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Behind The Scenes : Eyeworks Visionaries Set Their Sights on Breaking the Mold in Frames

October 15, 1993|ROSE APODACA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Barbara McReynolds and Gai Gherardi are positioned by a photographer in front of a mirror when McReynolds speaks up: "We've been photographed looking into a mirror 20 million times! Can we do something that hasn't been done over and over again?"

Breaking routine is something partners McReynolds and Gherardi, both natives of Huntington Beach, say is at the heart of l.a. Eyeworks, their perennially hip company that has helped forge the modern-day attitude that eye wear should be as fashionable as it is functional.

"What we're all about isn't about a mold," Gherardi says.

Opening an optical store on Melrose Avenue in 1979 is one example of breaking away. Back then, the customers who camped out along that street wore their hair in unnatural hues of the rainbow and their noses safety-pinned. Having an eye-wear shop seemed out of place. But 15 years later, the street is lined with stores hawking specs.

Also, their approach to merchandising revolutionized the way consumers perceived eye wear: as a sculpture to be viewed from all angles.

And one of their more recent noted acts was the "Safe Spex" window display at their Melrose and South Coast Plaza stores, featuring generic black frames inside condoms hanging delicately by a thread.

"The statements we make with our windows have more to do about dialogue with our community," Gherardi says. "We use our windows to talk. The essence of this company is doing those things we believe in. How we live our life, how we conduct our business is our activism."

When they met three decades ago in the hall at Huntington Beach High School, it was folk music--not eye-wear design--that they had in mind. Gherardi, an individualist who went to the prom wearing combat boots, decided McReynolds should play guitar with her boyfriend, so she introduced them.

A couple of years later, McReynolds reciprocated with a job tip for Gherardi. When the Lido Isle optometrist's office where McReynolds worked opened a branch near UC Irvine in 1965, Gherardi got a job there, and the two developed an interest in the aesthetics of eye-wear frames.

McReynolds had a history of eye-wear attraction. She had faked a bad eye exam when she was 13 to get a pair of glasses, and she went to work for a Lido Isle optometrist after she and the doctor spent six months searching for the perfect pair of black oval frames for her.

She also began collecting glamorous frames from the '40s, '50s and '60s, picking up her first pair in 1968 at the Orange Circle. Today her collection of fantasy, antique frames from around the world numbers about 2,000. Several are on tour internationally at museums and galleries, including the "Spectacular Spectacles" exhibit that opened last week at their South Coast Plaza store in Costa Mesa. That exhibit features such bizarre frames as rhinestone-studded music notes and bowing swans.

When McReynolds and Gherardi opened l.a. Eyeworks, glasses "were still considered such a prosthesis," Gherardi recalls. "There was a lot of inhibition to wear them. But we were fearless about digging around to find great glasses."

The two licensed opticians tried satisfying customers at their Melrose store by going to the ends of the earth to find a frame and offering custom frame finishes and lenses that they sanded, blasted, mirrored . . . anything to make them distinct.

But neither one intended to design frames.

Months after opening the store, they reconsidered. "There was this desperation for us to translate into something tangible what wasn't available," McReynolds says. "We were forced into design out of boredom."

With no prior design experience, McReynolds and Gherardi submitted their first sketch to an Italian eye-wear manufacturer. Their first "collection" in 1980 consisted of a single style--a classic plastic frame with rounded corners.

Since that first pair, they have designed about 150 limited-edition frames in hundreds of colors. They have branched out with a wholesale division, Eyeworks 3, with partner Margo Willits, which distributes their wares internationally. Collections debut twice a year with eight to 12 new styles, priced between $145 to $360.

Many are created with technologies McReynolds and Gherardi innovated (a frame may take them as long as two years of research and development).

Their achievements were recognized in 1992 with the Gold Award for product design from International Design Magazine. A year before, for the first time in its history, the Stanford Conference on Design acknowledged their optical designs under the industrial design category--an important break for the duo and for the eye-wear industry.

Details not immediately seen when worn, such as their signature round and square temple pieces (inspired by Gherardi's frog's feet), distinguish an l.a. Eyeworks frame from others.

But the actual product has been only a part of the company's image. A long-running print advertising campaign of black and white photographs by Greg Gorman has starred their celebrity customers and friends: Andy Warhol, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Deborah Harry, Grace Jones and David Hockney. Current poster girls are bombshell Sharon Stone and pop diva-in-drag RuPaul.

Besides exploring new technologies in the area of eye wear, the partners successfully ventured into the restaurant business a decade ago and are now toying with plans to design a car and open the first retail outlet on a future space station.

At the mention of the boutique in space, McReynolds and Gherardi exchange grins. "It's a reflection of (our philosophy) not to set up barriers, of not having boundaries," quips McReynolds. "We're just always looking for a way to break the mold."

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