When Jamal Robinson was coming up with names for his business, he wanted one that had some panache. After all, a sunglasses company can’t be dull.
"I thought about calling it Desire, but that didn’t seem original enough," the 27-year-old Fort Wayne native said. "I wanted a name that sounded European and cool."
The end result was Desiar Eyewear (pronounced des-e-air). It sells handmade fashionable shades that court the millennial set with oversized specs for those wanting celebrity bling on a budget.
While some designer sunglasses can cost more than $400 a pair, Robinson decided to keep most of his in the $90-to-$150 range.
A Northrop High School alum, Robinson said most of his target audience can’t afford high-end brands, but they don’t want something that looks cheap, either. With their unique wooden and crystal trims, Desiar sunglasses are a tweener.
After three years in operation, annual sales in 2014 reached about $200,000, mostly through word-of-mouth and Internet sales, Robinson said. But in the past six months, Desiar displays have popped up in Christopher James Menswear, Longe Optical and Symmetry women’s wear in Fort Wayne.
Robinson said the company also has a presence in select Sunglass Hut locations in Indiana and boutiques in Montreal. This spring, he plans to open a downtown location in Fort Wayne.
Robinson employs five full- and part-time workers locally and two more in Chicago and Toronto. The businessman contracts with a company in China to produce his sunglasses. Last year, Desiar shipped more than 2,000 pairs, he said.
As for the industry, the Vision Council of Alexandria, Virginia, reports that annual sales for sunglasses increased last year to $3.8 billion from $3.6 billion in 2013. Sales have spiked more than 10 percent since 2012.
Robinson once eyed a career in soccer, not sunglasses. After receiving a scholarship to play for the University of Central Florida in 2006, he hoped to walk in the footsteps of DaMarcus Beasley, a fellow Fort Wayne native who has played in four World Cups.
But the ball bounced another way.
"A new coach came in, and I got cut my sophomore year," Robinson said. "I lost my scholarship. That was a bummer.
"Meantime, though, I had this sunglasses thing I was still kind of working on."
It began when he was 19 and Robinson saw R&B singer R. Kelly sporting a pair of diamond-encrusted sunglasses.
"I was 19, so I couldn’t afford something like that," said Robinson, whose company also makes frames for prescription glasses. "So, I found these Swarovski crystals" and doctored a pair of less-expensive frames.
"Everywhere I wore them, people would comment on them. I knew I was onto something."
When Robinson returned from central Florida, he enrolled at IPFW, all the while fine-tuning his eyewear. After he received an associate degree in business marketing in 2013, Robinson went all in on Desiar.
Symmetry owner Laura McCarthy is glad he did.
"The line is going really well," she said of sales at her store in Covington Plaza.
"People are impressed that Desiar is locally designed. They like the look and feel. They’re really trendy, and that’s what we’re all about."
Indiana Retail Council President Grant Monahan says Robinson seems to be on the right track. Landing shelf space in local stores and with other retailers is quite a coup as Desiar goes up against national brands, he said.
Monahan also said he doubts that potential customers will be turned off by the fact that Desiar products are made in China.
"I think everybody appreciates that this is a global economy," Monahan said. "As a customer, you just want the right price, style and right look. And obviously, (Robinson’s) delivering on that."
Longe Optical district manager Stuart May agrees. Still, he knows Desiar is an upstart going against Gucci, Oakley, Ray-Ban and other popular names.
"It is a David and Goliath story," May said. "Jamal is a great communicator, though, and is doing a good job. For people looking for regular glasses, (Desiar) might not fit because they’re wanting a more traditional style."
But sunglasses are about self-expression, May added.
"You can wear something that’s more out there with sunglasses," he said. "People are always excited about things made in Fort Wayne. This has been fun."