America's Finest: Artsee Eyewear

America's Finest optical businesses Artsee Eyewear

Shop Draws on New Energy of Lower Manahattan


This article originally appeared in the January 2015 edition of INVISION.

Q U I C K   F A C T S

W E B S I T E:
O W N E R : Julio Santiago
F O U N D E D : 2002
O P E N E D    C U R R E N T
L O C A T I O N :
A R E A : 1,200 square feet
E M P L O Y E E S : 4
T O P   B R A N D S : Gold & Wood, Alain Mikli, Lindberg, Paul Smith, Porsche Design, Artsee Collection
F A C E B O O K :

JULIO SANTIAGO literally stumbled upon the idea for Artsee, his eclectic eyewear boutique and art gallery in New York City. In the winter of 2002, while taking an evening stroll through Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, he tripped and fell in front of a vacant building bearing a “For Rent” sign. He had a eureka moment. “I saw glasses, I saw art. I saw my future store,” the Spanish-born, Puerto Rican-raised optician recalls.

When he inquired about the building, its owner was quickly sold on Santiago’s concept of an eyewear store specializing in handcrafted, avant-garde frames, with rotating exhibits by established and emerging artists. Artsee was a perfect fit in an area then on the cusp of becoming a trendy destination.

Flash forward to the present, and Santiago finds a bit of his retail history repeating itself. In 2011, developers began to court him with their grand plans for Lower Manhattan, prompting him to move Artsee to Battery Park City, the latest neighborhood poised for dramatic transformation. With its luxury housing and proximity to Wall Street, Battery Park City has long been a residential enclave for affluent financiers. Now it’s buzzing with the recent openings of the Goldman Sachs headquarters, One World Trade Center and the 9/11 Memorial. Condé Nast — publisher of Vogue and other fashion titles — has moved downtown, and designer clothing boutiques, posh eateries and other high-end amenities are joining the scene.

Artsee owner Julio Santiago insisted
on an environmentally friendly design.
To keep pace with all of this activity, Santiago led Artsee through a transformation of its own. “In this location, I decided to look toward the future,” he says. He hired a local design firm, Openshop, to assist him with his vision.

Openshop gave the store a chic gallery vibe. Street-level windows span the storefront, serving as a showcase for striking product displays as well as pieces from featured art exhibitions. The sales floor features mobile seating units and café tables that can be rearranged to accommodate various merchandising themes.

Forgoing conventional countertops and display cases eliminated a barrier between staff and customers and makes the shopping experience more intimate, explains Openshop’s Adam Hayes. The store’s back wall beckons customers to browse and try on glasses. Two large, mirrored apertures, designed to resemble eyeglass frames, hold rows of varied styles with storage drawers below. Artsee’s examination room, lab and office occupy space on the other side of the wall. Custom screen-printed wallpaper, in a loopy pattern echoing the font of Artsee’s logo, adds a whimsical touch throughout the store.

Street-level windows serve as a showcase for striking product displays
Santiago insisted on elements friendly to the environment. To satisfy his wishes, the design team used repurposed materials, including hand-finished lace wood for storage drawers, hard pine planks for the ceiling globes and durable ingrained wood for the flooring. Artsee offers comprehensive eyecare via Dr. Veronica Ruelas’ practice, ThirdEyeChic. Her presence serves the many financial traders and analysts in the neighborhood who need (and want) premium specialized occupational lenses. “We have a lot of workers who are in front of many different computer screens at any given moment all day,” says senior optician Jason Hart. “We design lenses that really maximize [vision] in that environment.” Artsee’s new clientele is full of dressed-for-success professionals who follow fashion and like to match beautiful eyewear with everything they wear.

What hasn’t changed is Artsee’s array of cutting-edge glasses, ranging from $200 for frames by the philanthropic fashion brand TOMS to $2,000 for those made from buffalo horn or studded with diamonds. To maintain exclusivity, Santiago stocks just one of each frame style he selects, unless it’s a customer’s special order. Artsee also carries its own collection of frames produced in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains. Santiago attends New York’s Vision Expo East, Italy’s Mido and Silmo in France to see what’s new and discover optical innovators. “There are kids designing and playing with materials,” says Santiago. His current favorites include Anni Shades’ wooden frames, Italia Independent’s velvet trimmed specs and Tipton Eyeworks’ Cinematique collection, featuring filmstrips encased in the temples. “It’s good to see people out there sketching and doing art for the face,” he says.

Five Cool Things About Artsee Eyewear

1. Treasure Hunt: Owner Julio Santiago likes to scour secondhand stores, estate sales and enthusiasts’ collections to find vintage eyewear. At an upstate New York antiques auction, he discovered Hubert Givenchy’s prototypes for glasses he made for Jacqueline Onassis.

2. Personal Touch: Twitter and Facebook help publicize upcoming art exhibits. But Santiago also relies on old-fashioned mail for sending out handwritten invitations with impelling messages like “You must see this exhibit!” or “Come meet our new artist!”

Veronica Ruelas of Artsee

3. East Meets West: Along with being a top-notch optometrist, Dr. Veronica Ruelas is a certified yoga instructor and meditation guide. Her examination room is adorned with soothing elements — a large ceramic Buddha bust, fresh-cut flowers and an aromatherapy candle — to help patients feel at ease, and she leads in-store meditation exercises.

4. Boldface Names: Artsee’s customers are the business’ best advertisers. If they’re celebrities, all the better. Tyra Banks posted an Instagram of herself wearing Artsee glasses at the U.S. Open. Molly Sims, Lucy Liu, John Krasinski and Michael Pitt are among others who’ve made Artsee their destination for stylish eyewear.

5. SEE YOU THERE?: During Vision Expo East, Santiago throws a big party in his store every year. “It’s to celebrate the optical industry.” Better yet, he offers an open invitation to anyone attending the trade show.

Party at Artsee Eyewear

F I N E    S T O R Y

Last spring, Artsee hosted a festive celebration for the TOMS optical collection that attracted industry folks, artists and customers. Attendees mingled and nibbled hors d’oeuvres while learning about the company’s One for One project, which brings eyecare and eyewear to the developing world. With movable seating and tables, Artsee has options galore for creative merchandising and events.

Doggie sunglasses for sale

B E S T    I N     S H O W

To set the mood for photographer Seth Casteel’s reception for his book Underwater Dogs, Santiago created a best-in-show theme. He installed a wading pool in the store window and filled it with water and floating sunshades. He covered his floors with AstroTurf so pooches and their owners could engage in Westminster Kennel Club-style presentations. Canine guests sat for portraits taken by Casteel himself. But the real pièce de résistance were the doggie sunglasses that Santiago had on hand for pet owners to purchase. The event was a success. According to Santiago, “All of the dogs were so well behaved.”