- Zane Saleh launched sunglasses brand Lexxola in 2019, now a staple among the Gen Z “it” crowd.
- The unisex eyewear is designed for city life and breaks a mold in the eyewear market.
- Saleh spoke with Insider on growing the brand during the pandemic and its community-led approach.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
If you want to see the world through the eyes of Gen Z, just put on a pair of Lexxolas.
The sunglasses’ sheer tinted lenses have been spotted on everyone from Emma Chamberlain to Kaia Gerber to Sofia Richie. And beyond these members of Gen Z’s “it crowd,” many other members of the generation are taking to TikTok to share examples of affordable Lexxola dupes.
That’s because you have to shell out designer prices for the London-based indie brand’s ergonomically designed, sleek modern-meets-’70s vibe, which are priced from £190 to £220, or $200 to $260. The line continues to grow, with two new styles just launching, a cat-eye frame named “The Ally” and a more oval frame named “The August.”
For the record, Lexxola’s CEO and founder is a millennial, and the 27-year-old Zane Saleh told Insider that since launching less than two years ago, in late 2019, they’ve viewed everything as an experiment. “That freedom of thought to just say ‘try everything’ has really allowed us to figure out what’s working quite quick and figure out what isn’t and just push forward,” he said.
Along the way, Saleh says he hit upon a Gen Z-friendly business model: direct collaboration with his customers. Instead of designing based off his own inspiration, Saleh said he uses a community-sourcing model to create styles – a creation process that has the potential to reshape fashion retail.
It’s a strategy that’s worked, as Lexxola might be small and young, but it’s growing. The company has evolved from just Saleh running the whole show to four employees working remotely. At time of publication, several styles were sold out, available only for pre-order, and with the US being its biggest market, Saleh said the company is planning to open a warehouse in Virginia and headquarters in New York City this year so it can offer domestic shipping rates to US customers.
Lexxola has operated under pandemic conditions for the majority of its existence, and the brand is growing at an unlikely time, as 2020 hit the retail industry harder than the Great Recession did. From February to April of last year, Deloitte found, retail sales plunged by 20%, with an 89% decline in clothes and accessories. By June, Insider Intelligence predicted that retail sales worldwide for the year would be down 5.7% from 2019.
But Saleh said that being a young, agile, and digital company at a time when brick-and-mortar stores were closing left it uniquely placed to grow and gather market share. A solely online presence speaks to a Gen Z community which often shares and expresses itself digitally, he said. According to screenshots of Lexxola’s analytics dashboard that Saleh sent to Insider, Lexxola’s sales grew by over 5,500% from February 2020 to February 2021, and annual revenues for this year are projected to exceed $6 million.
Saleh spoke to Insider about launching Lexxola, growing it through the pandemic, and his community-led approach. What’s emerged is a brand made by a millennial for a Gen Z audience, with social media at its heart.
Made for the city
Saleh originally studied economics, but said he quickly realized finance wasn’t for him. He found himself in the art world for five years, and he began getting Lexxola off the ground while he was working at Sotheby’s. He ultimately left
, his full-time job three months before Lexxola’s official launch.
Growing up, he said he noticed that sunglasses marketing campaigns were always about summer. “It was the guy and the girl running down the beach,” he said. “Whereas the eyewear experience that I knew was about wearing a product year-round, it was something for city life.”
He long wondered why there wasn’t a brand speaking to that concept, and decided to fill the gap himself. The year prior to Lexxola’s 2019 launch, the global sunglasses market was valued at $14.5 billion and growing, thanks to an increase in disposable income. While sunglasses stores declined in revenue during the pandemic, IBIS World found, it predicts revenue to grow as the the economy rebounds. Americans are now sitting on more than $1.6 trillion in savings, some of which will likely be deferred disposable income.
Saleh described beginning Lexxola as “diving into the deep end,” as he had no prior experience in the eyewear sector. He managed to source a factory in Italy and find a warehouse, both of which were hugely important, he said.
“When we first set up our warehouse, it was probably a bit early, but if we didn’t have that we’d for sure be out of business,” he said. “Putting the right building blocks into place in the first sort of six to eight months of the business, prior to the pandemic, really allowed us to springboard through it.”
A community-led approach
Saleh said he did everything when first launching, from packing boxes to answering customer service. Now that the team has expanded to four, he said he still has touch points in all aspects of the business.
Lexxola’s community-led creation process involves aggregating data on Gen Z consumers to create new styles for them. It’s a contrast from many fashion companies, Saleh explained, which are typically headed by a singular figure creating a product, putting it to market, and hoping that people like it.
“What we do is speak with our community,” he said. “We’re almost in a position where we’re a brand that actually acts as a service to create a product.”
But Saleh said this strategy has some challenges, such as ensuring they have styles that meets everyone’s needs. Continuous iterations of new sunglasses can also be quite labor and time-intensive, he said, but ultimately worthwhile. He cited a time when the team gathered product-return data, which helped it make specific changes to a product that led to 90% fewer returns.
The data process also enable them to design an upcoming frame named “The Antonio” combines the brand’s two best-sellers, “The Jordy” and “The Damien,” in what Saleh says is “almost a mathematical form.”
Product evolution is “never finished,” according to Saleh, “it’s just something that can get better.”
Speaking to Gen Z
Lexxola’s community-led approach helped Saleh understand and cultivate a Gen Z community, Saleh said, along with strategically hiring full-time and part-time Gen Z employees.
Saleh said the company found its feet with influencers six months in. Since then, it’s been a “knock-on” effect, as “People see other people wearing them and they become aware of the brand … it just sort of balloons that way.”
It helps, too, that Lexxola capitalizes on some of the things that matter the most to Gen Z when deciding where to spend their money. It’s part of a growing genderless market that WWD considers the future of the fashion industry. In recent years, designers have been launching genderless collections and unisex lines to appeal to changing norms and the Gen Z consumer. Lexxola was a step ahead by launching a unisex brand from the start.
More than half (56%) of Gen Z consumers shop “outside their assigned gendered area,” Phluid Project founder Rob Smith said at a 2019 WWD Culture Conference.
Sustainability has also been a focus from the get-go. The sunglasses are produced in factories fueled by renewable energy, dispatched from LED-lit warehouses, transported via eco-integrated carriers, and delivered in recycled cardboard packaging. Lexxola also donates 1% of its annual sales to 1% For The Planet Organization.
That’s a plus for the 62% of Gen Z who prefer to buy from sustainable brands, according to a consumer spending analysis by First Insight. They’re more willing than any other generation (72%) to pay more for sustainable products.
There, too, is Lexxola’s curated modern aesthetic. A quick scroll through its Instagram grid shows colorful close-ups and selfies of the fashion-forward artfully posing against a backdrop of city streets or nature, making it difficult to discern campaign shots from real-life photos.
Such an integrated feed is part of Lexxola’s social strategy, according to Saleh, who said his audience loves to see real people wearing Lexxolas in real situations. Once the company began creating campaign content that visualized this and ran it alongside user-generated content, he said Lexxola’s social platforms took off.
“Gen Z are mobile natives, they’re digitally minded,” Saleh said. “They want authenticity and they’re extremely pragmatic.”
Right now, Saleh is focused on improving the way Lexxola designs new products. His team is currently working to develop an online page where customers can suggest new styles or colors they want to see.
What they’re really trying to do is build out more data points to inform future decisions for production, he said. “We try to build products that inspire confidence,” he added.
“Everyone’s still learning as we go,” he said. “It’s very much business as usual, and continuing to not rest on our laurels and improve.”