewear and John Varvatos Eyewear for Base Curve (a luxury division of the REM Eyewear in Los Angeles). After an intense year of design assistant work and Blake’s mentoring, I took on some of my own projects, some private label, and started developing product from there. I then became the Manager of Product Development for REM, became the lead designer of Lucky Brand Spectacles and Sunglasses, continued working on private label brands, as well as with John (Varvatos, that is) and Mrs. Herrera.

DP: So you and Blake must work well creatively.

TF: He’s been doing this for years and I had the opportunity to learn a lot from him. The respect we have for each other’s opinions makes us a good team in terms of working on different projects together. As a result, when he decided to create FGW, he asked me to take on the role of designer and developer for Focus Group West.

Part 2 - 

DP: Do you remember the first pair of glasses you ever designed and saw through to completion?

TF: I remember the very first thing that I did was some color work on a frame. The frame was already designed, but it was my job to pick the colors. The style became one of the top-ten sellers and I’m sure it had everything to do with material and color [laughs].

DP: Sounds like you earned a lot of responsibility pretty quickly.

TF: Blake was extremely influential in my growth at REM, and really pushed for me to take on more responsibility and more design work, because he felt confident in what I had to offer. When we started working on Rock & Republic I really had my first chance to get my hands dirty and become fully involved in the process. Sometimes it helped having the perspective of someone who didn’t know exactly what was possible versus what was impossible. I approached everything with the expectation that no matter how crazy or creative, it had to be able to be done. Surely someone could figure it out at the factory level, or the engineers could make it happen. I was a little less scared to experiment, so I could have a lot of fun in the beginning. Then came Lucky brand, which was definitely a little closer to my heart. I worked with Blake on the launch collection and then took over the design 100% for the subsequent releases.

DP: That kind of leads to my next question: When you take on a client, what are the steps that you take in the creative process?

TF: When it comes to working on a product development, if it’s a new brand that has never done eyewear before, it’s really about managing the expectations of the brand. This means making sure they understand what is appropriate for the eyewear market, because sometimes they have very grandiose ideas. It’s usually just because they have not yet ventured into the optical world, which really has very specific requirements when it comes to the optics and the ophthalmic qualities of the frame. So it’s really about managing those expectations and then immersing yourself in what the brand represents, and what the people at the brand give you: a storyboard, ideas, some selections. A lot of times if you are working on a launch, you are working so far in advance, you have to anticipate what will be happening a year from now, or even over a year from now. That’s one of the more difficult things because unfortunately the lead-time in the design and development process, and manufacturing takes about a year. That anticipation and knowing where things are headed is really important.

DP: Yeah that’s one of the things people don’t really think about, how much time in advance all of this is being done. Or how you start from scratch for a brand like Lucky, that didn’t really have a fully developed eyewear line.

TF: When they brought on REM for the design and development it was pretty much from scratch. The expectations were very high, and you always want to do the most with the limited amount of space you have. It’s important to really know how to differentiate Lucky Brand or any other brand from all the other designs that are already in the market.

DP: In your role, it really is important to have an eye for what will work.

TF: Yes it’s about really understanding the language the brand speaks.

DP: How do you do that? How do you get to know the brand?

TF: Well it comes from a lot of elements. Often the public doesn’t get to see the stories built beneath the brand. Be it what the founders or the people responsible for creating the brand brought to the table, or the storyboards and the concepts that were the original birthplaces of what we see, as a buying public. You have to understand where they started to know where they end up. And you really have to interpret that for eyewear. Start with the same objectives that they started with, tear it all down, and hopefully edit it to what is appropriate for the optical market.

DP: I assume there are obviously things that just work or don’t work on the structural side of creating optical glasses. There are two arenas it sounds like: Style and Functionality.

TF: Yes and also certain brands think they are perceived one way, when in reality they are perceived another way, or they have mixed messages. We as a public view a brand from the marketing to the way they position themselves, mid tear, high tear. It’s really about true perception and in designing eyewear you have to have a good understanding of both things: what they think they are, and what they are currently known as. It’s a happy balance between. Otherwise you are putting out product that doesn’t relate to what the consumers are expecting, and that’s the worst thing. Especially when you are doing a launch because you really only have one chance.

DP: Have you ever had difficulty with a client, where there was a big gap between where they saw themselves and where you saw them?

TF: Sure [laughter]

DP: [laughter] All right enough said. Ok going back to this idea of anticipation and predicting where things are headed, what is really hot now and what trends do you think will be popular next?

