In Conversation With Tribal Eyes Founder Ona Utuama
“It’s not your nose, it’s your eyewear” are the words that drive Tribal Eyes, an eyewear brand that aims to balance the function and form of eyeglasses with style and comfort. Inspired by an absence of diversity in the eyewear industry, with a focus on Black faces especially, Tribal Eyes was founded by physician Ona Utuama in 2020.
Drawing on Utuama’s medical background, Tribal Eyes designs focus on bigger noses, nasal bridges, high cheekbones, and other features common to ethnic faces, while challenging the notion that glasses are boring accessories.
With their colorful, African-inspired designs, Tribal Eyes glasses are made to take up space and stand out on every face. For Utuama, each design is an expression of individuality, authenticity and diversity, calling back to her West African roots.
The Folklore Edit spoke to creative director Ona Utuama about the ethos behind Tribal Eyes, transitioning from medicine to fashion and telling authentic stories through design.
How would you describe yourself and what you do?
My name is Ona Utuama, I’m the creative director and founder of Tribal Eyes, and e-commerce eyewear brand. We’re based in Atlanta, Georgia. I would describe myself as a big dreamer, an innovator, an inquisitive and persistent person. Being a creative director, I manage the design process, coordinate manufacturing through to production and other logistics for the business.
What inspired you to start Tribal Eyes?
The brand was inspired by an absence, really, of diversity in the eyewear industry, especially focusing on the Black nose, the Black nasal bridge, high cheekbones like you see in the Asian population and also a lack of ethnic designs.
Tell us about your transition from physician to the world of design. When did you realize that design was something you also wanted to do? What skills, if any, do you apply to your design work?
Transitioning from physician to eyewear designer was smooth, thanks to technology, which includes even the iPhone I’m able to conduct my business on. Deciding in 2020 to become a designer was really due to an absence of eyewear for my nose and my nasal bridge that could fit me.
In terms of transferrable skills, attention to detail and being patient are critical as well as the art and skill of listening. I’ve being doing that since 2004 when I became a physician and I apply that to my customers and their needs.
How you would define the brand ethos that guides your work, and how it is reflected in your designs and collections?
Our ethos really is guided by our slogan “it’s not your nose, it’s your eyewear.” We celebrate individuality, authentic African and other ethnic cultures and stories through our eyewear. From our designs to the names in the collections, we want that to shine through.
Can you explain the differences in nasal bridges and cheek bones when it comes to facial structure, and how Tribal Eyes eyewear are made to fit everyone?
The nasal bridge can be classified in two ways: low and high. Low is when it is closer to the cheekbone like in the African American community; high is when it is farther away, as seen in Caucasians. Cheekbones can be low or high, too. It’s low when it’s closer to the bottom of the nose, and high when it is closer to the eyes. When we make our designs, we really consider universal fit and create room for that fit when designs our base structure. That’s the main focus in our manufacturing process.
Colorful frames and West African-inspired patterns are a distinct feature of your eyewear collections. What drew you to these style elements and why are they central to your designs?
I’m West African by birth and lived in England as a child, and as an adult in North America – these designs are authentic to who I am, and I want to tell stories of my mother, my aunties, my cousins, our parties, weddings, festivals. It’s about celebrating the Black face, the Black nose, which is central to Tribal Eyes.
You started in summer 2020, a very interesting time not only in fashion but in the world, and the industry has changed tremendously in that time. How has your brand adapted to the current landscape?
Celebrating authenticity, individuality, diversity has enabled us to adapt to the changes that the fashion industry and the world experienced from 2020 when we started, until now.
If you could only wear one pair of Tribal Eyes glasses for the rest of the year, which would it be and why?
It would be the one I’m wearing right now, the KA Multicolor Kente sunglasses. It can be neutral or dressed up. Plus, Viola Davis wore a pair recently at the Cannes Film Festival, which was really exciting.
You’re one of the eyewear brands on our platform The Folklore Connect. What would you say is the main reason for signing up to join the platform?
I signed up with The Folklore Connect because they create an equal opportunity for young, emerging brands like mine, and I believe they’ll meet our wholesale because we’d like to work with retailers across North America, Africa, the UK, and Connect provides that opportunity.