In Conversation With: Joseph Hwang
Co-founder & Chief Designer of Barring Eyewear
Barring Eyewear is an innovative start-up eyewear company that is bringing high-end fashion and philanthropy together. Joseph Hwang is one of the co-founders of Barring Eyewear and serves as Barring’s Chief Designer. Designing eyeglasses started out as a fun hobby for Joseph in 2005. However, after a stint in the corporate sector, Joseph decided to go to the University of Pennsylvania and eventually co-found Barring Eyewear. He describes his career journey as one of “determination, friendship, adversity and bouncing back [from adversity.]”
Barring is known for their minimalistic styles and their skillful use of unique materials like rosewood and rubber in their frames. Barring’s sunglasses have grabbed the attention of bloggers and now Barring is rivaling well-known brands like fellow Wharton start-up Warby Parker. Earlier this year, Barring gained exposure among A-list celebs after they participated in the 2015 SAG Awards Gift Basket. Most recently, Barring Eyewear was deemed the “coolest new eyewear start-up in Philly” by Philadelphia magazine.
Although Barring’s fashionable frames are noteworthy, what makes this company special is its give-back business model. The founders of Barring are all passionate about philanthropy—particularly raising funds for cancer research. Before Barring Eyewear took off, a few of the members of the Barring team were personally affected by cancer.
Joseph went through the pain of losing his aunt to cancer and before she passed away he told her that he would find a cure one day. This is what motivated Joseph and his partners to create Barring Eyewear. They decided they wanted to start a benefit corporation that would fund cancer research. Even today, this is what drives Joseph and his team to tirelessly work on Barring Eyewear each day.
“When we get tired, when we don’t want to push forward, when we want to quit, we think about what this means to us. We would not have been able to come this far so quickly if we did not have this as our motivation,” Joseph told me.
Now, Barring Eyewear gives a large portion of its revenues to fund cancer research at the American Cancer Society. Barring also supports other community organizations in Philadelphia.
Joseph and I had the chance to discuss his design inspirations, the shortcomings he discovered with the current structure of cancer research funding, and more! Read on to learn about this talented designer and philanthropist.
You mentioned that you spent a lot of time researching how cancer research is funded while your aunt was ill. What did you find when you did this research? What inefficiencies did you identify?
“Essentially, there are two ways of funding cancer research. The first is through the NIH and the second is through the drug companies.
From my perspective, drug companies don’t want to find a cure. They want to create drugs that keep you [alive] long enough for the insurance payout. So the economic incentives for private industry are not aligned with finding a cure.
The NIH funding is inefficient and slow to react. From 2005 through 2013, NIH cancer research funding has been stuck at $5 billion dollars a year. In 2013 there were roughly 550 fewer cancer research studies funded compared to in 2005.
Because of the red tape and paperwork required, research teams truly spend about 25% of their time researching a cure and 75% [of their time] on fundraising and paperwork. This requires a robust staff of grant writers and doctors spending needless hours on mentally draining [administrative] work, which is horribly inefficient.”
Do you believe if more companies become benefit corporations and support cancer research the way you are, then you can collectively disturb the current cancer research model?
“The only way to solve this problem, where we try to shift dollars to where we need it, is through commerce. If others follow and we siphon more money towards what is important to us then the research system can beat the addiction of constant fundraising.
We donate towards the American Cancer Society because they are truly one of the few non-profits that have the scale and strength to donate towards a concrete cure.”
Has your exposure to Asian art and culture inspired any of your designs or the materials that you use in your frames?
“I lived in Japan for about 16 years. From age 1 to 16, I lived in Yokota in the Kanto Plains, which is about a 30 min train ride outside of Tokyo. I used to sit with my brother in Shinjiku and Ginza and observe Japanese high fashion and technology.
The majority of our designs are anchored by my experiences of Japanese culture of minimalism, durability, and utility.
However, our inspiration of each frame actually comes from landmarks in Philadelphia. We choose the materials that best represent the location of the inspiration.”
What are three of the most unexpected materials you have used to make frames at Barring?
“Marble, granite, and rosewood. We are still finalizing our marble and granite designs to pass FDA impact testing. With rosewood we didn’t realize that we could make frames from that type of wood. We also didn’t realize that no one in the market had made a frame from rosewood before.”
You admitted that you kept your design abilities under wraps for a long time (especially while you were in college). Do you have any advice for other young guys who are interested in design but are scared that they might be judged?
“I really don’t have much advice other than just go for it and don’t be afraid to be judged. I think I made a mistake by keeping it under wraps and I am rather embarrassed because after the fact, when the bag came out, everyone thought it was cool rather than what I thought. I thought I would be an outcast.”
Visit Barring Eyewear’s website here and follow them on Facebook and Instragram @barringeyewear.
Nisha Choksi is the Managing Editor of Universal Mirror. She is working on completing her Master’s degree in Public Policy and Administration (MPPA) from Northwestern University, focusing on issues related to education and economic development. Nisha is an active dancer who enjoys traveling and is obsessed with all things beauty.