A trip to Planet Oakley

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.

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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.

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"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.)"

No residue of laid-back 1960s beach culture can be found in the Oakley ethos. The sun is no longer a soothing balm to the shoulders; through a frayed ozone layer, it now assaults the eyes with impunity. The bullet-safe lenses guard against gunfire as surely as the occasional pebbles kicked up by a mountain bike. In a Southern California fraught with hazards, Oakley offers a gated community for the eyes.

Oakley's advertisements cleverly sound the alarms. A retired slogan--"Thermonuclear Protection"--equated solar fusion with the kind of atomic devastation only the fittest Oakley consumer might survive. "Electromagnetic radiation is hurtling toward you at 186,282 mi per sec.," warns a more recent magazine ad. "So we'll get right to the point." Beneath a molten sphere that might be the sun, or might be an eyeball set ablaze, the reader learns about those "trillions of dangerous particles bombarding your eyes" and the immediate need for "the most advanced eye protection in the universe. Which is made, fortunately, here, on Earth. By Oakley."

These elaborate optical defenses are built upon proprietary technology--Oakley owns 55 U.S. and 225 international utility and design patents. But patents can make for dull reading, so Jannard has developed a pseudoscientific nomenclature that borrows heavily from aerospace. Oakley's lens design, which mimics the eye's own curvature to minimize distortion, is elevated to the mathematical status of "polaric ellipsoid lens geometry." The actual lens material is not just polycarbonate but "pure Plutonite." Even that squishy substance covering the earpieces and the nose-bridge of Oakley M Frames is an occasion for military-industrial hyperbole; for that unobtainable fit, "Unobtainium" will cling to the head in proportion to how much the athlete sweats. No arsenal should be without diversification. So the M Frames can be equipped with eight interchangeable lens tints, to accommodate variable lighting and climactic conditions.

The martial credo extends even beyond the core athletic line to Oakley's fashion-driven styles. The firm's $224.99 T Wires may seem delicate, but they're made from titanium, "the same industrial strength, lightweight material used in fighter aircraft, nuclear submarines and NASA spacecraft." Full Metal Jackets, more reasonably priced at $124.99, have been coated with a liquid metal to achieve the dull patina of an expensive pistol. The $33.99 carrying case is a tiny trunk of riveted aluminum. "Throw it off a building," taunts Oakley's 1996 catalog. "Run it over with a Humvee. Expose it to the gravity of Jupiter."

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The authorized Jim Jannard biography is delivered by Oakley attorney Gregory Weeks. The two met when Weeks' family moved in across the street from the Jannards' Alhambra home in 1953. Jannard was 3; Weeks was 5. "It wasn't long," the lawyer says, "before we were the best of buddies." There were water-balloon fights, jaunts to McDonald's, touch football games on Cordova Street. As kids, Jannard and Weeks were so captivated by the USC Trojans that they read the Iliad, designed Homeric costumes and waged their own Trojan War. "Jim's armor," Weeks remembers, "would be more colorful."

They also played a game of Frisbee. The object was to make the opponent miss by any means possible. Weeks tried to prevail with overwhelming power, but "Jim would do it from finesse only, to make it curve certain ways." Studying the Frisbee's hidden aerodynamic properties, Jannard fine-tuned his throws until the disc would consistently make crazy dips or leaps.

The Jannard Pharmacy was a fixture of Main Street Alhambra. Jannard's brother, Al Jannard Jr., is now an Orange County druggist, and after high school, it seemed likely that Jim would follow the family tradition. But he dropped out of the USC School of Pharmacy to roam the Southwest on a chopped-up motorcycle. He returned to his hometown with a beard and long hair. At 21, he married Pamela Pittario, an 18-year-old neighbor, in Alhambra Park. Inspired, perhaps, by Weeks' religious example, the Jannards joined the Mormon Church. They had four children, all of them named so they could share Jim Jannard's own "J. J." initials. (He and Pamela have since divorced. No longer a churchgoing Mormon, Jannard married his Oakley assistant, Bobbie Gamble.)

To support his family, Jannard sold motorcycle and auto parts out of a grubby Honda. Covering his territory, he dropped in on Weeks, who had moved to San Diego. "He'd spend two days with my wife and me," Weeks says. "He'd tell me about parts of motorcycles and cars that he would perfect." In 1975, Jannard was nearly a decade away from manufacturing a pair of sunglasses, but the entire Oakley blueprint can be glimpsed in his first commercial invention, a motocross handlebar grip.

At the time, handgrips were manufactured out of vinyl, were cylindrical and, at 99 cents per pair, cheap. Oakley handgrips were the kind of lopsided shape you would get by closing your fist on a wad of clay; they were misshapen to conform to the human hand, just as Oakley's "polaric ellipsoid" lenses would later follow the eye's curvature. Instead of vinyl, Jannard formulated his grip from a more tactile rubberized material, not too far removed from Oakley's squishy "Unobtainium" nosepieces. Like the sunglasses, the grips were domestically made and, at $4, expensive.

