“Comfort comes from understanding the anatomy of the face and creating a frame that works in harmony with the contours.
A face is three dimensional; this is why we design and manufacture STEPPER frames in three dimensions. Anything else would be a compromise.” Hans Stepper, Managing Director, STEPPER Eyewear International
Roots and Philosophy
Stepper has been manufacturing eyewear since 1970, but the company’s journey began further back than this when the founder, Hans Stepper, was in his late teens.
Hans, born in 1935 in Stuttgart, Germany, entered optics assisting his father who owned a small opticians in the city. Here he began an apprenticeship where Hans soon recognised he had a passion for the design and craftsmanship of eyewear.
Hans noticed how much happier the patients he saw were when they had a comfortable and correctly fitting frame. “Around this time the best frames I was fitting came from the German company Marwitz & Hauser,” comments Hans. “Their product was much more expensive than others and as a young lad I was reluctant to offer these (in my mind) difficult-to-sell glasses. However, I soon discovered that once the customer had tried them on, the reaction was ‘They fit so comfortably!’ and in most cases the frame was sold.”
“I soon became interested in frame design which led to ‘Metzler International’ employing me as a trainee in their design studio who, in turn, recommended me to ‘Instrumentarium’, which was then the leading optical chain in Finland, to have my own studio in Helsinki for handmade eyewear with jewellery applications for their affluent clientele,” continues Hans. He returned to Germany in 1961 where he continued to design for Metzler and completed his training, graduating as ‘Master Optician’.
This experience, his passion and ability to craft eyewear led Hans in a direction the company has been on ever since. What if he could create spectacles himself? But, rather than look to conventional, tried and trusted methods of frame manufacture, Hans had become interested in a process that would not have been obvious to most as a method of manufacturing quality eyewear. Cheap sunglasses were being made at this time using the mass production technique viable with injection moulding plastic. This began the idea to use this method to create his own injection moulded frames.
At the time, his father warned against this idea, but Hans (a stubborn and determined young man) went against this advice to create quality injection moulded spectacles. What emerged in 1970 was the beginnings of the Stepper we know today. To start the business, Hans enrolled Bernard Ide to deliver an injection process that would create quality frames, this left Hans free to design. Together Stepper and Ide began creating ground-breaking comfortable frames. These were frames that fitted, held their shape, could be easily adjusted and were designed and coloured with ease to suit trends. Ide sadly died in the mid 1980’s, but he hasn’t disappeared from the frames as the nomenclature for ‘STEPPER’ branded frames start with ‘SI’ – Stepper and Ide.
Manufacturing began in a garage close to the family home. Hans’s family grew up and the business prospered. The brand became available across the world with opticians attracted to the frames that gave their customers such comfort and for a growing demand for fashionable plastic frames.
But, difficult times hit the company in 1993 when, almost overnight, demand switched from plastic to metal frames. The change was so fast that Stepper couldn’t respond quickly enough and those frames it could sell were becoming very expensive because the Deutschmark had also hit new heights in its value.
As the company was so engineered towards the production of high quality plastic frames, it almost disappeared. During this time, one of Stepper’s most reliable customers, Rayner & Keeler Ltd (Rayner Opticians), didn’t want to see such an innovative supplier vanish as Stepper product was so key to their frame portfolio.
To this end, Rayner & Keeler purchased the company and brought the complete works to Tunbridge Wells, Kent. Hans also moved to England where he and the team continued to design and manufacture frames to be sold across the globe. But progress was slow and large scale investment was needed to turn Stepper into a world player.
During 2000, in what was initially a joint venture between Rayner & Keeler and Arts, all of the Stepper design, tooling and manufacturing was moved to Arts facility in Shenzhen, China, not far from the Arts Head Office in Hong Kong. Arts had grown under its founder Michael Ng to become a world class manufacturer of frames with massive production capability and huge resources, including on-site research and development and product testing. Again, Hans moved with the business, seeing this as a great opportunity for the brand.
Hans and Michael, in spite of language barriers, quickly became close friends. Both had built respected optical businesses; Hans had the brand and Michael the manufacturing clout. Together, they began to build a modern Stepper.
Arts was also an innovator and had begun working with Titanium in 1997. In 2000 it was already supplying quality Titanium frames across the world. Both Hans and Michael could see the potential in this material within the Stepper ‘comfort and fit’ remit. With everything needed to bring quality product to market quickly available at the Arts facility, Hans began a new era in frame design and development. Rapidly, the Stepper portfolio expanded with a diverse and exciting range, new plastic (TX5), Titanium, rimless and TX5/Titanium combination frames, which still held true to the brand’s core principles were finding new fans in a market that was now receptive to both metal and plastic.
Today, Stepper frames are sold in over 60 countries with over 150 new styles launched every year. Indeed, Stepper (with Arts) became the first non-Italian brand to exhibit in the main hall at Mido, Milan – a true sign that Stepper had become a major frame maker again. The brand remains one of the few true ophthalmic brands still trading and it grows, year on year. This year Hans will celebrate his 80th birthday, yet he is still busy designing frames, researching materials and production techniques as well as visiting distributors and attending trade shows worldwide.