A version of this story first appeared in Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today
All I see on the tiny screen are a bearded smile, a wool hat and a pair of handmade sunglasses. Some 7,000 miles away, Tommy O’Gara walks me through a small factory in western Japan, where he and half a dozen craftspeople turn out some of the world’s finest eyewear. O’Gara is a boyish 62, and even over FaceTime, he oozes the kind of energy that only comes from finding great success in something you love. His accent is hard to place, as if it has become unmoored by four decades of living in Japan and isn’t quite sure where it belongs. The son of a steel erector, O’Gara grew up in South Sioux City, Nebraska. And he strikes me as the most improbable Nebraskan since Marlon Brando.
O’Gara went straight from The University of Nebraska to Japan for graduate school in 1982. “The same year The Clash started their Japanese tour,” he likes to say. O’Gara has since earned legendary status as an eyewear designer through his dynamic creative force and fearless integrity: he was the creative director of both Freshjive Japan and Dita Eyewear, and launched Thom Browne Asia. His own company, The Light Co. Ltd., produces eyewear for Sauvage, Native Sons, Visvim, Supreme, Neighborhood, Deus Ex Machina, Max Pittion — a brand owned by none other than John Mayer — Julius Tart, Shady Character, El Solitario and others.
“The art, the history, architecture and craftsmanship of Japan has always piqued my interest,” says O’Gara, whose fascination with Japanese culture stretches back to his teens. In college, he practiced Kendo and Karate, studied Asian military history and took Japanese language classes, all in preparation for going to Japan. “I feel that it was always in the cards for me to go,” O’Gara says.
While studying in Nagoya, he became one of only two non-Japanese students ever to be accepted into the centuries-old Yagyu Shinkage Ryu sword school, and after grad school, he moved to Tokyo and began his design career as the creative director for a skate- and snowboard brand. Later, while developing eyewear for Dita, he got to know the ins and outs of Japan’s handmade-eyewear traditions. But the quality-over-all mentality he connected with eventually clashed with the profit-over-all mentality of the fashion industry, where he says the businesspeople treated their brands like ATMs. So he made the bold decision to run his own show. “The only way to control your own destiny in this type of hardware fashion is to do it with your own team, directly, and not through a third party,” he says.
To that end, O’Gara’s frames offer a rare blend of avant garde design and timeless lines. They are known globally for their classic and elegant shapes, their impeccable craftsmanship and, most of all, the subtle embellishments found on every pair.
Where these little wearable works of art originate from may come as a surprise. The single-story factory was once an outbuilding that stored tractors and tools for a rice farm. Everyone else who works here is Japanese, and they bow and nod to my image on FaceTime politely as he walks by with his phone. He speaks to them in fluent Japanese, sounding more comfortable in his adopted language than he does in English. He jokes that depending on how his last name is pronounced, it either sounds Irish-American, “oh-GAIR-ah,” or Japanese, “OH-gur-ah.”
The machines that occupy the factory are big, mechanical, greasy, turquoise-colored and old. They read “Sabae,” (pronounced “sa-BYE”), the name of both the region where they operate and the company that made them half a century earlier. “Those things are fifty years old at least,” O’Gara says. “But we had them fully refurbished.”
He shows me the machine that cuts the brass jigs to make the frames. Each design requires a custom solid-brass jig, and no jig will work for more than one or two models. To make the temples for a pair of frames, there are two nearly identical sets of machines for the right and left sides: machines for cutting the temples, machines for milling them out, machines for bending the temples, machines for drilling holes in them, machines for cutting the angled joints where the temples meets the frames, and machines for embedding the hinges. I ask him to clarify the bit about having two copies of every machine. “That’s some handmade-eyewear shit,” he laughs. To the uninitiated, the sequence of machines is both immediately intuitive and unbelievably complex.
After the final polish stage, frames are hung to dry on a rack called a tree. “It’s not super complex but you have to have everything ready and in line,” O’Gara says. With six employees, this facility produces 2,000 high-end acetate frames per month.
O’Gara comes by his manufacturing discipline honestly. “My dad was an amazing builder,” he says. He even built the high school O’Gara went to. “I grew up sitting on the floor of the site trailers with my dad, figuring out how to set steel from a very young age,” he says. And his early interest in building didn’t stop when he moved to Japan — he merely switched industries. “Once I started in eyewear,” says O’Gara, “I spent more and more time in Sabae with the owners and engineers of these factories, and I learned how to do this.”
Business has never been better for The Light Co. Their domestic Japanese business alone has grown 40 percent since the onset of COVID-19. “People not going out to the office don’t wear contacts, so they just want some frames,” he says. His is one of the only local businesses that didn’t cut jobs because of the pandemic. He kept buying advertising in Japanese fashion magazines throughout the shut-down, even though people weren’t going out to shops, just to help keep these publications afloat.
After a tour of the factory, O’Gara steps outside. Suddenly, we’re surrounded by rice fields. “The freeze will end soon,” he says. “The rice farmers will be out here working every day.” I spot a black AMG 1998 V6 G-Wagon behind him. It’s his. Four-wheel-drive is a requirement in Sabae because “it snows a shit-ton here,” he says.
