Ahlem Manai-Platt, Founder of AHLEM Eyewear
Standing out in the highly competitive sunglasses industry is no easy feat, but Ahlem Manai-Platt is defying the odds with her timeless designs and branding. The spirit of her native Paris and a focus on the intersection between function and style are what have built her a loyal cult following—and she’s only just getting started.
Interview: Meet the Woman Behind the Lenses
There are two kinds of sunglasses: good and great. A good pair of sunglasses shields us from the sun’s rays whereas a great pair doesn’t just protect our eyes, but also transforms our ensemble. Following a number of enviable stints in the fashion industry, Ahlem used one idea to become a bonafide entrepreneur. We spoke to the business owner about what gave her that final push to start her own business and why a person’s sunglasses are so important.
Tell us about your upbringing. Where did you grow up?
I was born in Paris and grew up in the 7th arrondissement in Paris.
Tell us about your career prior to AHLEM.
Right after college, I moved to Mexico and my first job was as a photographer for the Vallarta Opina newspaper. After a year and a half, I went back to Paris and became a junior journalist at Capa Television. In 2008, I was hired by Acne Studios to develop their retail strategy. This included developing stores and buying for the French market. Then, in 2012 I joined Miu Miu as an all category buyer in France. Then I started up my own consulting firm, Retailist, providing up-and-coming designers with marketing and branding support. I also served in an advisory role to the Fédération Française du Prêt à Porter.
Why do you think eyewear is so instrumental to a person’s style?
I always thought a beautiful piece of eyewear defines the person wearing it. For me, it has a lot do with the relationship between function and beauty. Between what you are and how you want to be perceived. It’s very interesting. I believe they are objects of beauty that can stand on their own. So it’s important to get all the details right: amazing hinges, great size temple, incredible lenses, comfortable nose pad —all these little things are so important!
What inspired you to start AHLEM?
I love sunnies! Really, what led me into founding the brand is a question of timing. By that I mean that when the timing was right, it just felt natural. April 2014 was the real date of birth of the brand because it’s the date that I received my first stock. It was so excited to get all these frames at my house. I was sitting with friends at a coffee in Paris, we were talking about our goals, I showed them a pair of glasses I drew, and seeing their excitement was the first step. Then I lost a pair of beloved vintage sunnies that I couldn’t replace—that was the final push.
I was sitting with friends at a coffee in Paris, we were talking about our goals, I showed them a pair of glasses I drew, and seeing their excitement was the first step.
In your eyes, who is the AHLEM customer?
For her, it is effortlessly cool, hair tousled and face make-up free. She is a study in effortless Parisian style. She wears a uniform of clean navy blue, reflecting a strict philosophy in quality and radical simplicity. Her accessories are entirely understated, arguably statement pieces, worn only as extensions of her personality. Ever curious, she is not easily categorized. She is striking, but not obviously so. She notices what most don’t, minute details, that are often overlooked by the everyday observer. A student of Bauhaus, she is a believer in fine craftsmanship and timelessness in their most simplified forms. She knows Paris better than anyone, but is not bound by her city. She belongs there as much as she does anywhere. By no means a high maintenance traveler, she prefers the discretion and understated elegance of a boutique hotel. On the city street she emerges clean-scrubbed, a half-buttoned men’s tailored shirt tucked into denim, and a camera in hand. A Parisian at heart, this is where she finds both her solace and her inspiration.
For him, a white t-shirts and worn-in jeans are a staple at home. His hair’s slightly unkempt, his beard a couple days old. He’s up early to catch the sunrise, with a coffee in hand and the news on his iPad. Maybe he’ll go for a run, or maybe he’ll head to the cafe to get breakfast. He’s confident but not pretentious. He’s wearing a great jacket, paired with cuffed jeans and sneakers. His look is subtle and understated but look closely and you’ll see that he appreciates the fine details: Japanese selvedge denim, perfectly-rolled sleeves, a vintage Patek Philippe around his wrist.
You mention on your site that AHLEM is Paris-inspired. What elements of Paris are in your designs?
Paris’ architecture, smells, and shapes are in my DNA.
What would you say about competing in the eyewear industry since it is dominated by a couple of major companies? Are there unique challenges?
I think I’m the only one to do what I do, the way I do it. There’s a lot of independent eyewear brands out there. I stand by every single one of my frames. Major eyewear companies can’t really do that. Quality and details are the most important for me.
The direct-to-consumer business model has really shaken up the eyewear industry. Why do you think the shake up was necessary?
People want to know what they buy and where it’s from. We are very transparent and we want to create an object that you keep forever. A pair of glasses that you can pass on to your children! The shake up was necessary to get this level of quality and craftsmanship.
We are very transparent and we want to create an object that you keep forever. A pair of glasses that you can pass on to your children!
Has there been a major struggle as a creative entrepreneur that you’ve learned from?
I think I’ve learned to not take myself too seriously. As passionate and driven as we want to be, it’s key to realize that we are not saving people’s lives or ending hunger in the world. We are lucky to work on great creative and inspiring projects and we should be mindful of that.
Can you describe your creative process?
I design from my house or from my studio–which are four blocks away from each other in Venice Beach, Ca. Then I send the drawings to my factory and they come up with a prototype that we edited and send back and forth to each other until we get the perfect frame. Each and every pair of glasses is the work of nine people. When I say factory, I should really say ateliers. People working on AHLEM glasses are French artisans. They are experts in their fields and they excel in doing one very specific thing. There’s no room for mass production in the way I see the brand. Each frame is made by hand by a team of incredible artists that are passionate in what they do.
What are your future plans for AHLEM?
We are working to grow the number of our retailers and be in more and more key stores. We are also building a strong retail base. Our first store on Abbot Kinney is located in the perfect location for us. This street of Venice embodied everything that we are as a brand. Having stores all over the world is something that we are definitely working towards. California and America in general is where we start but we are looking very closely at Scandinavia.
We want to be a reference for amazing quality and subtle, timeless style. We want to let everyone know that AHLEM is the brand you go to if you’re looking for a classic pair of glasses that will last you a lifetime.