Eyewear is one of the smallest and easiest accessories, that can make or break an outfit. It is also one of the staple pieces people use to assert their personal style.
Designer and entrepreneur Dionne Ellison took her peculiar vision that started with pictures of flies and has turned it into a new and unique eyewear brand Vuliwear. Salute spoke with her about her vision, and how she brought her eclectic brand to life.
Salute: How did you get your start in designing eyewear?
DE: I stumbled upon it actually. I come from a very fashion-forward family. My mother was a seamstress. She could sew without a pattern. Men’s, women’s you name it. My sisters, I have three sisters.
I have one sister that is a designer and an artist and another that is a seamstress and an artist. So my mother used to style us like the Jackson 5 every Sunday, our outfits always matched.
DE: Oh yeah! So fashion and style, all of that is innate in me. So about four years ago I was surfing the web, I happened upon this photographer who specialized in magnifying insects, specifically, their eyes.
I was sort of awestruck when I saw it you know? Like who knew? The pictures that I was looking at happened to be horse flies.
We all hate flies, but they seem to have the prettiest eyes. Their eyes are actually compound which means they form a bunch of hexagonal patterns.
So when I was looking at it, I realized their eyes looked like a pair of sunglasses to me. So I bounced the idea off of my sister, and my best friend and both of them were like “Ewww, that’s a bug, it’s gross” at first.
But, once I could get them to look at the patterns in their eyes, they understood and agreed that it was a good idea for sunglasses. But, at the time, not even I was envisioning this becoming a reality.
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, working a 9-5 is excellent, but you’ll never get rich making money for someone else.
So, I started doing my research. I started looking at designers, looked into manufacturing, you know the internet is a beautiful thing if you use it correctly.
I started to put together a business plan and seek out manufacturers. I stumbled upon a gentleman out in Arizona who manufactured frames etc. Like I said this was a process, over the course of four years this June of 2017.
After I did some research, I spoke with my sister and had her sketch out my thoughts so people could see what we were looking at, and she did.
I designed how I wanted to replicate their eye patterns and make them into lenses. As she was putting them to paper things started to become real to me, things started to come together.
I was sitting at the same desk that I am now and my boss looking over my shoulder asked what I was working on, and I showed him, and he thought it was cool. I showed him the sketches and told him the name “Vuli” which means “shade” in Swahili; I wanted the name to have meaning, he was very interested in it.
So, once I was at that point where I took money out of my 401k and found manufacturers, both of which are in Italy, I started getting the prototypes made.
I tried hard to find manufacturers here in America, but not very many make metal frames which is what I wanted.
When you start to do the research, they want you to take a knockoff frame, and I didn’t want to do that. I really wanted to create my own original framework.
So I went with a manufacturer in Italy and got them to make my frames for me, got the prototypes. Then, one of the contacts I made when I was doing my research contacted me about a company that could do my lenses.
That was very difficult because there are many companies that can do mirrored lenses, but not many can make a pattern on those lenses, that is an entirely different process.
That is really what took so much time; looking at my sisters’ sketches, and trying to figure out how to make those patterns work on the lenses.
I am working with Essilor Sun Solution, who are a significant player in the eyewear industry. They make prescription lenses as well as Plano lenses.
They were awestruck with my designs and what we were doing, and they ended up making the lenses. Through those two manufacturers, I ended up with my prototype.
I went back to my boss and showed it to him, and he was like “you need to get started,” and he invested in me. You know they say, “people don’t invest in the product, they invest in the person.”
We had a good relationship, and he invested in me. He saw all the determination that had come out of all the years that I had been working on this and he believed in me.
From there, two other co-workers that I had worked with also invested in it, so I ended up with three investors.
Salute: Wow…. That says a lot about your character, that the people you worked with at the time would invest their money in you.
DE: I would say so, I am very appreciative. At the time the co-workers that invested, I didn’t know too well. They went off of the strength of my boss’ opinion. From there we made our first order.
From there I got in touch with a stylist from the New Jersey area that I had some connections with, and he was the one who got the placement of the glasses on Future for Oyster Magazine (below), which was HUGE. HUGE. (laughs).
Salute: Yes I was going to ask how that came about. What was it like seeing your eyewear on someone that notable?
DE: It was a surreal moment honestly. For me, I believe in what I am doing, and I know the quality of the product that I am putting out.
