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Audacious and Artistic: Christian Roth and Eric Domege

By Paddy Kamen

Heralding from Berlin and Paris, Christian Roth and Eric Domege emerged as designers from the New York art scene of the early eighties.

Now Imagine a young man of 15 in Berlin. It’s 1975 and his father has just returned from a business trip to New York City, bringing with him a gift of cool shades — Raybans, to be precise.

Now imagine a boy of 12 in Paris. His mother is a couturier and he breathes the air of fashion. It’s 1973 and he fakes poor eyesight so he can get a pair of eyeglasses, loving the way they change his appearance. Prescient indeed.

Christian Roth is the young man who received the sunglasses, and Eric Domege is the boy who knew at age twelve that eyeglasses are a fashion accessory. The two have been friends and business partners for over 25 years, spanning the era of no-fashion to high-fashion eyewear with audacity. With no formal training or background they have created one of the most prestigious names in sunwear with a growing presence in the world of ophthalmic frames. Christian Roth is the label, but the business is the two of them, inextricably joined in the power of creation.

“The gift from his father started a love affair between Christian and sunglasses that extends to this day,” notes Domege in an interview with Vision Magazine. “He went on to work part-time in an optical shop while attending high school and college, and quickly realized that there wasn’t much of interest to offer customers.”

Domege was studying advertising and marketing in Paris when he first met Roth in 1978. Then, when he moved to New York City in 1981 to continue his education, they met again by accident and became friends. They both loved haunting flea markets and vintage shops where one of the big attractions was the eyewear.

As part of the clique of artists that formed around Andy Warhol and Club Area (a trendy nightclub with art installation theme rooms), Domege and Roth thrived on the edgy dynamism of the New York scene. One of their friends was putting together a fashion show for Club Area and asked if they would use their vintage sunwear collection to develop something original for the show. “We revamped 12 pairs of vintage sunglasses with paint and new lenses,” explains Domege. “They were used on the runway and even featured on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily. This recognition gave us the push we needed to move into the business, and we originally called our company Christian Roth for Optical Affairs.”

Luckily, Roth and Domege came of age in a time when it was possible to start an eyewear business with nothing more than talent, chutzpah and a prototype. Domege notes, “We started with one style and, fortunately for us, some of the greatest retailers were willing to give us feedback and an opportunity. And if we went to them with a prototype they would agree to give it a try and wait patiently for several months until we could deliver the product.”

Optical retailers like Henri Bendel in New York, Fred Segal in Los Angeles, and Marvin Freeman of Los Angeles, Chicago and NYC (the ‘godfather’ of the fashion eyewear industry according to Domege), all confirmed with their patronage that Roth and Domege were on the right track. Among the first retail shops in Canada to recognize their genius were The Brass Monocle in Calgary and Eyes on 12 in Vancouver. In Toronto, Bob Karir was an initial enthusiast and continuing supporter.

With Andy Warhol wearing a Christian Roth design it didn’t take long for other celebrities to catch the trend. Early adopters were Faye Dunaway and Diana Ross. Today’s celeb CR aficionados include Jennifer Garner, Mickey Rourke and Kate Hudson.

Ten years ago, Roth and Domege joined forces with the Charmant Group, based in Japan, which produces and distributes their collections worldwide. “We joined Charmant because of their strength in quality and technology. They have allowed us to do some amazing things and I believe we have really challenged them at times with our designs. It’s a great partnership,” says Domege.

The Christian Roth customer is someone who doesn’t want to be associated with a logo. With no outside branding, the look appeals to those who have the confidence to be themselves. “Our goal is always to make the person feel and look glamorous,” explains Domege. “Our customers are widespread, unisex and of all ages. One of the greatest satisfactions is seeing the same frame worn by Sharon Stone and Lenny Kravitz, or to find cool kids in Tokyo wearing the same frame as a chic Parisian woman. This is a great complement, and we design our frames to fit all faces.”

The dynamic duo of Roth and Domege have their principal residence in Monaco, and also spend a lot of time in New York and Miami. They may create eyewear in their home-studio, but are just as likely to carry the design work wherever they go, focusing not just on their own brand but also working for others. “We recently created both ophthalmic and sunwear for Karl Lagerfeld, and we also designed the original Michael Kors collection,” says Domege. “We enjoy this work because it opens our brains up to different stories besides our own.”

Regardless of the broader economic scene, Domege is confident that the Christian Roth brand will continue to thrive. “We believe strongly that there will always be a market for well-conceived designs and production with meticulous attention to technology and detail. Our frames do not go out of fashion and so are not marketed by the season or the year. A lot of love is put into the product and the consumer and retailer can tell the difference.”