Lacking an advertising budget, Jannard promoted his handgrips at BMX and motocross races, passing them out to riders to raise the product profile. Alas, as the cameras came into focus and the bikers approached the starting line, the grips disappeared beneath their hands, denying Oakley free exposure. So Jannard began designing motocross and ski goggles that, perched upon the athlete's head, might give the brand greater visibility.

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Ask Oakley corporate communications manager Rene Law for an example of someone who leads the Oakley lifestyle and she will cite extreme skier Trevor Petersen. "It's really like someone who just takes everything to the limit," she says, "and lives the life and their passion and their sport."

Sitting beside Law in one of the conference room's ergonomical chairs is Scott Bowers, Oakley's sports marketing director. Bowers agrees that Petersen is a fine example. "We had one of our best Oakley spokesmen," he says, "--we should say, one of our athletes--die this year." Petersen had been an Oakley-sponsored skier for the better part of a decade before his death last year.

"He was very calculated in what risks he took," Bowers continues, "very well educated. He lived life to the edge. Everything that he did had a risk to it. And so that the energy he carried--the vibe that he carried in himself--very much so portrayed that same image that Oakley has."

"Yeah," Law agrees, "to the extent that we did work with Trevor on a few Oakley advertisements."

"You should get a copy of the most recent Powder," Bowers suggests, "that has the article on him."

"Yes, that's exactly what I was thinking," Law says. "That's a very neat article." A photo of a smiling Petersen graces the first page of the Powder magazine tribute, his eyes hidden beneath a pair of dual-vented Oakley Pro Frame goggles.

"He was killed in France in an avalanche," Bowers says, "but he's somebody that was out of the normal, didn't follow the normal rules and regulations of life, lived life to the fullest. But he lived on the edge . . . and that does very much so represent kind of that Oakley persona--that Oakley image."

"Yeah," Law says. "I think Trevor does."

"And it's hard to maintain that same vibe," Bowers says, "as we become more popular."

Bowers himself was once an Oakley-sponsored athlete; he wore the company's goggles on the World Pro Mogul Tour. Although he retired from skiing and joined Oakley's sports marketing department nearly 10 years ago, he has refused to settle into flabby complacency, still managing to bang himself up. "Now I race mountain bikes," he says, "and do a little bit of motocross racing. That's where I take my hits and my knocks." An oblong wound running up his right forearm has barely begun to heal.

For a more subliminal portrait of the Oakley elite, Law screens a corporate video. Against the hard-rock soundtrack, we see Oakley cyclists pumping their fists in victory, a hydrogen bomb explosion, leaping Oakley snowboarders, the steaming beakers of the mad scientist, Michael Jordan, of course, and Oakley track and field stars stretching their rippling muscles past all endurance. It is a celebration of physical perfection and dominance rarely seen since Leni Reifenstahl filmed the 1936 Olympics.

Having won their hard-earned respect, Oakley is not about to insult these athletes by reaching out to soft, middle-aged homeowners. "Not to offend anyone," Bowers says, "and I don't know if you want to put this in print either, but in some cases we see people wearing our product that makes some of us real Oakley people cringe a little bit. Like that's not the image we portray. But yet, we totally love the fact that they're buying our product."

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When Oakley's first sunglasses, the eyeshades, were launched in 1984, they were a cross-pollination of goggles and sunglasses. The transition to premium eye wear was well-timed, coinciding roughly with the birth of Tom Cruise's film career. In 1981, Bausch & Lomb had sold only 18,000 pairs of its Wayfarers, a nadir in a long product history. After Cruise danced his beefcake dance in Wayfarers and briefs in the 1983 film "Risky Business," sales jumped to well over a quarter-million and the retail price of Wayfarers was boosted $10, to $35. By 1986, sunglasses had become a $1.1-billion business in the United States; last year, it hit $2.5-billion, with much of the growth spurred by the over-$30-per-pair category.

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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Until last October, Oakley's mass popularity seemed to justify the company's most reckless boasts. For the first nine months of 1996, Oakley had sold $179.3 million worth of eye wear and accessories--a 38% increase over the $129.8 million sold in 1995. Profits for the third quarter alone had leaped 54% over the previous year. The exclusive distribution at Sunglass Hut and indepen- dent bike, ski and surf stores, the in-house manufacturing apparatus, the lawsuits against patent violators, the deification of the athlete in a landscape of a thousand hazards, the secretive pursuit of mad science itself--the Oakley blueprint for "total world domination" could be envied but not disputed.

Until last October. Even as Oakley was reporting its triumphant fall performance, Sunglass Hut, the seller of a third of Oakley's output, divulged a negligible 2.1% increase in September sales. The following day Oakley's stock fell 20%, and a few days later it skidded an additional 14%. In early December, Oakley announced it would halt fresh shipments to Sunglass Hut for the remainder of the year, including the Christmas season. That month, the company's stock would plunge to a low of 9 1/2, from a 52-week high of 27 1/4.

