Meet the Northern Ireland woman with an eye on how to make glasses a fashion statement
She started off wanting to be an architect, but eyewear designer Alyson Magee from Northern Ireland has reached the top of her industry with her iconic designs. Stephanie Bell talks to Alyson as she prepares to launch her latest collection in Belfast
Alyson Magee began her career as a designer just as glasses were on the cusp of becoming a cool fashion accessory that actually flattered the face.
A native of Londonderry who lives in Paris, Alyson has pushed the boundaries on design to create statement spectacles which are renowned worldwide.
The 58-year-old honed her craft with the best in the business, Alain Mikli, who was a pioneer of fashionable glasses.
French-born Mikli, who is Armenian-Lebanese by descent, has 27 own-brand stores and his shades have been seen on everyone from Elton John to Kanye West and Catherine Deneuve.
Alyson credits her mentor with "changing the world of eyewear" and, learning from the master himself, she has gone on to leave her own indelible signature on luxury eyewear.
Her designer glasses, which are all handmade, are now sold worldwide, which is why there is much excitement in Belfast about the fact that she is due to launch her latest collection here next week.
Speaking down the line from her home in Paris, Alyson is equally thrilled to be coming home to share her latest range with customers of EK Eyewear on Belfast's Lisburn Road.
"I can't wait. Obviously I love coming back to Northern Ireland and I am very honoured and thrilled to be asked to attend the event," she says.
"It's so weird because since I got the invitation, I have had so many people sending me messages and asking can they meet me when I am over. Some of them I haven't seen for years, so I am very excited to be coming home."
Married to French industrial designer, Laurent, she has two children, Robyn (23), a marketing student, and Alex (21), who is studying to be an architect.
Alyson's journey to the top of her field is fascinating. She grew up in Londonderry, one of three girls, initially wanting to be an architect.
Her mum persuaded her to do a foundation art degree before making up her mind - which she did, and then opted to study jewellery design.
"I always wanted to do architecture. Mum thought the course was so long that I should do a foundation course first, which I did in Jordanstown," she says.
"I had an uncle who was a jeweller in Derry and I grew up fascinated by his workshop and spent a lot of time there.
"I ended up doing jewellery, which to me is small-scale architecture really. I went to university in Loughborough to do a BA in jewellery design for three years and after that, I really wanted to go to the Royal College of Art. That was my big dream, but I wasn't sure if I would get in and I did get one of just four places that year."
Alyson spent another three years at the Royal College of Art studying for her master's degree in jewellery and silversmithing.
It was here that she first challenged the status quo when she chose eyewear for a design project as part of her degree.
She recalls: "It was 1984 and there wasn't a lot happening in the eyewear industry and my tutors actually said to me, 'Do you realise eyewear is not jewellery', and said I couldn't do it as part of my MA.
"I argued that it was like jewellery as it involved the same product technique and was something to enhance the body.
"They didn't really know how to teach me or help me as no-one specialised in that area, but they said if I insisted, they would support me. I continued to work on the project and thankfully got my MA in the end."
Her choice of designing glasses for her degree project was a surprise to Alyson, who began to consider it as a career after realising that the industry did lack a fashionable edge at that time.
"I didn't wear glasses myself, but my parents both wore glasses and my sisters and I grew up surrounded by people wearing glasses," she says.
"At that time, there was not a lot of thought put into the product, even though it is something you wear every day and your eyes say so much about who you are. To me, it is such an important part of the body and I just thought more attention should be put into it.
"Alain Mikli was my hero at that time. He was only starting to become known in London and he really did change the world of eyewear with his designs.
"Back then, the big fashion houses didn't have an eyewear collection at all. When I graduated, I thought, as no-one was designing eyewear in London, it would be a challenge for me."
Alyson contacted Anglo American Eyewear, which was the only factory making glasses at that time. The owner, who became a friend, encouraged her to go to Europe, where designer glasses were starting to take off. Alyson wrote to a number of companies and was thrilled to get a reply back from her hero, Alain Mikli.
"He invited me to come to Paris and show him my portfolio and he offered me a job. I failed my French O-level and so I moved there with very limited French and stayed with Alain for five years," she says.
"He really was the person who changed the whole of the eyewear industry. He started designing frames for the big fashion houses back in the Eighties and was breaking all the rules.
"He did everything against tradition and was very creative, and for me, it was really exciting working for him. I spent seven years at university studying it and you come out thinking you know everything, but for me, my education started when I worked with him."
Alyson left to come back to England to see "if I was missing anything" and soon discovered little was happening there - so she returned to Paris.
She then helped set up the iconic eyewear brand, Face a Face, with two business partners, taking on the role of creative director.
As creative director, she not only designed frames, but all the packaging and promotion material to go with them.
In 2004, she was approached by her old mentor, Mikli, inviting her back to his company to design and launch her own collection.
She says: "I felt it was the right time in my career to do it and it was a big step, but I think a natural step in my career.
"As a designer, it is always a bit of a dream to have your own collection and I spent a lot of time putting it together. I spent about 18 months and even designed a new plastic and it was very well thought-out and a good success."
When Alain Mikli sold his company, Alyson started to work as a freelance designer, teaming up with high-end product distribution company Brando.
Her collections are now iconic in their own right. Alyson brings drama to eyewear, in the shapes, depth, colour and texture, and her upmarket range is all handmade by the finest craftsmen in France and Italy.
She herself says it would take someone with confidence and a strong sense of self to wear her distinct designs.
"I think it would take someone with a strong character to wear them. I always think they are quite architectural, with elements that are executed like jewellery, with finesse," she says.
"The detail is really important to me, and the mix of fashion as well. I've always been interested in challenging the traditional way of making things, which I do by adding these architectural ideas.
"With some of my frames, I have mixed metal with plastic in a way that is not traditional. I want to make them unique and individual."
Her own design collection sells throughout the UK, Canada, the US, the Philippines, Greece and Ireland.
Alyson has a holiday home in Donegal, which she and her family use frequently. Her parents have passed away, but her two sisters still live at home and she visits often.
She met her husband in Paris and in an amazing coincidence on their first date, they discovered that they had actually stood beside each other a year previously without realising it.
"On our first date, he was showing me photos taken at the Royal College of Art degree show held the year before, and right in the middle of one of the pictures were my glasses and we worked out that I must have been standing beside him when he took the picture," she explains.
"He is a designer, too, and can design anything - except for glasses. I asked him once and he couldn't do it - and yet he has designed everything from mobile phones to electrical goods and lighting.
"He mostly works on designing everyday products."
In what will be a rare treat for local people, Alyson will be using her skills to style customers at the EK Eyewear launch of her latest collection next Friday, February 15,
Owner of the store, Eavan Kennedy, says: "We are passionate about our eyewear and love stocking frames which have unique style and are beautifully crafted.
"Alyson Magee is our local hero and when I heard she was launching a new collection, I was sure it would be a winner. We are really excited to have Alyson coming to our practice for our Be Styled by Alyson Magee event.
"Its a great opportunity to see the complete range which encompasses men's, women's and sunglasses and its going to be a great day."