Hitoshi Tanaka, founder and CEO of Japanese eyewear brand Jins, explains why he collaborates with architects on retail stores, how digital and physical stores should complement each other, and why road-side flagships are the key to the company’s future.

HITOSHI TANAKA: Jins’ brand vision is to magnify life. All our output, from creating eyewear and delivering customer service to designing stores, culminates in communicating this vision to customers. We always aim to be original and unique. In terms of our product, all Jins eyeglasses are 5,500 yen (roughly 41 euros), including the lenses. So also those signed by Jasper Morrison, Konstantin Grcic, Michele de Lucchi, Alberto Meda, and Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, whose aim was a revision of the archetypical form of eyeglasses. In the same way, for me it was a natural progression to work with architects on rethinking what a store that sells eyeglasses can and should be like.

People do buy optical wear online, but our online sales revenue isn’t even 10 per cent of our entire turnover. The rest is generated in physical stores. People buy eyewear at stores because glasses are essentially a medical device. They correct and enhance your sight, and therefore your wellbeing. Customers need to be sure that the strength of the lenses is correct, the weight of the eyewear is comfortable, nose pads and temples fit their faces perfectly – and all of that needs to be done at a store. 

It’s not just a store, but an amalgam of an eyewear store, a bakery and an event space,’ says Tanaka about the Yuko Nagayama-designed Jins Park in Maebashi, where stairs double as an auditorium.

Flagships versus convenience stores

But is it viable business-wise to commission an architect to design tailored-made stores for eyeglasses that cost 40 euros? Yes. Customers don’t necessarily recognize whether a store design is elaborate or carefully conceived. But they do somehow feel that the shopping experience is enriching or joyous. This memory will remain in their heart. Spatial design plays a role in offering this somewhat joyous feeling, and that’s where the architect comes in. Having said that, we don’t collaborate with architects on all our stores. Currently [July 2021], there are more than 430 Jins stores across Japan. Only 52 of them have been designed by architects. The others are located around the city centre with easy access to stations. Customers use these stores because of the convenience of the location. Many will choose eyeglasses from our online store, which is designed to offer an extensive choice of eyewear, and go to a nearby store to check how they fit. These service-oriented stores are compact and feature a cookie cutter design. Stores that I ask architects to collaborate on are the ones we regard as emblematic of Jins in each respective area. 

After using humble green-and-yellow household sponges as a display element inside the Jins store in Ginza Loft, Schemata’s Jo Nagasaka paired moulded pulp trays with standard unit shelves from Muji to showcase glasses at the eyewear brand’s Sharestar Hakodate shop.

Merging ingenuity and economy in design

I commission architects who I instinctively feel an affinity with. I don’t assign a specific location to a particular architect as I believe outstanding architects are adept at accommodating any situation. Since the intention is not to use precious materials to build stores, I look for architects who can bring in ingenuous design by applying industrialized materials. 

Schemata Architects led by Jo Nagasaka has worked on several Jins stores. Their latest design, Jins Hakodate store in Hokkaido, an area northernmost in Japan, is not at all opulent. As the store is situated within a Muji store, the architect didn’t think the Jins space should be too dominant, but chose to have it harmonize with its context by using only Muji shelving. Schemata surprised shoppers with its use of recyclable pulp trays that normally hold eggs to display eyeglasses, redefining the norm of display design. I think this approach is at the heart of Jins’ identity. 

Likewise, last year architect Ryuji Nakamura designed the Jins Aeon Mall Takasaki store, featuring ordinary materials in unlikely ways. Nakamura, who has collaborated with Jins since 2006, simply stacked piles of standardized lauan plywood board to build eyeglass displays. He shifted every second board to create more display space. This ingenuity also makes the displays look good from many directions. These stores show how fun and thoughtful the customer experience can be using non-precious materials. 

At the Jins Aeon Mall Takasaki store, Ryuji Nakamura stacked piles of standardized lauan plywood board to build eyeglass displays.

Stores that build communities

While retailers usually tend to emphasize the locality of a store by bringing in locally sourced materials or local craftspeople, I want to nurture local communities by bringing in local artists or creators to organize workshops in the store. In general, for a brand to grow, there are several formulas. One is new product development. Brands can also choose to improve the productivity of their supply chain system. Yet another way is to build local ecosystems. Jins pursues this last approach by nurturing local children’s creativity, which will eventually enrich the communities they come from. 

Our future stores will be designed to have an open plan, where local designers and architects can facilitate workshops for children. The store of the future is a communal space: it not only functions as a retail shop. To realize this, road-side stores embedded into communities will be key rather than stores situated in shopping centres. 

We’re exploring this with Jins Park, which opened recently in Maebashi city, our hometown. It’s not just a store, but an amalgam of an eyewear store, a bakery and an event space – thanks to its double-height open space with stairs that double as auditorium seats. At our future stores, local families will gather, learn and work with their hands to enrich their own community.

This is an excerpt of an interview featured in Frame 142. To read the full article, get your copy here.