Jannard responded by purchasing a million shares of Oakley stock, albeit at prices far lower than he recently had sold them, and vowed to purchase another million. In June, he and Parnell sold 10 million Oakley shares at $23.81 per share--yielding Jannard $205.2 million and his CEO $22.8 million. A shareholder lawsuit was launched against the company, its officers, its board and underwriters, alleging that they had inflated the stock price by misleading investors that the limited distribution strategy and sales growth were still sound and that new products would be released by the end of 1996.

Industry analysts continue to express confidence in Oakley's corporate health, even as they assess the fallout. "I think, certainly, with Sunglass Hut--the size that they are now in the marketplace--when they get a cold, everyone else sneezes," says Richard Enholm, marketing research director of the Sunglass Assn. of America. Enholm reports only a slight increase in total U.S. sunglass sales for 1996; 113 million were purchased last year, as opposed to 112 million in 1995. Most new inroads were made not at Sunglass Hut but in the broader retail base of prescription optical stores.

Oakley has touted its ability to defy a culture of planned obsolescence: In its first 22 years, the company had introduced just 20 products, and none had failed. Last year, Oakley premiered only baseball, basketball and golf editions of its M Frames, along with squared-off versions of its existing Jackets and Wires lines. "While they've introduced new products in 1996, they didn't introduce anything as groundbreaking as Jackets a year ago," says Marcia Aaron, a retail analyst at Alex. Brown, one of Oakley's managing underwriters. "They don't have as great an excitement in their product line as they did in 1995."

Despite Oakley's focus on patentable technology and its athletic heritage, the company's early 1996 sales growth had been driven by its fashion models, while sales of its sports-specific sunglasses decreased. The purebred sports models were even bumped to the back of the 1996 catalog, ceding the more prominent display to nonathletic eye wear.

"We're a niche marketer," Parnell says, "not a mass sunglass brand." But as the second-largest U.S. maker of sunglasses, Oakley has moved well beyond its niches. To retain its annual growth rate of 33% or better, it has embraced fashion. As resistant as those next-generation sunglasses might be to buckshot or conical-tipped mis- siles, they may not be immune to the vagaries of high style.

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Somewhere in Nevada, Oakley is nearing completion of the X Metal eye-wear line. Originally slated for November 1996, the new sunglasses might have rescued Oakley from its fourth-quarter slide. Jannard announced he would forsake his $1 million 1996 incentive bonus if X Metals were not sent to stores by February. (Oakley did make its deadline. Selected stores were shipped a single pair of X Metals on the last day of the month.)

With X Metals, Oakley will produce "metal framework components in a way that is revolutionary for the sunglass industry." Other details of the new line are hazy, even by Oakley standards. Renee Law won't say what Nevada community is home to the X Metals plant. "I don't think we've sort of broken it down to that detail," she says. "There's a lot of proprietary information involved with the X Metal frame, so we'd probably prefer that it wasn't terribly easy to get that information."

Nor is Scott Bowers, the sports marketing director, much help. "X Metals," he says. "You know what? I probably know less than you know about X Metals. X Metals have been kept very, very under wraps from a design standpoint, just because we are so prone now to getting copied, much more rapidly than it's ever been before. It's been kept very confidential. As a matter of fact, we have a meeting tomorrow morning that I will go to. But I really couldn't tell you the direction that we're going."

Mike Parnell is slightly more forthcoming. "I could tell you about it," he says. "It's very unique. I could pre-promote it, tell you who-all's going to be wearing them in public. But I'd much rather just let it come out and you to observe that, rather than me tell you."

Last December, 350 guests were summoned to a new 40-acre, $35-million headquarters still under construction in Foothill Ranch. There, Jannard gave them a privileged glimpse of "Oscar," the first incarnation of the X Metal line, which has since been renamed Romeo. Five Olympic medalists, two NBA players, two major league baseball players, the world surf and snowboard champions and a leading beach volleyball contender converged to celebrate and promote the frames, which, at $250 per pair, will be the company's most expensive.

"It is very encouraging to see our athletes and friends as excited as I am with Oscar," Jannard stated in an Oakley press release, "seeing for the first time the physics of Oakley's technology wrapped in sculpture and topped with art." In another release, Jannard announced the addition of 200 to 250 retailers to Oakley's domestic base--"premium" sunglass specialty and optical shops that might lessen its dependence on beleaguered Sunglass Hut.

Perhaps X Metals, given a wider distribution, will propel Oakley stock back to pre-October 1996 levels and enable the company to maintain its stupefying growth rate. Maybe X Metals will prove even more durable than the pure titanium, nuclear submarine-grade Oakley T-Wires, enough to fend off Nike and a dozen lesser competitors--or a sunglass market that might already have crested. Nevertheless, if the Nevada project cannot win Oakley's war, if Oakley's fashion eye wear turns out to have a shelf life not that much longer than its adversaries, mad science will pursue the arms race with only greater relentlessness.

"Jim is very motivated," Parnell says of the absent-though-omnipresent Oakley founder, "probably most motivated when people tell him he can't or shouldn't do something because the obstacles are so high. I mean, that's when he excels."

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