Jan 29, 2016
At Work With Chris Mantz
T: I know you're the founder of Drift Eyewear, but what is your current role?
C: Currently I am founder, designer, head manufacturer, customer service liaison slash sales and shipping department. I'm the full-meal deal.
T: What's the career path that led you here?
C: I didn't have a background in the optical industry. I was an engineer by education and then an engineer/designer throughout my career. I experienced the birth and development of a product from concept to finished form in a variety of different capacities. I worked on everything from super high end valves and fittings to doors and windows to newly designed products that had never been to market before. I always wanted to create my own thing, but I had no clue what I wanted to make. I was kind of in-between jobs and decided I wanted to make a pair of glasses. I went into the eyewear store to buy new glasses and couldn't relate to any of the brands and the way that they were trying to sell them. They were all images of very attractive, fancy people wearing standard looking glasses all made of plastic and nothing really resonated with me. So, I wanted a product that was still fresh but subtle and how could I go about making that? I decided that wood as a medium was a really beautiful material. It had an inherent unique quality in the fact that no two pieces are identical and it had a warmth to the product not just from a value standpoint, but also a comfort standpoint- it's actually a really comfortable material to wear. It doesn't look loud or funky- it looks classic. The impetus was to create a product and brand that didn't really exist on the market.
T: What does your resume look like after college?
C: I always wanted to make stuff; I just didn't know how to do it. In engineering school, they teach you the theory but don't teach you the practical application of it. So I set out to do things that I was uncomfortable doing. I didn't have a proficiency in managing people so my first job out of school was in manufacturing where I was producing a product and managing people. I worked my way to a position where I was managing a shit-ton of people and getting the product out the door each day. That made me much more comfortable in a management scenario. After that I went to hardcore research and development, which is a very scientific, almost academic part of R&D. I learned the process of not just designing and building a product, but also the process of testing the product statistically to infinite cycles because it can be a life or death scenario when you're working with valves that control carcinogens. That taught me how to do really calculated analysis of a product and how it would function. Then I went into startup engineering, which is basically taking an idea that's been proven with market research and figuring out a way to make it a reality. We were working on a compass for firefighters in case they became lost or disoriented in a burning building. There were all sorts of challenging parameters: It had to be fireproof, waterproof, operable with gloves on, etc. It was a really cool product that went to market, but they weren't able to keep the product going because of the pay cycles. It taught me that even if a product is successful, it doesn't mean that the business will be successful. It was at this point that I felt I had enough experience to start working on Drift. I worked full time as an engineer/fabricator for a local UV lighting firm while I experimented with making frames in my spare room in my apartment, pissing off my neighbors with the dust and noise (laughs).
T: So why eyewear?
C: The idea for Drift the brand isn't just eyewear. It's more about the combination of different materials that tell a story, and that can really be applied to any product.
T: You use really interesting wood for your frames- what are some examples?
C: Since the beginning, we've been pretty adamant that we wouldn't mess with anything that's endangered. For example, we wanted to use Teak for along time. It's a beautiful wood and used in a lot of outdoor applications like sailboats, but we couldn't find a way to get it from a sustainable source. So, we ended up tracking down the USS California that sailed through WWII. The deck was all solid teak and they were just throwing away this beautiful material with a great history. We couldn't believe they were scrapping the metal and sending the rest to the dump. So, we salvaged the wood and used it for our 12M collection- our homage to old yacht racing traditions.
We've also used redwood and mahogany, which are both endangered, so we've had to find creative ways to salvage that. We've done a lot of other cool stuff with engrains and patterns- wine barrels, beer barrels. We've used wood that people have sent us, which is humbling. One girl's grandfather was a woodworker and she sent us some pieces of wood from his workshop. It wasn't very interesting looking, but it was very sentimental to her, which was really cool.
The Delta Blues were a really cool way for us to show the history of the wood in a piece. In the 1800s, they used to float logs down the Mississippi to transport it to the sawmill. Workers would shepherd the logs along, but sometimes they'd hit a rapid and some of the more dense logs would sink to the bottom and just sit there for a century. We found a construction worker who would dive in the swamps in the Mississippi. He had a homemade pontoon boat and would go out with his pitbull and dredge up these ancient logs. The really cool thing about the wood is that it's cypress- a really pale yellow, pine-looking wood, but after 100 years submerged it has interacted with the minerals in the soil and changed to different striking hues of purples and green and really gives it the essence of the Mississippi. We called the collection the Delta Blues because of the itinerant blues men who used to play music for the loggers. There were few bars or music venues back then, so the logging camps were captive audiences. They would play to the cotton plantations and lumberjacks and really interact with the audience who would play their own instruments and it was that interplay back and forth that helped form the early blues musicians and their sound. They would travel from camp to camp and bring what they learned with them. Eventually they made their way up to Chicago by way of Nashville and Memphis. That's been a really important part of the evolution of American music. It's a good example of the stories we like to tell with our products.
T: What was your first pair made out of?
