Years after pursuing a career as an optician, Max decided to design his ideal pair of glasses, to be produced sustainably to order in Germany. With Model No1 he started label ST EILEN and is currently working on a second model. One foggy October day we met at his showroom in Leipzig.
Janis: What made you found your own company?
Max: To make someone a beautiful pair of glasses, to help him see properly and look good at the same time, has always been something I enjoyed a lot. But after having worked in the industry for a while, selling diagnostic equipment to optician chainstores, I came to the understanding that there are also a lot of companies with almost no motivation to sell spectacles to people.
Working for FIELMANN, I grew to appreciate the customer-oriented work-style there, - but it was also much of the same. It made me want to create something unique, beautiful and entirely ethical. Instead of selling 10 so-so glasses I wanted to sell 1 perfect one. Looking for “beautiful” specs I could sell in my potential boutique, I noticed that I liked some by their looks, but then they weren't produced in a good way. Others I found were produced sustainably but looked so extroverted, that it would be hard to sell them. Because I couldn't find my dream pair, I decided to use my contacts...
I have now created the perfect pair of glasses in my view, produced by different small businesses and traditional manufacturers – of the best possible material, with the best possible hinges, finish and without any branding. I organise everything single-handedly to ensure that, for example, the glasses made in Germany also get produced by a friendly and sustainable company.
Since I sell all my glasses myself, I know about every nuance, every customer preference I could fulfil, that I might incorporate into the advancement of the model. And because I work this close to my customers and sell my glasses at eye level (smiling), I also witness the happiness of my customers, which is rewarding.
When was ST EILEN founded?
The opening night was on March 2nd 2013. There, first customers who had already ordered in advance, blindly (down to colour samples and faith), got their new pair of glasses and potential buyers could try out models for the first time. The previous year had been the preparation and planning phase. Through a cardboard model I had experimented and worked out my preferred frame shape and realised that a lot of people fit this one very well.
This means the product design is also yours?
Yes. The best cellulosic plastic (for frames) comes from Italy, which is delivered in certain sizes only. But form, colour, hinge, print... I decided for myself. This made everything rather complex, but also very fun.
What's your typical workday like now?
Generally it is most important to me to have enough time for my customers, so showroom visits are only possible by appointment. I would recommend two o'cock in the afternoon, since that's when the light is best here - which is useful for a good colour choice. (smiling)
Furthermore, my customers can have their temples laser cut with initials or favoured quotes. These individual laser cuts are being realised by a specialised company in my neighbourhood. At the same time the lenses get produced by OPHTHALMICA in Rathenow [Germany] and are sent to Jena [Germany] afterwards to be fitted and assembled there. As soon as the pair of glasses is finalised and sent to me, my customer gets a pick up date.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Magdeburg and later moved to Leipzig, where I also started my apprenticeship. I decided on a career as an optician, because the mixture of craft, local presence and medicinal topics appealed to me.
After I had worked nation-wide as an optometrist, I enjoyed the best master training accessible at that time and felt rather overqualified afterwards to work in an optical store. So I started to work for the industry, trained ophthalmologists and worked as an account executive for optician chainstores. This was interesting, but also a bit dry and removed from customers. So I decided to move back to my favourite city and bring to perfection what I loved to do most all along.
Your major advice to me, if I wanted to open a small business myself?
My credo with ST EILEN is: clear sight reduced to everything essential.
If you draw up something by yourself and don't concentrate on the essence, you have to... well, split yourself! It only works out, if you focus on what is most important for the project and yourself.
For me, it's about sustainable spectacles, which are produced the best possible way, without any compromises, at a fair price. That's what I stand for and nothing else should be there. In addition it's important to talk to people, and to hand over tasks to someone better qualified, if you can't handle them yourself.
What marketing-tool are you counting on?
A mixture - but primarily I approach congenial people who seem to like beautiful and good things. I can tell from experience that if I speak to ten people, there will be one who wants to have a pair of my glasses. This means I got to talk to 30 strangers about my label in order to sell three pairs of spectacles each week. Now selling maybe sounds a bit uncomely, but it is necessary in order to keep the company alive.
This means right now your customers are limited to a radius of Leipzig and surroundings reached via word of mouth?
I would say more than half come from Leipzig, the rest from other parts of Germany and very few customers are international. MC FITTI wears my glasses, which I think is great! (smiling) Also FACEBOOK and INSTAGRAM are good ways to promote your work, but you've got to be careful not to push too hard, so people stay interested.
How many people work in your team?
I do, full-time, together with a group of advisors. I have a designer working for me, who looks after the design of my label and I know a few photographers I trust. 8 people work in the workshop where my glasses get assembled, in the production around 40 – these are employees of my suppliers.
How do you benefit from getting your glasses produced sustainably?
I have a sleep-well-guarantee for myself and my customers (smiling), and an honest and fair product at an honest and fair price. Those, who hold it in their hands enjoy it and want to have it. So far, I've had no customer complaints - everyone was content with their glasses.
Would you say, the quality is noticeable better than having them produced in a low-wage country?
I'm sure you can get good quality in a low-wage country as well. But here I know that during the production process of the lenses, ecological standards are met, while I wouldn't be able to control this in other parts of the world. Neither, how well workers are protected from chemicals.
Also, it is super easy and convenient to just call up my manufacturer in Germany to say I would like this colour a hint different, or an edge slightly changed. With production on a different continent it wouldn't be as easy to communicate and adjust all the details.
Are you careful with what you shop yourself?
I am. Primarily I want to buy as little as possible to not have as much junk. Then I like to buy things that give me the feeling, that they've been well thought through by their producer, like speakers by TEUFEL. I also like to buy second hand things.
I try to run all my errands by bike to support my health plus to prevent the absurdity of two tons of car being moved around.
Which frame colour is your bestseller and why?
White coffee is the most popular one! Both with sun lenses and clear lenses, it's a hit... and would suit you by matching your hair and eye colour as well..! (both laughing)
Do you have any job-related wishes or intentions in mind?
Well, currently I am developing the second model and I intend to gradually add beautiful models to the collection, to craft a small but nice selection of ideal spectacles.
The label ST EILEN is to be strong and timeless, and should always stand for a good pair of glasses.
And where in Leipzig do you like to spend your free time?
In the last few weeks at RICHARD-WAGNER-HAIN [park] and at café ZIERLICH MANIERLICH. Other than that, Merseburger Straße is a prime address to have a good time in Leipzig but it strikes me that even with a relaxed self-employment I'm short on free time. Shall we have lunch at CAFE TUNICHTGUT?
Thank you Max Steilen for the interview! To find out more about his work visit his online shop here.
photography, interview & text: Janis Manini Claudia Kanga