When Tom Broughton, the founder of Cubitts, the modern spectacle maker, and I speak on a mid-spring morning, he is at home in north-west London, popping cough sweets, clearing his throat and apologising. He needn’t; I am thrilled to catch Tom in his natural habitat, the Isokon Building in Hampstead, where he has lived for five years. His face is illuminated by the morning sun, which streams in from the direction of Belsize Wood, and behind him I can see his walls, the original, richly-tanned panelling.
It is deeply satisfying that Tom, of all people, lives here at the Isokon (in the top floor penthouse flat, no less), a measure of how far he and his business have come. He discovered the Modernist block, designed to be an experiment in urban living and rendered in reinforced concrete, which opened in 1934, while on a walk in the area in 2002, having just moved to London from Leicester, “It was covered in graffiti, but like a cruise liner that had appeared from nowhere in leafy Hampstead.” Something piqued his interest, he read up and started an Isokon appreciation group on Facebook, realising that “it isn’t just a building but a whole ideology, a set of sensibilities.”
And that’s the thing about Tom Broughton: he loves an ideology. Specifically, ideologies that challenge received wisdom. With Cubitts, he brought a disruptive retail model into the spectacles market (more on that later), and now he’s at it again, this time in collaboration with TOAST, on a pair of sunglasses made from recycled cellulose acetate, which reuses Cubitts’ manufacturing waste.
“The problem with cutting from sheets of acetate is you're left with 75 - 80 per cent waste, which often goes to landfill,” he tells me, “so for years, we’ve been thinking of how we could use that waste, but wanted to do so with a brand that shared our values, so it wasn’t just products but a whole approach with a wider impact. TOAST was the perfect fit.” This whole approach, however, begins with a product – the Frederick Redux Sunglasses, produced in collaboration with TOAST, crafted from waste chips of cellulose acetate which are subjected to heat and pressure. Part of a limited run, each pair will be accompanied by a TOAST remnant fabric pouch, which is hand kantha-stitched by artisans in India.
Tom is delighted with the resulting “Redux” material. “A lot of materials with green credentials are inferior, but this is genuinely stunning,” he says. “I’d argue it’s even more beautiful than the acetate we always use. The effect is a tortoiseshell that's like a muted kaleidoscope; it has a bunch of different colours, transparencies and opacities. You catch these little bits of blue, green or turquoise within the dark, browny-red mottle, but we’ve not planned where that sits on the actual frame.” So, in essence, each pair is unique.
He says that, ideally, the Redux material is just “the starter pistol”. If people engage with it, like it, then Cubitts – and, indeed, the whole glasses-making industry – could reduce its acetate waste by three or four per cent. I ask if the Redux itself could be recycled. Yes, he says, “you can keep on granulating this material. Someone could wear a pair of these sunglasses for ten years, then give the frames back to be melted down into more Redux acetate. It could be a fully circular process, and that’s quite rare.”
And what of the design? Tom tells me that they took an iconic shape – inspired by a mid-century frame known as ‘library’ glasses – and updated them for the modern wearer. “They’re very 1958,” he says, “very Mad Men: a bit blocky, a bit graphic – you could imagine someone wearing them here in the Isokon, smoking a cigar with a beret on.” The lug – the bit with a joint at the front of the temple – is heavy, thicker than original library glasses, which deliberately shows off the lustre of the new material, he tells me.
Tom is something of a spectacles nerd. “People’s relationship with their glasses is defined by the time and context in which they started wearing them,” he says. He was 14 and never resented it, as someone who had all the inconvenience of wearing them from infancy, or who started in their forties, associating glasses with getting older. “All the people I really respected wore glasses – The Smiths, Jarvis Cocker…” He remembers going to his local optician in Leicester and feeling the disconnect between what was available and the “unabashedly bold glasses worn by Morrissey on Top of the Pops”. It dawned on him that opticians sold glasses to people who didn’t want to wear them. But what about people like him, who loved them?
He moved to London in his twenties, around the time he got lost on Hampstead Heath and fell upon the vandalised Isokon building. He worked in a string of corporate jobs but got into collecting vintage spectacles. “My most defining characteristic was that I had five pairs of glasses,” he says. The more he dug around, the more he saw that, while glasses had been around for centuries, they hadn’t – like so many other items (such as watches) become “cultural objects”. Save for the logos of big fashion house brands slapped onto the sides of generic frames, there was little scope, Tom realised, for expressing personal style with your choice of glasses.
He nursed an idea for what would become Cubitts – named after the pioneering master builders, the Cubitt brothers – for years. He pondered the ways in which a business could get people excited about the necessity to wear glasses and, importantly, offer a range and service that the high street simply wasn’t. These glasses would be fairly priced (with free prescription lenses), available in different sizes and colours, in beautiful, timeless designs. “It helped that I had no background in optics or glasses: I just wore them. I’m a wearer, not a seller,” says Tom, and it is this which made him instrumental in changing the very ideology around wearing glasses. As it says on the website, “Cubitts was founded with the belief that bad eyesight is a blessing, not a curse.”
In Latin, “redux” means “brought back”, a natural name for a material that repurposes another. In this case, acetate restored to a whole sheet, ready once again to be cut from; also for the sunglasses made from it. But there’s a lot of redux about Tom, too. A man who went on to live in a once dilapidated building he’d discovered years before, and returned to his roots as a spectacles anorak, making his hobby into his living.
Interview by Mina Holland.
Photographs by Lesley Lau.