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FASHION : New Specs on Glasses: Eye a la Mode


At the huge Vision Expo trade show, held in Anaheim earlier this fall, eye-wear manufacturers likened their products to fashion accessories. Their favorite expression was "jewelry for the face."

Indeed, with cat-eye frames, you can look like a '50s movie star. With thin, round faux tortoise shell frames you can achieve a snooty, successful air. Pop in a monocle and you will seem as eccentric as Sherlock Holmes or as hip as Madonna, who has posed with one.

Hoping to lure consumers into at least three pairs each (one for work, one for play and one for special occasions), the eye-wear industry is pushing everything from classics with a twist to theatrically extreme styles. And it is experimenting with new marketing strategies, including a program titled "Envision Yourself" that hopes to attract customers with free eye-wear consultations.

The program is already in operation in 20 JC Penney stores in Southern California. Barry Shields, director of marketing for Color Me Beautiful, the image-consulting firm that helped develop Envision Yourself, explains the two-part program starts with the free consultation in stores that sell his company's cosmetics and skin-care products.

Next comes "a tie-in with a couple of local opticians," says Shields. "Hopefully, after a consultation, a woman will say, 'Wonderful. Now I know to walk in and ask for brushed instead of shiny gold.' She's getting prepared to make a wiser choice. European women are much further ahead of American women in developing an eye-wear wardrobe," he laments. "They see it as a much more important accessory. American women see it as utilitarian."

A look around any well-stocked optician's office proves how easy it is to slip into the accessory mode. Colors are brighter than ever, ranging from ruby red and grass green to electric blue and psychedelic pink--all made possible through the use of new, color-receptive plastics and metals. The two best-selling optical advances are anti-reflective coatings, which play down the glare while playing up the eyes, and "progressive lenses," which eliminate the line and the stigma associated with bifocals.

There are also "performance" frames designed to withstand the rigors of the tennis court, the soccer field or even Operation Desert Shield. Gargoyles Performance Eyewear of Kent, Wash., makes attractive high-tech, "wrap-back" sunglasses for the military (company literature brags the lenses are "so tough they have withstood the impact of a .177-caliber pellet traveling 290 miles per hour") and sells similar models to the general public. Sun Shade Optique and Strictly Sunglasses carry Gargoyles in Southern California.

While some stores, including the Optical Shop of Aspen on Melrose Avenue, are known for expensive merchandise ($100 to $1,000 for Japanese and European designer frames), others build their reputation on glasses for less.

For Eyes, a Florida chain with seven stores in Southern California, specializes in discount frames, including designs by Alan Mikli, Giorgio Armani, Anne Klein, Gucci, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Oliver Peoples and L.A. Eyeworks. Company president Phil Wolman says prices are "30-40% lower than in most optical stores," a claim substantiated by a recent Washington, D.C., consumer report.

Locally, Dawn Hunsaker, manager of the chain's Beverly Boulevard store, says customers are buying the round, classic metal frame that "Ralph Lauren made famous and Sylvester Stallone wears in 'Tango and Cash.' It's very unobtrusive and it comes in many different colors. It's simplicity itself." Not only that. Despite industry pressure to get consumers into at least three pairs, this could be all anyone needs. "It goes with everything from blue jeans to black tie," Hunsaker says.

Commenting on national trends, company chief Wolman observes: "The customer is influenced by the movie industry." Ray-Ban's Wayfarer, he says, increased in popularity after Tom Cruise wore them in "Risky Business."

Marla Cohn, co-owner of Eyes on Main in Venice, finds her male customers "are still sticking with the vintage look," a tortoise shell or wire frame. But her favorite style for women is the "rimless," a design popular in Europe. Lenses, held in place with only delicate metal temple pieces and a bridge, seem to float on the face.

Along with novelties, such as monocles, she and partner Susan Sykes specialize in $90 to $500 eye wear, including hand-made English frames. "If someone is looking for a special color, or a copy of a Christian Dior frame that is 20 years old, we can make their dream come true," says Cohn. To copy something like the vintage Dior in "updated plastic" will take about six weeks and cost $225.

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