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.
At the same time, those responsible for styling fashion shows — putting together complete runway looks that include hair, makeup, footwear, accessories and jewelry — have increasingly employed eyewear to help bring the designer’s vision into focus. “Dolce & Gabbana and Prada were the initiators. They have been using frames in their shows for years,” she noted. “And now it’s normal.”
Cavicchioli isn’t the only one in the industry who’s noticed an increased presence on the fashion runway. Another is Gai Gherardi, co-owner and co-designer (with Barbara McReynolds) of the independent L.A. Eyeworks brand.
“Yes, we’ve noticed more and more [optical] styling on the runways,” Gherardi said. “And I love it so much. I remember so clearly opening a newspaper or a magazine a couple of years ago and one of the big [fashion houses] had sent this flock of models down the runway in gorgeous clothes — gowns really — with clear eyeglasses on. It was really a turning point.”
Gherardi is pleased since more cat-eyes on the catwalk helps reinforce the connection between spectacles and style. There’s been more exposure for her brand too — designers who have styled runway looks with L.A. Eyeworks’ spectacles in the past include Corey Lynn Calter, John Bartlett, Rachel Pally and Erik Kim.
But she said it’s only a reflection of the changing attitude, not the genesis of it. For that she points to what she calls “a couple of big milestones.”
The first wave, Gherardi said, came on the heels of the mass-market embrace of rimless, disappear-on-the-face frames that had their heyday in the first half-decade of the new millennium.
“Everybody was wearing rimless frames,” she said. “It was rimless frames, rimless frames, rimless frames. Suddenly everybody looked like they were 70 years old and should be running Daimler [Group].”
Then Sarah Palin stepped into the spotlight as presidential hopeful John McCain’s running mate with her distinctive Kawasaki 704 eyeglass frames. "[She] went around wearing those, and everyone wanted that look,” Gherardi said.
The notion that a pair of eyeglass frames can so easily help define one’s personal sense of style is borne out by annual consumer behavior studies conducted by the Vision Council of America.
According to the group, as of the 12-month period through December 2011, 63.6% of Americans reported wearing prescription eyewear. Although that’s down a half a percentage point from two years earlier, it’s essentially offset by an increase in the use of contact lenses (up 0.4%) and reading glasses (up 0.1%) in the same period. But among U.S. adults who don’t wear prescription eyewear, 19.2% said they have worn eyeglasses without a prescription just to be fashionable — an increase of nearly 4% from December 2008 to February 2011.
Today the throwback look, dominated by classic shapes and tortoise-shell patterns — call it vintage-inspired, geek chic or the “Mad Men” effect — reigns supreme, while the addition of bright pops of color and unusual shapes make fashion-forward eyewear more eye-catching and image-defining than ever.
“Retro-inspired design and classic shapes continue to influence the market,” Cavicchioli said. “But the cat-eye style that has been popular for the last couple of years is on the decline, and we’re moving into more geometric shapes; the hexagon, for example, is a shape that’s coming on strongly. Things are also getting a bit smaller — we were getting a little bit oversized — so you’ll see a return to smaller sizes. But, in the next year and a half, the geometric and sculptural shapes will be where there is newness in the market.”
Salt Optics’ Rose sees some similar trends. “We’ve had this vintage kind of feel for a while,” he said. “A lot of the vintage, heavier, chunkier frames have been slimmed down, and I’m doing a lot of slimmer [frames], with deeper eye shapes. ... As far as color goes, I’ve been digging into opaque colors — aquamarine, aubergine and some nude colors that have been a big trend for us lately.”
But Rose says that the ‘50s and ‘60s vintage-retro look has dominated eyewear trends for so long, people are starting to tire of it.
“Now I’m looking to the ‘80s and ‘90s for inspiration.”