“Perfect weather for sunglasses,” joked eyewear designer and entrepreneur Ahlem Manai-Platt as raindrops started to dot the pavement two days before the grand opening of her Paris store.
Having moved back two months ago, she’s not yet acclimated to Paris’ late winter weather after spending the past nine years in Los Angeles and its average 275 days of sunshine a year.
It had been the perfect place to start Ahlem, an eyewear brand built on French optical know-how and a sharp, not-quite-minimal aesthetic. But now it was time for its next chapter, at 9 Rue du Dragon in the heart of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood.
The Rue du Dragon store is the fourth flagship for Ahlem. From the street, the 540-square-foot store designed by architect Andreas Fornell of Swedish design practice Specific Generic looks more like one of those achingly chic art galleries, all white walls and Bauhaus-style arcades.
There are ceramics by Tokyo-based potter Kansai Noguchi and hand-hammered wood benches. Even the floor plan is inspired by Isamu Noguchi’s 1920s drawing “Paris Abstraction.”
The only thing that really indicates the space’s destination is the rows of striking eyewear lining the left wall, either architectural acetate shapes with 22-karat details and bold tones or graphic titanium outlines.
Everything else is cunningly hidden away in custom-built cabinets that open to reveal hot stamping and polishing equipment, as well as the cash desk. In the back is a fully appointed optometrist station to check customers’ corrections, the glass cutting equipment and everything needed to ensure a perfect fit.
It will offer the latest collaborations with Palais Galliera, Paris’ fashion museum; stylist and costume designer Mobolaji Dawodu, and fashion editor Jorden Bickham, for a capsule benefiting the New York-based nonprofit Gays and Lesbians Living In a Transgender Society.
Soon shoppers will also be able to have bespoke frames designed from A to Z, a service that was born from Manai-Platt’s recent creation of six fully custom pairs for LeBron James. Designs made through this service will start around 1,500 euros, and go up to 1,800 euros. Ready-made designs retail between 400 and 600 euros.
For Manai-Platt, the new store also feels like the dot that reconnects her brand and personal story. A decade ago, Ahlem was just a doodle in a notebook for this collector of sunglasses since childhood.
Born in Paris to Tunisian parents who’d come to study in France — art for her mother and medicine for her father — and stayed to build careers and a family, Manai-Platt spent her childhood between the tony seventh arrondissement and Tunis, where she would spend breaks with her aunt.
“With French school holidays every six weeks, my parents couldn’t manage that rhythm and would just stick me on a plane. I’d demand a bribe to go: a watch, generally gimmicky one; a camera — those disposable ones especially, and sunglasses,” she said. “That’s how glasses became integral to my identity, a part of me hanging there with a leather cord.”
And given the number of breaks in the French schooling system, they soon began to pile up.
After a history degree and cutting her teeth in the fashion industry working at Acne Studios and Miu Miu, Manai-Platt was making a name for herself as a brand consultant who collaborated with the Fédération du Prêt-à-Porter Féminin, an entity that represents the interests of fashion businesses.
Her love for eyewear had never abated, though, and friends who saw her sketches pushed her to take the leap. A Google search later, and she’d found five factories in France.
Though she was getting ready to move to Los Angeles, where the career of her husband, film director Bo Platt, was taking off, making her eyewear in France was fundamental to her project. “It’s all about offering the kind of quality that I would want to wear myself,” she said.
Only one factory returned her introductory email. She headed there with a handful of sketches and left with insight on what she was getting herself into — the first of many lucky breaks that shaped the brand, in her retelling.
The first Ahlem prototypes were delivered at her new Angeleno home in January 2014, marking the start of the brand. That March, she was back in Paris for her consulting work with those early designs in tow.
Between meetings, she headed to Colette, the then-mecca of cool. “Just to check out what they were doing. I started asking a guy who was in that section about the eyewear,” she said. “He guessed that I had my own brand and told me to come back when I had samples.”
Out came the case of prototypes. Japanese shoppers stopped to look and even try them on. The rest is history, Manai-Platt said. Months later, a firm order made Colette the first fashion retailer to carry Ahlem.
In parallel, business in the U.S. was also taking off. Opticians, particularly high-end ones, were Ahlem’s main target “and when it comes to selling sunglasses, Los Angeles is really the best city,” she added.
These hand-finished acetate frames with details drawn from Brutalist architecture, unusual hues and names like “La Seine,” “Place du Louvre” or “Barbès” caught the eye and by 2018, business was booming.
Propelled by high-double-digit growth, Manai-Platt created a holding that would oversee a U.S.-based company, serving North America, and a French counterpart, managing the rest of the world, as well as the brand’s own logistics center right next to one of its factories in the historic Vosges eyewear basin in eastern France.
Ahlem had netted a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund nomination the previous year and Manai-Platt’s designs were seen on famous faces like Beyoncé, Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner and Kate Moss.
Artistic collaborations followed, cementing the brand’s position as the new cool kid on the eyewear block. There’s sunglasses with musicians such as Beck and Leon Bridges but also projects like the “Take a Look at What I See” monograph of Paris images captured by photographer Max Farago and edited by Ahlem.
But even now, there’s a touch of wonder in Manai-Platt’s retelling. Take her titanium frames, introduced three years ago and made by a manufacturer in Japan’s Fukui prefecture she’d met at Silmo before incorporating her brand.
“I knew their name because they produced for a major fashion label,” she said, declining to name it due to the ferocious competition in the sector. “Can you believe these guys who were there to do business just spent that time with me, who had no brand, nothing to show and would perhaps never amount to anything?”
Nowadays, the nine-year-old company has hit the 15-million-euro mark in sales for 2022 and counts 26 employees, including a four-strong team handling the in-house logistics center. Its small-batch collections are still manufactured in three factories in France and one in Japan, for titanium.
And after years of designing alone and sending “scribbles, but pretty ones” thanks to her art education that were translated by her factories into tangible objects, there was another of those kismet moment.
In December 2020, she hired product development manager Sophie Martin, who’d spent 17 years at Opal Eyewear, a French mass-market manufacturer that holds licenses for the likes of The Rolling Stones, Barbie and the Avengers franchise.
“You often think that [as an independent brand], you’ll never be able to hire a profile like Sophie, but in reality, they arrive at the moment where you really need them,” Manai-Platt said.
In addition to its four flagship stores — Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and now Paris — there are some 500 Ahlem retailers around the world, mainly in the U.S. and France, markets that account for more than 70 percent of the business.
More modest in size, Japan is also a market where Ahlem has long-standing devotees. “Being made in France is one thing but it’s our ‘no-compromise’ stance on quality that really speaks to them,” Manai-Platt said.
Even the pandemic couldn’t upset the company’s momentum or its commitment to doing things right, whether it’s giving struggling retailers more flexible conditions to get through lockdowns or introducing a buyback program for consumers. “People now only want to deal with individuals and companies who respect them, and respect themselves,” Manai-Platt said.