Who Is: Blake Kuwahara

In our ongoing interview series, Dana Palmer gets some one-on-one time with Blake Kuwahara, Founder of Focus Group West.  Read on to hear about his path from psychobiology to designer, what inspires him in the fashion world, and perhaps some tips on just what to do if you need to spruce up your image.  
DP: So, I know that you originally studied Psychobiology before moving into Optometry.  Tell our readers how this happened.

BK: I’ve always been interested in science and had received a grant from The Museum of Science and Industry and the University of Southern California my last year in high school to study the effects of a certain corticosteroid on tooth development.  The practical applications were in the understanding and correcting of cleft palates.  My final paper was selected for a national competition which I presented at Princeton, and I thought at that point that I would enter the field of dentistry.  Very quickly I decided that that wasn’t the career path for me and decided instead to go into optometry instead since it had the perfect combination of science and fashion.  Getting my BS degree in Psychobiology at UCLA allowed me to fulfill the requirements to get into Optometry School at UC Berkeley.

DP: What prompted the change to designing eyewear?

BK: Honestly, it was a little crazy-making being in a dark room for the better part of 8 hours.  As much as I loved working with my patients, I actually liked being in the dispensary with the frames better.  A friend of mine found an ad in the LA Times for a position with Liz Claiborne Optics looking for someone who had an optical background and an interest in fashion to work as a forecaster.  I thought it was the perfect job for me.  As it turned out, the Creative Director was going on maternity leave and rather than the forecaster position, they instead offered me the opportunity to become Creative Director for the company!  It was a wild leap of faith but one that put me on the path of designing eyewear.  Needless to say, my parents were a bit confused why I would give up all those years of school to get into the design field, but they supported me 100%, and it’s turned out to be the best decision I could have ever made.

DP: So, tell me more about how Focus Group West was started:

BK:  The concept of founding a creative collective was something that I thought about several years ago.  For the most part, eyewear companies don’t approach brands or bring product to market in a comprehensive way.  Just look at how eyewear brands are generally represented at point of sale- there are obvious disconnects.  I wanted to establish a resource that would integrate product development, marketing, retail presentations and the way brands are promoted under one roof.  That’s why we have eyewear designers, graphic designers, architects and public relations specialists on our team.  Each of us works on our specific area of expertise, but we approach projects comprehensively and work together to make sure that all of the elements are properly coordinated and tell a singular story.  As the retail environment is becoming more and more crowded and competitive, it’s critical to communicate a clear, immediate, and consistent message to the consumer.

DP: What eyewear trends do you see developing?

BK: I think that the recent economic conditions are forcing consumers to look for good price-value relationships and this is driving design houses to actually focus on design and quality of workmanship.  Consumers aren’t going to split with their cash for something ordinary- they want something that is compelling and well-thought out.  Just slapping a logo on a temple isn’t enough anymore. The consumer is (thankfully!) smarter than that now.  And, given the times, “understated sophistication” will be one of the leading trends in the next few seasons.

DP: What inspires you creatively when you design?

BK: It’s all about nuance and soul.  Since eyewear is something that is worn on the face, and we have such little real estate to work with, we have to work in very subtle ways.  Anything – from furniture to jewelry design to architecture that uses subtlety to achieve interesting design and creates character without being over-designed is inspiring to me.  There’s nothing more inspiring than to browse through a flea market looking for interesting yet humble objects that possess what the Japanese refer to as “wabi sabi”.

DP: Is there a particular era and/or style of eyewear that you like most?

BK:  I think that the 30’s was a particularly chic time for eyewear.  Acetates were just becoming used with more frequency in rich ambers, tortoises and crystal.  Shapes were smaller and distinctive but still complemented the face.  Metal frames were really well crafted with great filigree details and made in fine gauge gold-filled wire.  Also, there was a trend towards green lenses which I’ve always been partial to.

DP: How a bout a popular trend that you would like to see disappear?

BK:  There are a few!  Neon anything and rhinestones.  There’s nothing flattering about having neon colored frames on your face- it just screams bad taste.  There are several brands that think the more crap you put on a frame the better.  To me, it’s just more crap.  And, the Wayfarer.  People wear it to be cool, but how cool are you when you look just like a million others on the street wearing the same frame?  So to me, the absolute worst is a neon colored Wayfarer with stones!

DP: BUZZ Magazine voted you one of the "100 Coolest People in Los Angeles."  What is your definition of "cool"?

BK: I think that what’s cool is thinking outside the box, going against the grain and finding success and happiness in that.

DP: Tell our readers about your personal style.

BK: I think that my personal style- both in what I wear and where I live is about creating visual balance by combining opposite aesthetics.  Mixing modern with vintage pieces; western with eastern; sleek with textural.

DP: Is there an easy guide to keeping up with trends and sprucing up someone's look for a new season?

BK:  Well, I guess the expected answer would be to throw on a great pair of sunglasses and call it a day!  But, I would add to that great accessories.  It can be an interesting belt, a signature ring, a piece of ethnic jewelry or a vintage handbag that you picked up at a flea market.  If none of that works - get a new haircut!

DP: In terms of fashion, what designers or brands do you enjoy?

BK:  I’m really enjoying seeing a new generation of Japanese designers emerge- Kiminori Morishita, The Viridi-anne, Attachment, Shellac, and Shared Spirit.  They all spend a lot of energy and effort paying attention to all of the little details like trim, threads, buttons, and textiles that American and even European designers fail to do.

DP: As a designer, what would be your dream project?

BK: I’d love the opportunity to design a men's wear collection.  I’ve designed eyewear to go with fashion never the apparel itself.  I think it would be really liberating not to be limited to just designing two eye rims and two temples!!

For more information about the Doctor/Designer, visit the Focus Group West website.  Be sure to check out the additional group profiles on FGW public relations specialist Niki Ostin and fellow designer Thomas Ferguson.  Stay tuned for more.


Thomas Ferguson: Top Secret Assignment

 Focus Group West's very own Thomas Ferguson just shot a special eyewear education segment for an upcoming TV show premiering in January 2010.   


We can't yet divulge the details but be sure to check back.  

We will post updates soon!