“At some point, I realised the problem wasn’t with me or my face, but with the product itself,” says Ackeem Ngwenya. “It became clear that the product was not made for people like me, and that I could do something to change that.”
Ngwenya is a product designer based in Berlin. He is the founder of Reframd, a start-up that designs and makes glasses to fit Black people’s nose profiles. Most glasses, he explains, are designed to fit high and narrow nose bridges – characteristics typically found in Caucasian people. Those with lower and wider nasal bridges, however, have fewer choices and must adapt to glasses that don’t fit as well.
It’s a project that started officially around five years ago. But as Ngwenya tells Design Week, Reframd has its roots in years’ worth of “personal frustrations” and an “unwillingness to just accept the world as it is”.
“Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?”
Having studied at innovation design engineering at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London, Ngwenya explains his design practice is focused on “how creativity can be used to solve problems”.
Ngwenya’s work with Reframd began with producing a small number of prototypes and taking them to the African Food Festival in Berlin. Living in a predominantly white country, this was an event at which he could be sure he would meet a lot of Black people.
It was here that Ngwenya met his Reframd business partner Shariff Vreugd. A graduate of international business studies in Rotterdam, Vreugd now lives and works in Berlin alongside Ngwenya.
“The first thing that came to mind when I was trying the prototype was just that they were so comfortable around my nose bridge,” says Vreugd. “I told Ackeem: ‘This makes complete sense, why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?’ And now when I show other people Reframd, they have a similar reaction.”
“Developing industry standards that other manufacturers can use”
Reframd works by using a parametric algorithm that runs in a 3D program. Put simply, customers use the front-facing camera on their smart phones to capture their “face landmarks”.
“Essentially, it’s a pair of glasses that adapt in response to different inputs such as head width, bridge height, pantoscopic tilt, temple length, and more,” says Ngwenya. “These parameters drive frame creation for a particular person and that frame is then sent to our production partner and made for the customer.”
The tech-driven process promises each customer a tailor-made pair of frames. But as the duo explain, the Reframd mission goes beyond the individual.
“We’re not a hobby product,” says Ngwenya, explaining that many other glasses manufacturers and brands have only tentatively thought about and catered to the Black market before. “We’re putting effort into developing industry standards that other manufacturers can use.”
“Diverse groups of people at different levels of product development”
As with most other start-up businesses, much of Vreugd and Ngwenya’s focus right now is on raising money and awareness. Ngwenya says the idea has faced some scepticism from potential investors so far.
“[Some] potential investors or funders think that Reframd can’t be solving a real problem, otherwise someone else would have been working on it already,” he says. “But I don’t think anyone is purposefully not wanting to develop glasses for Black people’s nose profiles.”
Instead, Ngwenya believes it’s a question of diversity and power: “Who has the power to decide what products are made, for whom they are made, and who makes them?”
In order for the fashion accessories industry – or indeed, any industry – to ensure it is catering to all races and identities, it needs to have diverse teams throughout, he says.
“We need inclusion, representation, and participation of diverse groups of people at different levels of product development,” he says.
“The confidence not to just accept things as they are”
While barriers exist, the pair has found support with the WORTH Partnership Project. Labelled Europe’s “largest creative incubator”, the initiative helped several ideas in 2020 that were centred around inclusion and sustainability. Reframd is also supported by the Berlin Founders Fund, which provides a stipend to founders, training and mentoring.
And as the company enters into 2021, the duo is currently designing its next collection of frames. As well as drumming up awareness for potential business investors, Vreugd says the success of Reframd also rests on educating its target audience.
“Like for myself, before meeting Ackeem, this is something I had just accepted – I thought glasses just didn’t fit me well, so I avoided them,” Vreugd says. “I think money is something that can of course accelerate our progress, but education is a big part of moving forward too.
“It’s really about educating people and giving them the confidence not to just accept things as they are,” he adds.