Kirk Originals was established in 1992, however, to recount its history from then would be disingenuous as the business’ foundations were laid all the way back in 1919. It was then that two brothers by the names of Percy and Sidney Kirk established Kirk Brothers, an innovative optician, lens and frame manufacturer operating from 34 Grays Inn Road in London.
The optical industry in the UK was at this point in history thriving, and London was the epicentre of this burgeoning trade. The two brothers were perfectly-matched for a family business enterprise, with plenty of business and marketing acumen genetically combined ingenious creativity, and so the business was founded on solid ground from which to build from.
Percy was the marketing trailblazer and came up with several profound ideas that bolstered Kirk Brothers’ reputation. These include setting up the first publicity department for a London-based optician and utilising motorcyclists as couriers, the latter of which is hard to imagine given that today it’s standard practice.
Sidney meanwhile was a deft creator, a resourceful and hands-on kind of guy, who notably transformed a sewing machine into a lens cutter which was a pioneering feat at the time. Because of him, Kirk Brothers registered many patents in the 1920s and 1930s in creating component and lens parts, pince-nez and safety lenses for motoring.
The great daredevil Sir Malcolm Campbell, who broke land speed records for fun even on his worst days, wore motoring goggles fitted with Kirk Brothers lenses throughout the 1930s. This is one of the reasons why in response to the direction that the world of Motorsport is moving today we’re proud to work with Formula E’s rising British star Oliver Rowland.
In 1941, London was subjected to a dark and oppressive cloud and deafening sounds of The Blitz. This gave the Kirk family no option other than to sell the business, as its headquarters was sadly caught in the crosshairs of Luftwaffe’s offence. Each brother then went at it solo within the optical sphere. Percy became a wholesaler of motoring lenses under the name of Percy Kirk, and Sidney then started an optical manufacturer called Kirk Optical in Hatton Garden.
Records from this point onwards until the early 1990s are irritatingly vague. But that’s customary given the industry’s major decline in Britain in the 1970s. However, the post-war period in Britain and abroad as progressive and culturally dynamic entities have proven to be more influential and crucial to Kirk Originals approach today in comparison to details on the fragmented and confusingly dissolved Kirk Brothers business. This, we will touch upon later.
Purely by chance in 1992, a descendent of the founding Kirk family discovered a box of vintage frames from this post-war period. They were reminiscent of a seemingly bygone era of style: emphatically bold, full of character, heavy in weight and made to a level of quality that was nonexistent across the early 1990s eyewear market.
These vintage frames were retailed from Covent Garden, yet the supplies quickly ran out, and so Kirk Originals sought out a manufacturer in England and injected a spectrum of contemporary colours and tones across these classic styles of sunglasses. It was very much a winning formula, as no other eyewear brand for men had ventured in this direction before.
Kirk Originals was an instant hit, frequently seen in the pages of The Face magazine, and on-stage being worn by leaders in the burgeoning Cool Britania, Brit Pop, Acid Jazz, Rave Music scenes. Liam Gallagher is the best-known patron, however, The Brand New Heavies, Paul Weller and The Young Disciples were all equipped with non-conformist attitudes and were well-accustomed to Kirk Originals’ confidence-boosting aesthetic. Simply put, Kirk Originals wasn’t for the weak-minded, nor the cautious, it was for the trailblazers and hellraisers in equal aplomb.
As cyclical as trends are, the market for Kirk Originals in the early 2000s waned and the business moved into optical frames. With this, the British essence of the frames was lost with manufacturing undertaken overseas. However, its legendary status for 1990s style continues to exist.
In June 2017, Kirk Originals was relaunched by IDL Group, a premium architecture business with experience in the luxury sector, at London Collections: Men. The business embarked on a strategy that had a simple but effective ethos: make frames in England by hand using the best materials and most skilled craftspeople and produce perennial eyewear that transcends fickle fashion.
To do this, Kirk Originals has gone back to basics and even sourced a workshop where its craftsman produced handmade frames for the business back in the 1990s. Spearheaded by Mark Brown as Creative Director, he has revisited the glory years of masculinity and references mid-century and modernist eyewear through a global lens, channelling traits of confident men with modern design updates.
Luminaries that have helped frame the business’ aesthetic are spread across music, film, the arts, literature and design, both in the UK and abroad. From your silver screen icons such as Robert Mitchum, Jack Nicholson, Terrence Stamp, Alain Delon, and both Paul Newman and Michael Caine in the 1970s, to stage commanders such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Chet Baker and The Clash, and finally to great minds such as James Baldwin and I. M. Pei, Mark Brown has endless reserves of post-modernist seeds of inspiration to work with.
The reception to this new frontier for Kirk Originals has been well-received in a relatively short period of time, and stockists such as Mr Porter, The Rake, Lodenfrey and more, are all testament to that and we’re extremely grateful for their on-going support.
While having stockists that are held in such high regards is a wonderful bonus, the mission statement will always be the crucial aspect of the business.
Kirk Originals is and always will be totally committed to making the best frames possible in England (you can read about our process here), and despite time moving at a seemingly accelerating speed, it will always look to champion the aesthetic and attitudes of the 20th century’s foremost characters.