Here Comes the Sun : The Sales of Upscale Sunglasses Are Looking Up


Sports marketer Chris Burke is talking about the market for his company's new line of sunglasses when the fax machine springs to life.

Lois Arnette intones gleefully, "Orders! Orders! They're coming in!" as the slick paper begins to spit out in the office of Arnet Optic Illusions in San Clemente. "This is the money machine," says Arnette, who runs the company with her husband, Greg. The steady output of sales orders at Arnet Optic is just one sign that the market for upscale sunglasses is rebounding from recession and last year's invisible summer, when Southern California endured three months of mostly iron-gray skies and cool temperatures.

In Orange County, several companies design and sell sunglasses. Some of them are the surf wear apparel companies that license sunglasses carrying their distinctive, popular logos. Others make or import sports models for bicycling, surfing

or other outdoor activities.

The largest of the sports-oriented sunglasses firms in Orange County is Oakley Inc. in Irvine, which popularized super-lightweight, coated-lens models for wind-surfing and mountain biking.

It is being pursued by companies such as Hits Enterprises Inc. in Santa Ana, which sells the Icicles brand for surfing and other water sports. Arnet is also targeting surfers, except that it is aiming for out-of-the-water beach use.

Sportiness and fashion come at a price, however. Icicles and Arnet's Black Dog, a sleek, horn-rimmed pair that is the only model on sale so far, generally retail for about $50.

The timing appears right for upscale sunglasses. Sales nationally slipped for the second consecutive year in 1991 to 218 million pairs, down 3% from 225 million in 1989. But the value of the retail sales was at an all-time high of $1.75 billion last year, up 2% from $1.72 billion in 1989, according to the Sunglass Assn. of America, a trade group based in Norwalk, Conn.

That means people are buying fewer pairs of sunglasses but are paying more for them.

"There has been a definite shift to higher-priced sunglasses," said Mauri Edwards, a spokesman for the trade group. Those priced from $50 to $59 were the single-highest revenue producer, accounting for 4 million pairs that reaped $195 million in revenue.

Manager Tom Noble of Newport Surf & Sport in Newport Beach, one of Orange County's better-known surf shops, said most of the hotter-selling models are priced between $40 and $50, sandwiched between the cheapest drugstore varieties but far less than the $200 Italian-made Persols.

The bestsellers are Stussy sunglasses, an offshoot of the successful Stussy apparel, Noble said. Oakleys are selling well but not as briskly as a couple of years ago. Oakley, he said, has gotten too popular for its own good: "If every dork on the street has a pair of Oakleys, it's not cool anymore."

Oakley's advertising manager, Kris Bowers, said the surfing market is "very trendy" but that the company is holding its own.

As for Arnet Optic Illusions, Noble said, the company's sunglasses are beginning to catch on, but much of the beach crowd has yet to discover the new shades.

Greg Arnette--he changed the spelling for the corporate name because it looks better in advertising--worked as a designer at Oakley for nine years. He quit in October. Every day he would tinker with model airplanes in his garage while thinking up ideas for a new line of sunglasses.

Greg and Lois Arnette plowed their savings into the company and borrowed against their house. They had the lenses crafted in Japan and the fiberglass-filled flexible frames made in Italy. The sunglasses are assembled in San Clemente.

Already, Arnette said, his glasses are being carried in surf shops across the country. Burke, who lines up professional surfers to endorse Arnet glasses, said he expects surfers to relate to the company's humble beginnings as they have to the surf wear apparel companies that often started with an entrepreneur, a bolt of cloth and an idea.

"Our roots are in surfing," Burke said.

Some stores have sold out their first few pairs and have doubled their orders, but Arnette said he may take steps to keep from selling too many right off. "I got to look not to grow too quick," he said. "You can't become a fad."

Icicles sales managers and brothers Guy and Kemp Buono know what it's like to start a fad. Their Shock Wave brand of sunglasses with rubber rims and neon colors were a fashion hit a few years ago, spawning a stream of imitations. And they know that fads mean sales.

Now the Buono brothers, led by their dad, company President Tom Buono, are behind the Icicles brand. It derived its name from the clear plastic frames on earlier models and has endured, even though the look has changed. Their $55 Icicle Micro-Band, a pair of sunglasses with a soft, elastic head strap, is selling well in Europe, where the company has seen most of its business. Total sales last year were more than $1 million.

Surfers "have had no eye protection out there," Guy Buono said. And most regular sunglasses sink if they fall into the drink. Micro-Bands not only float, they have a leash that attaches to a surfer's wet suit.

What's next? A children's line. "Parents are very conscious of their children having eye protection," Buono said.

Shades of Growth

Americans bought more than 200 million pairs of sunglasses last year, spending almost $2 billion.

Year Pairs Sold Sales (In millions) (In billions of dollars) 1984 145 $1.02 1985 160 1.03 1986 175 1.20 1987 189 1.32 1988 180 1.35 1989 225 1.72 1990 220 1.66 1991 218 1.75

Source: Sunglass Assn . of America

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