Retro looks, popular in eyewear today, are seen in frames from L.A. Eyeworks,… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)
Judging from the plethora of eye-catching eyewear that's been getting face time over the last few years — be it on the European ready-to-wear runways or in the adjoining office cubicle — it's clear that glasses have gone from nerd necessity to chic accessory.
It's a shift reflected in the current look-at-me trends — retro, vintage-inspired frames, chunky tortoise shells and geometric shapes that attract rather than deflect attention — and reinforced by the laundry list of fashion-focused brands with a presence in the eyewear arena. These include high-end European luxury labels like Prada, Giorgio Armani and Dolce & Gabbana as well as American contemporary brands Brooks Brothers, Tory Burch, Tiffany & Co. and Sperry Top-Sider, which aims to translate the brand's footwear DNA into a line of licensed sunglass and ophthalmic frames due to hit the market next year.
While it might seem logical to blame the deteriorating eyesight of the aging baby boomer population or the ever-increasing computer- and smartphone-induced strain on our collective eyeballs, consumer behavior statistics don't show a jump in the number of people who need prescriptions. What they do show, however, is an increase in the number of people who wear glasses without prescription lenses — presumably to look cool.
Dorothy Parker famously observed, "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses." How did we go from that image to bespectacled bombshells? How did eyewear go from the disguise that turns Superman into his milquetoast alter-ego to an individual expression of signature style?
Some in the eyewear industry point to the traditional pop-culture petri dishes of Hollywood celebrity and fashion runways. "Maybe they're seeing more celebrities" wearing glasses, said Larry Leight, co-founder and creative director of boutique brand Oliver Peoples. "And there are more … fashion magazines and runway shows where designers are accessorizing their shows with ophthalmic glasses — the kind that aren't sunglasses — with either clear lenses or only slightly tinted colored lenses."
Milena Cavicchioli, vice president of marketing for Luxottica Group — the Milan-based eyewear company that owns Ray-Ban, Oakley and Oliver Peoples, among others, and which also makes eyewear and sunglasses under license for some 20 fashion labels — points to the recent Hollywood award show season as evidence. "Think of Meryl Streep on Oscar night," Cavicchioli said. "She was wearing beautiful frames. And she's not the only one. Jennifer Garner and Demi Moore are two I often see in clippings. When people are looking at [celebrities like] them to see what the latest trends are, them wearing frames is a huge support and endorsement."
She said there have also been other factors at work over the last half decade, including fashion designers' approach to eyewear both in the frames that bear their names and in the styled looks that hit the runways during fashion week.
"The [optical] collections themselves are becoming more elaborate," she said. "There are some [styles] that are like jewelry pieces, that make a big fashion statement — like Prada's Baroque frame, for example. The collections are being treated in a more fashion-forward way."
Fashion designers have realized just how powerful a brand extension eyewear can be, especially in comparison to some other offshoots. "It's difficult for a brand to be visible with a fragrance because you're the only one who knows what you're wearing," she explained. "But when you wear a pair of sunglasses or optical frames, the brand itself gets exposure in the most prominent way because this is something you wear on your face. It's not like a wallet that you put in your bag. I would say that it is as powerful as a [designer hand]bag as a brand statement, as brand exposure."
Not just a powerful statement, but an economical one too, points out David Rose, vice president of design and manufacturing at Costa Mesa-based Salt Optics. "A few years back, before the economy took a hit, people would spend a lot more money on their bags and their shoes," Rose said. "But now eyewear is an accessible way to have a quality accessory." Rose also said that switching out the spectacles provides a quick and easy way to create a whole new vibe. "It's like getting a haircut — going from [having] long hair to buzzing your head — it really changes your overall look."
It's not just the designers who've seen the value of cultivating the eyewear-as-fashion-accessory notion. Cavicchioli said that over the last five years Luxottica has increased its advertising in fashion magazines and worked to get its brands noticed by influencers and trendsetters. "We're using the category to make a statement as well," she said.