The eyes may be the windows of the soul, but sunglasses are the shades we draw to shut out the world, proclaim our hipness and, incidentally, protect ourselves from those pesky ultraviolet rays.
Face it. Few people wear sunglasses because of their UV protection factor. (How much sunlight beams onto the court-side seats at the Lakers games or the front row alongside the Prada runway to warrant all those Persols?)
Hide your eyes with dark specs and you immediately appear inscrutable. Cool. Mysterious. Unapproachable.
“Sunglasses protect you from having to acknowledge, which is a way of life in Southern California,” said Angela Gee, marketing director of l.a. Eyeworks, whose limited edition glasses are worn by Robin Williams, Meg Ryan and Ellen DeGeneres. “They’re a means of social protection as well as solar protection.”
Perhaps no one knew that better than Jacqueline Onassis. Maybe her huge, dark wraparounds couldn’t disguise her identity, but they could shield her from camera shutters and prying eyes while allowing her to ogle unobserved.
When Andre Previn asked her whether it bothered her being stared at, she told him that was why she wore dark glasses.
“It may be that they’re looking at me, but none of them can ever tell which ones I’m looking back at,” she said, according to Christopher Andersen in his book, “Jackie After Jack: Portrait of the Lady.” “That way I can have fun with it.”
(On the other hand, people who crave eye contact, like politicians, are rarely glimpsed in dark shades.)
Besides providing privacy, sunglasses have the power to transform, or at least indulge one’s fantasies. A soccer mom pops on a pair of little silver specs with blue lenses and becomes Meg Ryan. A buttoned-down corporate cog wears futuristic Oakley wraparounds and morphs into Michael Jordan.
Tom Cruise would have looked like just another goofy teen bopping around in his underwear in “Risky Business” had he not been sporting his Ray-Ban Wayfarers. Similarly, Will Smith’s Ray-Ban Predator 2 shades transformed him from fresh prince to menacing dude in “Men in Black.” (Not surprisingly, sales of Ray-Bans soared after those movies hit the multiplexes.)
Audrey Hepburn looked exquisite in black and pearls as she glided across Fifth Avenue at dawn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” but it was her huge dark glasses that added a measure of mystery and insouciance to all that Givenchy chic.
“Sunglasses, especially in major markets like Los Angeles and New York, are definitely related to image,” said Jean Scott, vice president of product development for Luxottica, the manufacturer that produces such designer eyewear lines as Giorgio Armani, Persol, Web and Moschino. “How can you put on a big pair of sunglasses a la Jackie O and not feel glamorous? It truly transcends you.”
According to the Sunglass Assn. of America, retail sales of sunglasses last year reached $2.6 billion, 63% of which was for sunglasses that cost more than $30. Clearly, customers don’t mind spending more for fashionable shades.
“Twenty years ago, $50 used to be considered expensive for a pair of sunglasses,” said l.a. Eyeworks’ Gee. “Now people come in and regularly spend between $150 to $200 and may buy three pairs at once.”
Dan Deutsch, owner of Dan Deutsch Optical Outlook eyewear boutiques, credited designers for increasing the status quotient of eyewear by turning them into a chic fashion accessory.
“Once designers like Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein entered the market with signature styles and spent millions on ads, before you knew it, sunglasses became something everyone had to have,” he said. “It’s much cheaper to buy a pair of $200 Gucci glasses than a $1,000 jacket.”
So what styles of shades are hot this summer?
Just about everything, according to Scott.
“Not much is passe, although the big glamour Jackie O looks are trending down,” she said. “There are lots of choices in sizes and colors. You don’t have to feel you are a slave to fashion, like in the ‘70s, when you had to have those little round John Lennon glasses to be cool.”
Geometric frames, especially rectangles or squared-off ovals, are currently popular. So are sleek wraparounds.
Shiny metallic “car paint” finishes are a big thing, with a palette ranging from earth tones--especially brown--to kiwi and cobalt.
Colored lenses--blue, rose and yellow--which took off last year continue to be in demand. Ditto for pricey polarized lenses that block out glare. For the really hip: tone-on-tone glasses, like kiwi frames with kiwi lenses.
No single brand rules. Fashion hounds are fickle about what they perch on their noses, but among this summer’s favorites are Gucci, Persol, Web, BADA, l.a. Eyeworks, Armani and, as usual, Ray-Ban.
Swiss Army, taking a cue from Ray-Ban’s movie marketing success, is hoping to hit it big this summer with high-tech specs like those worn by Bruce Willis in “Armageddon.”
To entice the diamond brigade, Bulgari and Cartier offer luxury sunglasses with 24-carat plating and occasionally inset with a tiny diamond or sapphire at the corners.
At l.a. Eyeworks, where design and technology are prized over trendiness, clients can order sunglasses with contrasting colors and patterns on the inside of the frames. Sort of like silk couture linings, only in plastic.
Paradoxically, as sunglasses have become the chic armor of famous faces, they have come to signify celebrity, rather than conceal it.
“The Hollywood image thing with sunglasses is really about fake anonymity,” Gee observed. “On one hand, celebrities need to be noticed, but yet they want to be slightly anonymous. Above all, they want you to keep your distance.”
So the next time you are strolling down Melrose and you want to be conspicuous enough to turn heads and start some buzz--"Isn’t that Sandra Bullock?"--but not attract any riffraff, pop on those dark sunglasses. The windows of your soul never looked so chic.