Mitchell Oakley Smith, MANUSCRIPT
As you’ll notice of the above portrait, Graz Mulcahy doesn’t wear glasses. Well, sunglasses for the summer, yes, and he’ll occasionally be coerced into popping on a pair of his signature frames for a shoot, but he’s not an eyewear designer that creates for himself. In fact, he’s not much of a fan of most eyewear in the way it creates a barrier between the wearer and those around them. The Nicole Ritchie type of eyewear shield is not one he wishes to replicate. “Eyes,” he says, “are people’s best feature. I don’t want to hide them but frame them, make them a feature.” If they are the, as has been said, the window to the soul, then Mr Mulcahy – or Graz, or he’s known to most – wants to make sure that window is open.
Mr Mulcahy is very friendly. It’s the first thing you notice about him. On the day of his portrait, he’d just flown in from Hong Kong and was making jokes about the fact that he only wears grey but had brought along a white shirt at our request and occasionally ducked into the bathroom to fluff up his fringe to give the appearance of a thicker mop. But the designer’s affable demeanor belies what is an incredibly wise business mind and strong worth ethic. You don’t go from being a juggler and unicyclist to running a globally successful business with no higher or tertiary education without having some street smarts.
Mr Mulcahy, 30, grew up in Byron Bay in New South Wales’ far north coast before it became gentrified by tourists. There wasn’t a lot to do, he says, and so to fill his days between school he began to graffiti and build skate ramps, though found he wasn’t so great at the latter, which led him to mastering the aforementioned circus tricks. “I thought one day I would be a street performer that travelled the world from Glastonbury to Darling Harbour,” he explains. “It never panned out, and after sustaining a uni-cycling injury – a phrase impossible to say with a straight face – he invested more time in graffiti, beginning his first business creating t-shirts with custom prints.
Similarly, he fell into eyewear rather by accident, too. “I had no experience and knew that I wanted to draw things and carve a career in the arts. When I moved to Sydney and saw all the private school kids with the cash and connections getting into fashion, I thought I’d be eaten alive and knew I needed something different I could advance in.” Back then there was only a handful of good independent eyewear brands in the market – more than today, of course – and next to none of them available in Australia, providing a gap in the market for Mr Mulcahy to carve a niche. Though he came to the field with no experience, there remains no degree or course for eyewear design beyond the broader subjects of industrial or fashion design. Graffiti gave him a leg up. “With graffiti you have a specific word or character that has to be stylised within the boundaries of legibility, and eyewear is the same. The area and boundaries are relatively limited and the smallest changes make the biggest differences.”
Mr Mulcahy originally put aside his own name, beginning the eyewear collections of local brands AM and Ksubi, both of which now boast mass industry credibility as a result, but a crave to do his own thing led to the establishment of Graz in 2009. “Like most partnerships, circumstances can change and this for me always led to a diluted design result. It was an ego thing, really – I wanted to make for me and my immediate tribe.” And that he still does: each frame style and collection is marked with initials representing the name of a friend that has or is inspiring him.
The band of customers, however, stems far beyond his friends, with his range sold globally. Australia aside, France is his biggest market, interestingly, as it remains one of the only countries to resist the corporate takeover that has seen the likes of Sunglass Hut and OPSM shut down countless independent boutiques both here and abroad. Helpful, too, is Mr Mulcahy’s base of Hong Kong, where he moved last year in a bid to aid the development and production of his collections. The city, he says, is developing at a rapid pace, which makes it really enjoyable as home, but it also sits on the doorstep of the world’s eyewear production facilities. “Every European and Japanese lens, aceteate and hinge company has now set up in China, making it a condensed hub for making world class products.” As a self-described eyewear nerd, it’s important he can visit the factories and speak with the production people that will create the frames that bear his name.
And beyond the craftsmanship, it’s no wonder the frames are so popular around the world: they’re really different to everything else on the market. These are not the traditional aviator styles recycled by designer brands season after season, but a new proposition in eyewear design altogether. A pair of optical frames from the current season has a slight cats-eye shape in the curvature of the top, but interestingly are half-clear and half-black in colour, while traditional rectangle frames are rendered in different shades of opaque, from clear to brown to grey. He’s inspired, he says, but artists such as Jake and Dinos Champman, James Turrell and Bill Henson, which makes sense, in a way. The artists are disparate in medium but share a common exploration of and reshaping of form, just as Mr Mulcahy’s eyewear blurs the distinction between optical necessity and wearable art.