So, am I surprised? No. I’m not surprised at the response at all. But, until you start to follow these celebrities on Instagram and see the impact they have around the world then you begin to say “Wow, okay.” Then people started to ask “how did you do that? You just launched in June, how did you get your glasses on Future?”
I truly believe that God opens doors that he wants you to walk through. So each day I try to pray and stay focused and say “Lord if you close this door, it is not meant for me.”
I don’t want to say this whole process was easy because it wasn’t. But, what I will say is that he has put people in my path, and guided me. I feel indeed blessed and thankful for that.
Salute: It sounds like you had a really long and insightful journey through all of this?
DE: Absolutely, absolutely and one of the things I hope that I can do is teach other people who want to go through this process because it is daunting.
Just from having the revenue, people have great ideas every day but it takes a lot of tenacity and determination and faith to keep going.
It is a daily grind, and I think that is where people start to fall off because we live in a society with social media and people like instant gratification.
My son is in college, and people his age are already on to the next hot thing before you know it. Everything is instant, and they are on to the next thing daily, so people don’t have the longevity and the planning in their conscious.
It takes time and planning, and a lot of hard work.
Salute: That is true for all fields, even in my line of work. You couldn’t just walk into the industry and expect to interview someone like Beyoncé on the first assignment; it doesn’t work that way.
But if you continue to work hard and show your worth, you can work your way up to someone like that; there are levels.
DE: That is right! That is precisely how I feel. Future was an excellent start, and that told me that I have a product that was worthy. Honestly, if you pray and you ask God, he will let you know that you are on the right track.
Salute: What made you focus on the lenses and not the frames?
DE: I am a “think outside the box” type of person. If I like something and there are 50 of them on the rack, I’m not getting it because I don’t want to go anywhere looking like anyone else.
When I started looking into eyewear, people told me that it was a very saturated market, and it is. You can get a pair of glasses for two bucks or two thousand.
So, for me when I started going through this process, and I looked at other brands I realized that no one was really looking at the lens. Why?
Even when I brought it to the manufacturer, they could not figure out why either because everyone focuses on the frame.
Either I was a genius, or I was off the mark. I wanted to do something different.
After going to trade shows, and speaking with many manufacturers from other countries, a lot of them told me that one of the difficult things that they encounter when they come to America is that we are very interested in labels.
If it is not a big name brand, many Americans don’t want to buy.
I spoke with a manufacturer from Germany, and he gave me some words of wisdom and told me that when I launched, I should do so abroad in places like France, Italy, or Germany because they soak up new designers.
Salute: In fashion, I believe that is true. I think in the next ten years, or so that will change here.
I believe that people will open up more to smaller designers, if for nothing but the simple fact that everyone wants to look good, but everyone cannot afford a two-thousand dollar pair of sunglasses.
DE: Honestly, a lot of people cannot afford a $225 pair of sunglasses which my product happens to be, and I was very conscious when I started placing my prices. But at the end of the day, people buy what they want.
Salute: Your product at $225 is a lot more attainable I would say. People buy what they want, but with good quality at a lower price point, they can get something luxurious without breaking the bank.
DE: For me, I wanted my product to have that luxury but also the uniqueness. You will not find our look anywhere.
Salute: What brands bring you inspiration?
DE: That is a good question because I am not a brand person at all.
Salute: Are there designers that inspire you?
DE: My sister inspires me, she designs evening wear.
We were looking through some of her old sketchbooks, and we found so many styles that a relevant now that she was sketching way back in the day.
To this day, her designs are something that I think people need to see. It is probably one of the reasons I want to expand this brand further so people can look at the talents that she has.
Salute: That is something you can look back on in the future and say “we created this together.”
DE: We really did. If you look at the design specs on our website, you can see her original sketches there. When my former boss saw those sketches, that is where he made his decision to invest, after looking at her sketches.
Her sketches brought my idea to life, so it is definitely a partnership for sure.
Salute: That is great that you two have a relationship where you can collaborate in such a way.
DE: Yes it is. We don’t always have the same opinions, but we are able to collaborate and voice our views and understand one another and keep it moving even if we disagree on something.
Salute: Your design is based on flies, but what else in nature inspires you?
DE: I like everything in nature, plants, and flowers. I will admit I’m not a cheetah or leopard gal (laughs), but I do like nature.
Rooted in nature, purpose, and a lot of creativity and style, Vuliwear is one of the brands that has the vision and drive to become a staple for years to come. The hard work and ingenuity of Ms. Ellison is what many brands lack.
For more information or to shop the collection visit www.vuliwear.com