TF: Well it’s funny, when you spend so much time anticipating trends, you kind of feel like you have been living within the trends for a really long time. This is mostly because you have been creating around it, because you anticipate it being something in the future. You could see the wave of bright colors coming a mile away, because we have this whole insurgence of 80’s popadelic sort of thing. Now that it’s here, I anticipate it will be here for a little while longer but I’m hoping things either swing toward “true” vintage or we can start defining new styles and new trends that relate to now and aren’t trying to be something that’s already been done.

DP: Besides working within trends, and trend anticipation, what inspires your creativity when designing?

TF: I think that it’s best to live outside the world you are close to. I’m really inspired by architecture; specifically I’m a nut about kitchens and baths, and then gap they bridge between aesthetic beauty/visual interest and true functionality. They are the rooms in your home that are singularly purposed but they aren’t just about that function anymore. I love that they are places that can serve both ideas of form and function. I’m also interested in types of materials. Nowhere else in your home can you mix concretes, stainless steel, and tiles, and so many different materials to create an overall look.

DP: Are there any other mediums that you feel influences your creativity?

TF: In terms of things directly related to fashion and eyewear design, I’m really inspired by film, and especially older films. When working with eyewear, it’s hard to do things that have never been done before. It’s such a small accessory. There’s not much real estate on which to make it different. Before eyeglasses and eyewear became a part of the fashion world, some great styles were created. Old films, especially noir films had a great way of using eyewear in the perfect context. It would fit in the world the character was living, and connect to the clothes and the character. The eyewear became wardrobe that represented an extra element of intrigue, an extra element of sex appeal. It’s really about the context. So old films are inspiring to me because glasses weren’t just used as a way to showcase a brand logo, which is very much what accessories do, in film, today.

DP: Do you have some favorite films you can think of that show this idea?

TF: Two for the Road. One of the big things that Two for the Road does is to showcase the highs and lows of a long-term relationship and uses eyewear as a fashion element over an extended period of time. You can really see how the wardrobe team used eyewear and fashion to show the different time periods throughout the film.

DP: Yeah you know it’s so interesting to think, now that you mention it, just how important eyewear is to create a context. If you want to have a 70’s look you would choose different glasses than you would if you want to look 90’s. It really does complete a look.

TF: Very True.

DP: Speaking of popular looks and style, what is a label you would love to design for?

TF: One of the great things about Focus Group West is that we really have the opportunity to branch out and work with different companies. I’m looking forward to working with smaller boutique brands and designers – maybe for runway styles, small accessories or other collaborations. Some of my favorite brands right now are G Star, and D Squared. It’d be great fun to work on that product as well.

DP: What really draws you to a designer or brand?

TF: I really like Neil Barrett, because his collections are very masculine, and rooted in the old school idea that black is the new black; dark items that juxtapose a classic white v-neck tee for example. That’s a style I have personally always liked. I also brands like D Squared that are a little bit more irreverent and have a little more of a crazy, ambiguous, and sexy edge to them - that reads fresh to me, but still very tailored. It’s also fun to discover new brands and branch out. We don’t need any more people walking around LA in those crazy jewel-encrusted jeans.

DP: It sounds like you are also interested in other elements of fashion and design; will Focus Group West ever branch out into these areas?

TF: I am working on a blog specifically for Focus Group called, The Aesthetic Omnivore. The idea is that Focus Group has an outlet to really talk about all things creative. Part of the fun for me, is watching the innovations that come out of other product designs and other creative entities. Or to see how people are pushing the envelope, and also finding the hidden inspiration in things just as you are going through every day life. The blog is really meant to be about a visual world. Using everything that you see visually, from old antiques, to found objects, to new products, or things that are really inspiring or intriguing to us as a team.

DP: I feel like one of the themes of our conversation today is how much eyewear is related to other fashions, and how many different things influence eyewear. Your blog seems to be the perfect summary of that.

TF: Yeah it’s really meant to be that. It’s also meant to be a place where we can do original content. We just teamed up with a great talent agency – Look Models – in San Francisco and collaborated with clothing from some great boutiques in the city; The Archive, Metier as well as John Varvatos. The idea is to use models in this great interior space (designed by our very own John Lum), infuse some fashion into it, and also eyewear. We don’t want to make it look like an eyewear ad but more about lifestyle, architecture, and fashion. The blog will hopefully be a jumping off point for us to continue doing more artistic direction, and photo essays as well as offer this service to our clients.

DP: Last question: What do you think about the monocle?

TF: Oh, it’s coming back. It’ll be huge! [laughs]

Thomas Ferguson is a designer for Focus Group West and blogger for The Aesthetic Omnivore. Keep an eye out for upcoming posts at

- Dana Palmer, FGW Guest Blogger

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