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A trip to Planet Oakley

The California Experience Without a Pair of Sunglasses? No Way. Can Oakley Be the Ultimate Sunglass Experience? Well, Don't Answer That Without Proper Eye Protection.

March 16, 1997|ED LEIBOWITZ | Ed Leibowitz's last article for the magazine was on Vans sneakers

The single red iridium lens stretches like a shield from brow to cheekbone and nearly halfway around the head. The jagged Hammerfang earpieces jut out from the temples, never bending toward the lobes. The brand name is faintly etched on the lens, right between the eyes. * Like all Oakley sunglasses, these M Frame Heaters flaunt an almost inhuman impenetrability. They have been designed to withstand the brunt of a shotgun blast from 15 yards, to suffer only a minor dent should a 500-gram conical-tipped missile be dropped on them at a height of four feet. Mountain bikers have spoken about the possible blindness they might have suffered had their Oakleys not withstood bits of gravel kicked up by a tire, or ricocheted rough branches. * Testimonials stranger than these have trickled into Oakley's self-styled "Interplanetary Headquarters" in Irvine. On an expedition to Alaska, one grateful wearer was attacked by a grizzly bear. He did get scratched up, but the bear could not break through the optical armor and strike the eye. Another customer weathered a fire with his eyes intact; his facial burns followed the outline of his Oakleys. * Someone must be finding these stories compelling. Twelve years after releasing its first pair, Oakley Inc. has emerged as the second-largest manufacturer of sunglasses in North America, and the third-largest in the world. Dennis Rodman--his hair dyed a Day-Glo orange, a nose ring almost brushing up against his Oakley Trenchcoats--occupies an entire page in the company's 1996 catalog, while teammate Michael Jordan sits on the company's board of directors. Baseball stars Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gywnn and Wade Boggs are Oakley athletes, as are speed skaters, snowboarders, windsurfers and more than 300 1996 Winter and Summer Olympians. Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, Leonardo DiCaprio and Spike Lee, David Duchovny and Madonna also have been spotted wearing Oakleys. * The company's elongated "O" logo has been slapped

Onto the rear windshields of thousands of four-wheel-drive vehicles. At Sunglass Hut International, the world's largest retail sunglass chain, Oakley has accounted for about one out of four pairs of sunglasses sold. In 1995, the company went public, and within a year, chairman and founder Jim Jannard became one of Orange County's two billionaires.

*

He has turned down all interviews, publicizing Oakley's breakthroughs only in press releases. The company has never released a photograph of him. When Oakley held its first shareholders' meeting last year at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Jannard banned all cameras. Aside from a high-school yearbook photo, only one image has surfaced--on the Associated Press wire. It is a shot of Jannard with his arm around the president of the New York Stock Exchange, the eyes of both hidden behind Oakley sunglasses. Publication of the photograph in Forbes caused something of an internal corporate calamity.

Certainly, the photo does not do Jannard justice. For our conversation, his Oakleys are perched upon a hairline that has not receded too severely for a 47-year-old. His face is pleasant, broad, with few, if any, wrinkles--the face of the neighborhood pharmacist he almost became. He wears a powder-blue short-sleeved shirt, jeans and sneakers. An alien-dragon ring extends from the base of one finger, almost to the knuckle.

Jannard speaks a language familiar to anyone who has read Oakley's product literature, which, until recently, he wrote. "That we are cool or a fad is a misconception," Jannard says. He has been talking for the last quarter-hour, but only these final five minutes are on the record. "We may be cool because of our dedication to making better solutions. I am truly proud that this is a great place where people can discover who they are and make the best of their talents."

Trying to sum up his elusive persona, Jannard compares himself to the inventor Fred MacMurray portrayed in "The Absent Minded Professor." "That is me," he says. "Mad science is my middle name."

The outcast intellect, the megalomania, the need to conduct forbidden experiments in secrecy--every quirk of the mad scientist seems to have been institutionalized in Oakley. While Jannard's inventions have evolved into perhaps the most visible eye wear in North America, Oakley Inc. remains as impenetrable as the most resilient pair of buckshot, bear- and missile-resistant sunglasses. The Oakley chairman is more elusive still.

"I'm not Bill Gates," he says. "And I'm not Ted Turner." The audience with Jannard is over.

*

"The optical ideas we generate would melt the brains of mere mortals," announces the Oakley Product Identification Manual. "Our production process . . . has been described as genius teamed up with insanity." A fleeting explanation of this process is suddenly cut short: "But that's all we can tell you. (You'd think we were building stealth bombers, not sunglasses.)"

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