It was this heavy snow, and the threat it posed to a local economy based on rice farming, which inspired a pioneering local at the turn of the 19th century to develop an eyewear industry as a way to diversify their economy. World War II led to advancements in eyewear and manufacturing in general, and Sabae was the only major Japanese production site that survived the war. The post-war economic expansion provided a growing market for Sabae’s signature product, and the town that once had to import its experts from Tokyo now makes over 90 percent of the eyewear produced in Japan. In the early 1980s, Sabae’s engineers were the first in the world to make eyeglass frames out of titanium. This legacy and culture of cutting-edge eyewear expertise, the tight-knit community of engineers and suppliers, and the deep expertise of local craftspeople all combine to make eyewear from Sabae the finest in the world.
What makes Tommy O’Gara’s position in Sabae so unique is how difficult it is for an outsider to develop a holistic understanding of Japanese eyewear’s complex production methods, acquired by local craftspeople over years, if not generations.
“There are so many steps in the production process — over two hundred and fifty steps to make metal frames,” says Hidemi Umeda, owner of a Sabae eyewear engineering company, Umeda Inc., who works with Tommy on metal and combination frames. “Tommy’s designs are very unique in that he creates a design from zero, instead of referring to other eyewear products like other designers,” says Umeda. “He wants them to look simple, but they are very difficult to produce, which is an inspiring challenge.”
O’Gara’s design process is effervescent and inspired. Hearing him talk about it — the cadence of his voice, the energy that animates him — I can tell this is the part of the process where he really slips into his flow state.
“I don’t work on two brands at once. And I start by packing my van or jumping on my bike, and just going somewhere for inspiration.” Recently that meant a solo drive on Japan’s snowy mountain roads. Sometimes it means surfing, or a ride on his 1982 Harley Davidson XLH 1000 Street Tracker. When working on his Sauvage line — which was inspired by a blend of French and Japanese culture — it meant running around different Parisian flea markets, poster shops and paint stores. Next he builds up what he calls “vibe sheets” with images of objects, people, architecture, airplanes, cars, motorcycles — anything that inspires him. (A recent collection was inspired by ‘70s stereo equipment.) Then he writes about it longhand in notebooks and sketchbooks — what he likes, how these things move him, what inspires him. “Gathering the inspiration and the writing take twice as much time as the design, but that’s the fun part,” he says.
From the writing, he picks out shapes — beginning with the lenses — before moving on to the frames. He scans his hand drawings into his computer, and then sits back and thinks about the lines. “After I choose the lines and dial in the fronts and the temple shapes, I hand them off to my assistant and he does all the spec sheets,” O’Gara says. “Every line delineates a carve, a cut, or an angle. Then we have to make tools, or bits, to cut that angle. Every line you see on a frame is done by a different bit.” So an engineer in his factory takes these specifications and turns them into blueprints, which drive the machines. These steps between design and fabrication are usually where things can become distorted, which is why his vertically integrated process is so important to maintaining design and manufacturing purity. It also shortens the process: “We can go from design to the prototype in twenty days.”
O’Gara doesn’t look at other eyewear for inspiration, nor is he satisfied with stock acetate colors. He happened to be wearing the Kowalski frames from his Native Sons brand, inspired by the film, Vanishing Point, when we spoke. “This color is called blood,” he says, pulling off his frames and holding them up to the computer camera, “Because one night in the studio, I poked my finger and bled onto A4 paper, and I photographed it as it was drying, just so I could get the right tone.” All the acetate colors he uses, except for black and clear, are custom colors that he creates with the scientists at Takiron.
“He’s a whirlwind,” says Carby Tuckwell, cofounder of the motorcycle and fashion brand Deus Ex Machina. “He talks a million miles an hour, always churning up ideas.” Tuckwell created an eyewear line with O’Gara that quickly sold out. The two are now developing a second collection called Deus Special Ops. “Eyewear is a small space [in which] to express something,” Tuckwell says. “Eyewear designers are big personalities, they’re gregarious, and even a little bit crazy — and Tommy fits into that.”
Shortly before we hang up, O’Gara pauses our conversation to greet one of his workers who was just showing up for work — late. He’s a widower who lives alone, O’Gara later tells me, and he needed time to take his dog on a morning walk. “He’s part of our ‘Silver Team,’” O’Gara explains. He, like the rest of the Silver Team, works on flex time. “They can come and go however works for them,” O’Gara says. And they repay his flexibility by working doubly hard during heavy production runs. “We are all pretty much linked together.”
O’Gara is looking to double his production by this time next year. “We are interviewing now. A lot of people lost jobs during COVID, so now is a good time for me to expand and help people out at the same time,” he says.
From factory to face, O’Gara is driven by the highest purposes of his craft. He likes to look at a person’s face to intuit what frames would best suit them, both physically and psychologically. Maybe it’s clear-lens frames for a female executive in a male-driven industry, or dark lenses for a jazz musician craving armor while he emotes through his instrument. “Eyewear is part of a person’s repertoire for representing their image,” O’Gara says. “And if that pair of frames fits the bone structure, the style, the hair, the skin tone... that person can be warm, they can be cool, they can be passionate, they can be anything they want to be. Because their eyewear gives them the confidence.”
As for the business side, he’s cemented his company’s reputation by doing things the hard way. “If you chase money, you’ll get to a certain level, but if you build something dynamic that has its own message, the money will follow.” The dark side of the fashion business — the ruthlessly commercial side — is what led him to the path he’s on, which is why he named his company, “The Light.”
“It’s been a lot of fun,” he says. “And I hope we can have more fun.”