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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

Cruise continued his yeoman's work for expensive sunglasses in 1986's "Top Gun," lending Bausch & Lomb aviators the grand marquee that is the bridge of his nose. Jannard's eye wear also would be impressed upon a worldwide audience that year, although not by a movie star. Greg LeMond was sporting a pair of Oakley Razor Blades when he became the first American to win the Tour de France. There was an immediate sales surge.

By the late 1980s, Oakley had begun restricting its distribution. Today, Sunglass Hut is the company's only chain retailer. Independent bike, surf, ski and optical shops are allowed to sell Oakley sunglasses as well, but never should a pair suffer the humiliation of being discovered in a low-price department store. When one importer diverted a shipment destined for India to the discount realms of Price Costco and Sam's Club, Oakley spent $2.1 million to rescue them.

Mike Parnell, Oakley's CEO, is the chief architect of the firm's exclusive sales policy. In 1985, the year Parnell joined Oakley, the glasses were sold everywhere. "No one really knew about them," Parnell says, "so it wasn't important at department stores, but it was sold at other offensive retailers. If you had a van, you had a dealership. It was pretty ugly."

As a vice president of marketing for the surf-wear company Ocean Pacific, Parnell had watched the trademark take a pounding when the product became too widely available. "When it started out," Parnell says, "Ocean Pacific was a very cool surf-shop brand." But with ballooning sales, the company succumbed to the temptations of mass retail. "I saw it slowly degrade," he says. Distribution expanded beyond the surf shops to chains like Miller's Outpost and then to what Parnell calls "door No. 2" department stores. "Pretty soon, it wasn't cool west of the 405 Freeway anymore, which eventually means it's not going to be cool east of the 405 Freeway either."

Parnell gradually acclimated to Jannard's mad science. He remembers gearing up for the release of the M Frame, which replaced Oakley's LeMond-era sunglasses. The molds had been completed; the first frames and lenses had just reached the headquarters. "The glasses had straight ear stems," Parnell remembers. "Jim got them and said, 'You know, it's good, but it's not great." Jannard disappeared into a conference room with one of his designers. With a pair of pliers and a cigarette lighter, they bent the stems so that they jutted out from the temples and then slowly angled back into the head, eliminating the need for hooks behind the ears.

"I was at my desk just outside this door," Parnell says. "And Jim and George [Tackles, an Oakley designer] came out wearing these things, and I thought they looked hideous. And Jim was saying: 'Stop production! We're going to retool the ear stem.' "

The redesign meant a three-month delay, and Parnell thought Jannard had finally lost it. Oakley shipped out the revised M Frames on the worst day of the year to introduce a new consumer item--Dec. 26. The Hammerfang ear stem design has been incorporated in subsequent Oakley frames. "That," Parnell says, "kind of gave it its little unique personality."

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Nike, which once made overtures to acquire Oakley, seems a credible threat, given that company's marketing capabilities and endorsement clout. Last fall, Nike released two types of sunglasses, the V8 and the V12, for track and field use. A more ambitious model called the Magneto was originally scheduled to be released this winter but remains in the concept phase.

The Magneto is one of the stranger manifestations of the sunglass technology race that Oakley has spurred. Jannard may have done away with hooks on ear-stems, but with Magneto, Nike has thrown out the ear-stems altogether. Instead, Magneto wearers stick tiny disposable metallic discs onto either side of their forehead, which then cling to the "neodymium temple magnets" on the frame itself. "For the lightest race day performance protection available," the Nike catalog assures. "Bar none."

Parnell mentions the "pretty close" friendship that exists between Jannard and Nike founder Phil Knight, even as he sets up barriers to any assault on Oakley. "A number of our patents have been tested prior to Nike coming into the market," Parnell says. "We have most of Nike's marquee athletes under long-term contracts, and one of them's on our board of directors."

Michael Jordan sits on Oakley's board beside Irene Miller, vice chairman and chief financial officer of Barnes & Noble, and Orin Smith, president of Starbucks. Jordan began his association with Oakley after he had retired from basketball and was struggling with minor league baseball. "That's when all of his other sponsors," Parnell pauses, "they didn't abandon him . . . they probably reduced their focus on him." In 1995, Jordan signed a 10-year endorsement deal with Oakley, for $1 million and stock options, thereby depriving Nike of his sunglass-advertising services.

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