C: Butcher block bamboo that had a really cool parquet appeal (think of the floor of Madison Square Garden) there was also engrain, so it was very fragile and that's what motivated the steel core design that we have in all the glasses. I learned early that wood as a medium is really beautiful, but it's inherently fragile. There are actually a lot of wooden eyewear companies out there that have completely disregarded that and have put out a subpar product. Or it has very severely limited the cuts of wood they can use, so the product is boring. The first Drift frame took me a few days to actually create by hand. I sent them to my buddy who was going to the Oscars and they broke on the red carpet. So, my first experience with product testing in the field was my buddy rocking the frames and them breaking on him. It was like ok shit, back to the drawing board. From there it was like 6 or 7 more iterations with different laminates and glue and finding a way to strengthen the frames. I was finally able to figure out we needed steel running through the temples. It was good that I didn't have a background in eyewear because I was able to really think through the problem and find a way to achieve the look I was after. We basically found a way to create a sturdy foundation that we could put a facade of any material on top of.
T: What's a big risk you've taken with Drift that worked out?
C: Early on we had a decision of whether or not we were going to make our own plastic for the frames and we realized from a cost standpoint we couldn't afford to grow the business while shelling out a lot of money for someone else to make our plastic. In the process, we learned that Mazzucchelli, the only real acetate manufacturer in the world had developed a new eco-friendly version of their plastic. No one was willing to adopt it because it was untested in the field and 30% more expensive. Because we didn't know any better and we're young and dumb, we figured we'd take it on and invest and be the first in the world to adopt it for production. From that point on, we've been using eco-friendly plastic that's vegetable-based rather than petroleum-based. You're not using fossil fuels to create the plastic. It's biodegradable over time as well. It allowed us to offer the type of product that we always wanted to offer and it aligned with our ideals.
T: What are the capabilities of the Drift factory?
C: Material-wise, we can manufacture most metals, acetate (plastic), we make our own hinges, and wood. The goal has always been to create a design house for optical that's unlimited in its ability to use materials and we're pushing that envelope pretty hard. Right now we're capable of manufacturing a variety of materials that no one else in the country can do. I hope to continue to push that envelope and offer artists and designers of all disciplines a pallet that they can work with that no one else can touch. But it's all based on experience and workmanship and learning how to incorporate other materials into that ideal.
T: So what does your typical day look like?
C: I get in the shop at 8am and make coffee (usually Gaslight) and get to work on production. Around noon I'll take a break and check emails and make phone calls. I try to knock out as much manufacturing work as I can to start the day and then do the business stuff in the afternoon and ship at 5pm. On Monday we set up everything that we'll need to produce and ship out on Friday. Typically it takes about a week to make whatever we need to ship out, so we work around that loose schedule.
T: What brought you to Chicago?
C: I had the idea for Drift and it was well before the heritage or Americana revival. I decided that if I was going to be making a product in the United States, Chicago was probably one of the only cities that would have the knowledge still in existence. I didn't know who was making glasses or where they were, but I figured Chicago would have the ability to manufacture. I thought that if I was here, I would find a way to do it. I love the Midwest- I was born and raised in Cleveland. I figured I could learn everything I needed here and get a start. It just made sense.
T: Now that you're here, what do you like to do in Chicago?
C: I'm big into art and architecture. I think that's been a big inspiration on me and the stuff I like to make. We're surrounded by some of the most prolific architects of the last 150 years: Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies (van der Rohe)... All these guys lived here and it's funny to see some of this stuff- Craftsman or Prairie Style made a lot of sense when Frank Lloyd Wright was doing it because we were surrounded by plains, but now with the revival of the forests and the buildings being so tall downtown, Wright's inspiration behind the Prairie Style isn't as obvious as it once was. We owe a lot to Burnham for planning and designing a city that would allow for that much architectural innovation. Chicago's music and food scenes are also world-class. The cocktail and bar scene are great and fortunately, Chicago has been a big part of the revitalization of the American maker movement. It's not necessarily intentional, but a lot of people happened to come together at the same time and work together to create a really positive culture. It's been a really powerful and inspiring thing to be a part of and grow with. There isn't really one thing; there's just so much culture and genius in Chicago. Food, music, even sports... I love it.
T: Where do you hang out?
C: My studio (laughs). I'm an outdoors guy. I love all that the city has to offer, but if I get the chance to leave, I do. We'll go to Michigan, Wisconsin- I'm from Ohio, so I travel back there. There's a surprising amount of natural things to do in the Midwest- the western coast of Michigan is beautiful and there are a lot of national parks there- the beaches are gorgeous. I lived in San Diego, so saying those beaches are gorgeous says a lot. I love history, so I hit up the art museums and gallery shows. I have a lot of artist friends and they're constantly putting on shows of varying size and scope... and aptitude, maybe (laughs). You see everything. In the city, we spend more time with friends than going out, but our friend circle is so dynamic- we have friends in politics, tech start-ups, advertising, coffee- it's the gamut. Everyone's got something unique to offer, but I think it's really healthy to get those different perspectives. Chicago has really dynamic motivated fun smart people.
T: What draws you to Stock as a brand?
C: Stock makes beautiful clothing ten blocks from my house. I know that sounds simple, but that's the selling point for me. They use incredible fabrics and put a lot of thought into where/how they source them. The garments are all made in a mil-spec. shop, so the sewing operators are some of the best in the country. All of that together makes for a very high quality garment. Our brands started at the same time and we're in a completely different category, so we're constantly sharing best practices, war stories, whiskey, along the way. I have a lot of respect for the way they've carried out their vision and the impact they've had in such a short time.
T: Cool, thanks Chris!
C: (laughs) Always a pleasure!