Rocket Eyewear is fast becoming the cool kids’ brand in the Lion City, but it all started from a simple desire: Siblings Ong Ker-Shing and En Ming Ong noticed their mother kept losing her sunglasses and wanted to give her one.
All their life, she only wore one style of frames, the P3. First developed by the British military, it has long become one of the most iconic styles of glasses (and sunglasses) around, and celebs ranging from John F Kennedy to Grace Kelly and James Dean have all been spotted sporting P3s.
The siblings – who had also collaborated on the popular but now-defunct chilli sauce business Two Rabbits Smoky Chilli – decided to make their own version of these frames as a gift for their mother. She liked them so much, she asked for a few more pairs. The rest is history. Rocket sells only one style, the P3, but in a myriad of colors and, smartly, two types of nose bridges.
Today, Shing juggles duties as Rocket Eyewear’s chief designer with her other responsibilities as a partner in the architecture firm Lekker and numerous teaching gigs, while Ming runs the company.
Here, in CNA Lifestyle's series, where we speak with creatives making their mark in Singapore, the Ong siblings talk about turning Rocket Eyewear Company into “Singapore’s biggest export since chicken rice”.
HOW DO YOU CREATE THE SUNGLASSES? WHAT’S THE PROCESS LIKE?
Ming: In hindsight, choosing to focus on just one shape has added a magical simplicity to our production. Whereas other companies have to spread their energies across various different SKUs (stock keeping units), we focus all our energy on making a single kickass product.
In terms of what we do, Shing comes up with the colours, and I work with the manufacturer to turn the concepts into reality. Regarding manufacturing, we were very lucky because we have a family friend based in China whose family has been in the eyewear industry for over 30 years.
We think Singaporeans are excited to get behind a brand like Rocket because it's aspirational and authentic at the same time.
She liked our idea and through her, we had the privilege to work directly with the best manufacturers from the beginning – the very same ones who make for the world's biggest luxury brands.
DO YOU THINK YOU’LL EVENTUALLY ADD ANOTHER STYLE TO THE COLLECTION?
Ming: Right from the beginning, we decided we wanted to start a hyper-focused company that specialised in doing one thing really well. It may not be the smartest business decision, but we don't plan on adding more styles to Rocket.
We built this brand because we believe that people should have access to gorgeous, functional glasses that won’t break the bank. Rockets are based on a classic, flattering shape designed with a travel-inspired twist.
We think of our sunglasses a little like a polo t-shirt: The style pretty much stays the same, with experimentation and variation happening with the colours, materials, et cetera.
ANY CHANCE OF PRESCRIPTION LENSES OR READING GLASSES IN THE NEAR FUTURE?
Ming: Actually, we do a tonne of prescription Rockets because let's face it, most of us Singaporeans are half-blind. There are even a number of people walking around town (myself included) who wear Rockets as reading glasses! You just need to get in touch with us and let us know your lens specs.
A LOT OF SIBLINGS CAN’T WORK TOGETHER AND YET, THIS IS YOUR SECOND BUSINESS TOGETHER. HOW DO YOU DO IT?
Ming: Shing handles everything design-related, whereas given my experience with startups, I'm better at translating the ideas into reality. Another reason we work well together is that we're both pragmatic and logic-oriented.
DO YOU THINK SINGAPORE IS SUPPORTIVE OF LOCAL BRANDS AND CREATIVES?
Ming: Extremely. We were really surprised by how eager and willing people in Singapore were to support a local brand like us. We think Singaporeans are excited to get behind a brand like Rocket because it's aspirational and authentic at the same time. And we're very proud about our heritage: we literally say it in the first line of our story: "We're Ming and Shing, a brother-and-sister team from Singapore..."
Institutional support has also been really strong. We owe an incredible amount of gratitude to pop-up events like Keepers and Boutique Fairs; local attractions like Gallery & Co and Tanjong Beach Club; hotels like COMO, and organisations like TAFF and STB for taking a chance on us. We're very lucky.
WHAT’S THE HARDEST PART ABOUT RUNNING YOUR OWN BUSINESS?
Shing: I have found that the hardest part of running my business(es) is learning not to be afraid of being the hard stop. At Lekker, I am always exhorting my staff to run through issues and try to decide themselves how to proceed, because I am asked about a hundred questions each day. They made me a poster that hangs over my desk; it reads “Make your own decisions (then check with me).”
SHING, YOU WERE ALSO BEHIND THE DESIGN SHOP STRANGELETS. DID THAT EXPERIENCE HELP INFORM THE DECISIONS YOU’VE MADE WITH ROCKET?
Shing: Absolutely. When we started Strangelets, one of the things we were really excited about was that we would choose beautiful things for the store, and place them there. We thought “customers can just come in and see the stuff and decide if they like it or not, and either take it or leave it.” But you know, when they don’t take it, you don’t sell, and you lose money!
So we learned how to compromise, to have things that we like, that we think are beautiful and that set the overall tone of the store, and also to have other objects that were less… esoteric perhaps, or less aesthetically subjective. So at Rocket, for example, even though I personally do not like black sunglasses, a huge percentage of people do, and so we will always have our glasses in black.
THE BIG TREND THESE DAYS IS COLLABORATIONS. WHO WOULD YOU LIKE TO WORK WITH?
Ming: Kim Kardashian, obviously… kidding! We’d love to come up with a limited edition range for the Pink Dot Festival this year!
FINALLY, WHAT HAPPENED TO TWO RABBITS SMOKY CHILLI? I LOVED IT!
Ming: We decided to stop selling chilli because the market size in Singapore is too small, and shipping a S$12 bottle of chilli around the world isn't terribly feasible! It's a shame we had to shut down the business though because even to this day, we get about 10 messages a week from hungry customers asking where they can get it!