Charles Hess was dedicated to his contact lenses--until he bought a pair of bookish wire frames he could decorate with colorful plastic tubing. His life hasn't been the same since.
"I've never gone back to contacts," says the Los Angeles graphic designer, smiling beneath thin, marbleized-blue frames that complement his blue eyes.
Modern eye wear, as Hess discovered, is irresistibly fashionable. The 2-year-old Vision Industry Council of America (VICA) promotes glasses as a fashion accessory with slogans like "The emphasis is always on the eye," and an annual "Best Dressed Eyes" campaign, which spotlights spectacled notables such as Sophia Loren, Bill Cosby, Martina Navratilova, Lee Iacocca, Diane Keaton, Gloria Steinem and Elton John.
A whopping 60% of the American population now wears glasses or contact lenses. And the sparkling increase in eye-wear sales has the industry looking through rose-colored glasses. Last year, sales totaled $7.8 billion, a $522-million increase over 1985. Customers paid more for their prescription glasses too: an average $134.84 per pair, compared with $125.96 in 1985, according to the trade publication 20/20.
Jody Stone, editorial director of both 20/20 and Vision Monday, notes that optical "superstores," which specialize in one-hour service and have hundreds of outlets throughout the country, invest heavily in television advertising. That not only stirs up interest in the stores, but it also stirs up interest in glasses--period.
Then there is the graying of the population. "The so-called baby-boomers are reaching their late 30s and 40s," Stone said. "It's the classic age when people need vision
correction." But correction isn't the only reason people are slipping behind frames. Published and unpublished stories tell of a recent phenomenon: Young executives who wear planos (non-prescription lenses) to give them the appearance, as Stone says, "of more credibility, of looking older, smarter."
Carol Fenelon, associate director of business affairs at MCA Records, knows one woman lawyer who never goes into a meeting without her planos. "She thinks it gives her a more professional manner."
Fenelon, who is nearsighted, says she rarely needs her glasses at work. Socializing is a different matter. After realizing she was passing up familiar faces in nightclubs and restaurants, she started wearing one of several pairs, all variations of the same style in different colors.
"In the interest of vanity, I was losing friends," she laughs. Now she wonders why she didn't go public sooner: "I found as I was wearing my glasses more and more, people would comment on how much they liked them."
The right hairdo, makeup and glasses, according to a before-and-after photo survey conducted by Lens Crafters, could convince a personnel director that a student earning $7,500 was an advertising executive earning $45,000 a year.
Lens Crafters executive Susan Knobler says a quick rule of thumb for selecting flattering glasses is to chose a frame that has the opposite shape of your face: "If you have a round face, get square lines. If you have a square face, use round lines."
There is no such thing as the frame of the '80s, as there was a frame of the '70s, with its oversize lenses and ornate end pieces. The combination had its place in design history, according to Ralph Drew, an ophthalmic consultant based in Pacific Palisades. "People liked the larger eye wear because it looked as if they were wearing the glasses for fun. They didn't look therapeutic."
From the '70s onward, Drew says, "the march of fashion took place." But not everyone wants to choose from the latest glamorous glasses that range from the tailored American frames of Liz Claiborne (manufactured in Culver City by Wilshire Designs) to the distinctive French styling of Alain Mikli.
Oliver Peoples on Sunset Boulevard specializes in unused antiques from a cache of '20s and '30s optical supplies belonging to Oliver Peoples himself. "We still haven't unpacked everything," says co-owner Dennis Leight, who explains one reason for the popularity of glasses "with a classic, vintage feel" is that they are more contoured to the face.
"From about 1976 to 1979," he says, "glasses, on the average, were five sizes too large for the face. Now, it's the right size, or even a little smaller."
Lens tinting is also an old habit, although it's still done. "It was used to embellish what the frame lacked," says Leight. "Now, the materials are so beautiful, the frame lacks nothing."
Lens innovations these days include an anti-reflective coating that reportedly permits more light to reach the eye and eliminates glare and reflection. There are also high-index glass lenses for the nearsighted that cut down the lens thickness by 50%. And there are progressive bifocals. "Meaning," says the 34-year-old Leight, "that the power progresses gradually so anything from infinity to 16 inches away from your face is in focus."
Some people come into the store asking for the kind of glasses Gustav Mahler, Sigmund Freud and Harold Lloyd wore. Then there are the people who ask: "What's hot?" The answer, according to Leight: "Whatever suits your face."