The 20:20 Interview: Jono Hennessy
Stories lie at the heart of every pair of frames we fit to every individual. Tales of transition and change. Of high adventure, achievement and performance. A pair of glasses have the power to not only change your perspective, but to change the narrative of your life.
With this in mind, Che Eyewear begin the first in our 20:20 Interview series, featuring Australia’s foremost designers. We begin our series featuring a hero of Australian design, Jono Hennessy, whose idiosyncratic glasses enjoy cult status. A vibrant character with a joyous approach to life – and glasses! – we hope you enjoy this intimate conversation.
Che Eyewear: Jono – why did you choose to make glasses your life’s work? How did you develop such an affinity with this accessory?
Jono Hennessy: I think it was where I lived growing up, and the school I went to. I attended art school after becoming disenchanted working with numbers – accountancy and stocks, that sort of thing. My father was an optometrist and when he sold his practice he had a lot of glasses from the 1950’s and 60’s in boxes. I decided I’d sell those glasses at markets and everybody loved them! That sort of started it.
C: And were you attracted to your father’s profession before you found the boxes?
J: Yeah, a little bit. I did graphic design and marketing and then I got into eyewear. I got a job selling frames, and that’s how I got to know the industry. But then I got fired! So I went out on my own.
C: What did you do wrong?!
J: It was when I had just got divorced and I was out partying the whole time, out every night. I’d got home from staying up all night, got changed and went straight to a client appointment in Liverpool. Cut a long story short, I fell asleep in the chair. He called my boss and that was it, really!
C: That’s a good story! I guess if that hadn’t happened, your brand wouldn’t have been born.
J: Yeah, it had to happen. In my selling days, I met an Austrian guy who had worked with one of the biggest glasses factories in Europe. He taught me all the technology, and how to design. To this day, I still hand draw.
C: And so all the designs start out as a concept hand drawn by yourself?
J: Yes, hand drawn. They’re actually technical drawings so they’re hand drawn to the exact sizes. And I do all of the measurements on the lens depths and everything.
C: And is that practise of the technical drawing, is that unique? Has it been superseded by computer programmes now?
J: It’s being superseded by computer programmes – but because I have been doing it (hand drawing) so long, I know the bridge sizes and the fits and angles. Designing is sort of a balance.
C: When did you know that you were on to a good thing with Jono Hennessy?
J: In the 80s when I started, there were no rules and there was a whole group of us making clothing and doing interior design. In all honesty I did exactly the opposite from everything I was taught during my studies! Also, there was no competition from Europe – we didn’t have all the big brands like Dior and Chanel. All that that came in during the 90s. So a big part of it was the joy of making great things. I think in the 80s we sold close to 1.5 million frames, I would think.
C: What was it about your unique aesthetic that made people connect with your brand?
J: It was the colour. During that time, if someone had the same glasses as you, you’d get upset. Everyone wanted to have a different look. Then RayBan came in, and that was popular style. This whole ‘one look’ thing came in at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s. I started ordering one frame in 20 or 30 colours, so it was the same style but in different colours.
C: What is your biggest joy working in eyewear?
J: Seeing someone looking really great. Like when you walk down the road and you see someone in your glasses and they look fantastic. And seeing a photo of somebody in your glasses when the fit is right, and I know the optometrist has really understood the face. It’s a skill you learn over some time and it’s not a technical thing, it’s sort of semi-technical.
My other joy is being in the factory, in the tool room, with a file and sitting with the tool-maker getting hands-on.
C: Where is your factory?
J: China. They’re friends of mine. I’ve been using them for 20 years and their quality is fantastic. We use beautiful acetate and German hinges. They all actually care about what they’re doing. For me it’s nothing to do with price – it’s actually the relationship you have with the factory and the people in the factory.
C: And they’re clearly specialists – that’s why you have a relationship with them.
J: Yes, we also get really involved when we’re there. So it’s a hands on thing. That’s the other big joy.
C: Has there ever been one particular inspiring notion that you’ve built into a thematic collection?
J: For me fashion is action, reaction and then people. If something is unusual, it gets accepted by the early adopters, before it then becomes ‘normal’. My biggest thing was going from fashion that was 1940s in style, to space-age fashion. From a 1940’s frame with the key-hole bridge to wrap around, one piece lenses – that was very successful. Then clothing started to follow the space-age style, and it was wonderful to know I was at the beginning of it.
C: Can I have some commentary from you on the contemporary Australian aesthetic? Are we becoming more or less homogenous in our style?
J: I think there’s a real return to the individuality of things. People really value genuine items, pieces with a story. At Jono Hennessy, there’s a great joy in what we make. We pass that onto people, and hope they understand the feeling we create. And I really do think that people can feel it.
C: I can truly see the relationship people have with your glasses. Whether they’ve been buying Jono Hennessy for decades or they’re new customers, there’s a strong narrative between them and the brand.
J: It’s that joy thing again. People feel it, and the best thing you can actually do in life is to give people joy.
C: Who is the most famous person you’ve made glasses for?
J: Probably Malcolm Turnbull!
C: Final question: Melbourne or Sydney?
J: Melbourne is a hugely creative, wonderful city, whereas Sydney is becoming more of an international, Shanghai, sort of New York-y place. Melbourne has my heart.
Experience the latest beautiful Jono Hennessy collections at Che Eyewear.