By Paddy Kamen
Family businesses that prosper for three and four generations are rare indeed, but the current Oliver Goldsmith, head designer of the eponymous London-based company, isn’t resting on his laurels.
It’s hard to start at the beginning with the story of designer Oliver Goldsmith (b. 1942), because there are so many possibilities. There’s the 1926 beginning, when his grandfather, Philip Oliver Goldsmith, opened his London workshop and hired craftspeople to fashion frames out of tortoise shell. There’s the 1936 beginning, wherein Charles Goldsmith, son of the original Oliver, joined the family firm. That Goldsmith forged the design dynasty, that reigns to this day. Then there’s the, shall we say, humble, beginning of the presently reigning Oliver Goldsmith in his early days under his father, Charles.
Charles Goldsmith kept the business afloat during the Second World War, creating eyewear by day and monitoring the bombing in central London by night. It was after the war, however, that the real design genius of the Goldsmith family began. Charles (who changed his name to Oliver after his father’s death) wanted to attract attention to the Goldsmith brand and turned his design talents to the creation of striking and unusual designs that tapped into the 1950s post-war consumer desire for extravagance and originality. Vogue and other leading fashion magazines loved his frames and celebrities devoured them. The ‘new Oliver’, became eyewear wardrobe consultant to Princess Grace of Monaco, who owned 47 pairs of eyeglasses. The Duke of Windsor was also a customer, as was British bombshell actress Diana Dors.
Charles’ son, Andrew Oliver, originally wanted to be an architect, but his math was so poor that he was denied admission to the university program. “I was encouraged to design on a smaller scale, as they figured that any buildings I designed would fall down,” he chuckles. But when Andrew Oliver asked his father for a job designing eyewear he didn’t know he would have to serve a five-year apprenticeship learning every aspect of the business. “At age 17 I showed up for work and asked my father where the design studio was. He told me that I had to gain the respect of his craftsmen before I could give them orders so I swept the floors, made tea and learned to pack frames so that they wouldn’t break during shipping. After that I went on the road as a salesperson. I joined the firm in 1959 and didn’t do any designing until 1964.”
London in mid-1960s was an exciting place, with innovative fashion and music bringing youthful vitality to the world. Andrew Oliver’s eyewear designs fit into the zeitgeist beautifully. “My very first design, called RIP, was worn by Lord Snowdon, the husband of Princess Margaret. I also designed spectacles and sunglasses for actors: Michael Caine, Peter Sellers and Audrey Hepburn wore my frames and John Lennon wore the Oliver Oval Pro, a special metal design that did not require conventional nose pads. Princess Diana was also a customer.”
As he moved into design stardom and business maturity, Charles insisted that he Andrew Oliver (known previously as Andrew) henceforth be known as ‘Oliver’, in keeping with the company’s brand. “I said, but your name is Oliver,” he recounts. “What will you be called?” To which his father replied, I will be called ‘the old man’.”
And so the third-generation ‘Oliver’ has continued the business tradition started by his grandfather and the design tradition begun by his father. He remains the sole designer at the two licensed companies that carry his name: one in Britain and the other in Japan. Most fortunately, the retro trend of the past several years has been well served by the fact that Oliver Goldsmith kept samples of every frame he ever designed. “I never imagined in the 1960s that my frames would again become high fashion 50 years later.”
In June of this year, Oliver introduced a new collection called OGxOLIVERGOLDSMITH . These designs were created in Japan under his supervision, and he expects to launch the collection at Vision Expo West this fall.
Oliver Goldsmith will launch a new line known as the PHOTOGRAPH in spring 2015. The collection, which will be distributed in North America by Prisme Optical Group, will feature Goldsmith’s designs from the 1980s, plus some new designs that he created whilst on a Baltic cruise last year. “I’m happy to be designing again. We will test the new styles in Japan and then tweak them as necessary for the North American market. Everything is falling into place and I am very happy!”
Oliver Goldsmith is just beginning a new phase after 50+ years in the business. Clearly there is more to come from this renowned designer. He is doing his forebears proud, while also grooming his daughter, Alex (an artistic presence in her own right with a thriving photography business in London) to take over one day. Not any day soon, however, as he still has plenty to do!