Shady Business: The Boom In Designer Sunglasses

The global sunglasses industry is worth £8bn – which is roughly the same as shoes. Richard Benson heads to Cutler and Goss's head office to investigate the boom in designer frames.

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“I’ve learned a lot about men’s ears,” Marie Wilkinson says. “Their ears and their noses. Some men are very sensitive about their ears and won’t let you near them. Others love having them touched. And nobody likes their nose; in 30 years, I have never heard anyone say, ‘I like my nose’. The best you’ll hear is, ‘I have a useful nose’ – and that’s only if it’s a useful hook for glasses.”

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Wilkinson is a genial and well-dressed woman with a glossy black bob, striking spectacles, and a keen interest in human nature that expresses itself whenever she talks about eyewear.

She is the design director for Cutler & Gross, the luxury handmade-glasses company founded by Graham Cutler and Tony Gross in London in 1969, and taken onto the international stage in the Eighties, during the first global boom in designer sunglasses.

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Having worked for the company since 1982, she is known in the fashion industry as the creative force behind the company’s collections and its collaborations with fashion designers such as Martin Margiela, Giles Deacon and Victoria Beckham.

She is particularly cherished for her understanding of how sunglasses fit and work on a face; a personal fitting with her in the spectacular fitting room upstairs at the shop at 16 Knightsbridge Green is sought after by sunglasses connoisseurs, not least because she can add personal authority or take several years off one’s age.

I have come to her office on the fourth floor of Cutler and Gross’ headquarters in Marylebone, London, to ask about men and sunglasses. In the summer, I was struck by the Twitter flaming that David Cameron got for wearing fake Ray-Bans in the royal box at the Wimbledon men’s singles final, and by some of the subsequent mainstream media coverage.

“Had he been as fashion literate as his wife,” said The Times, “It is unlikely that Cameron would have paired such a sporty pair of shades with formal attire. While wraparound shades + sporty attire = Shane Warne (bad enough), wraparound shades + suit = estate agent.”

It might have been tongue-in-cheek but, like the coverage of Jay-Z’s vintage Cazals before it, the story was still a marker of how men’s sunglasses had, like trainers and tie-knots before them, become sufficiently popular and nuanced to be publicly scrutinised.

A host of bloggers document and analyse them. Bands sing about them (Corey Hart’s Eighties single Sunglasses At Night has been covered at least five times in the last five years, and iTunes alone has half-dozen tracks with titles referencing Ray-Bans), and in the autumn, London’s Bloomsbury books will publish a serious study of the phenomenon (Cool Shades: The History and Meaning of Sunglasses by Vanessa Brown, a senior lecturer in design and visual culture at Nottingham Trent University.)

Once we might have chuckled at a group of men who were all wearing designer shades at the same time, but now such groups are common and their choice can betray their profession (as a rule: technical and modern = politics, financial services, sportsmen; vintage = media, creative, fashion-conscious). Partly because of such groups, the global sunglasses market is now worth about £8bn (for comparison, shoes are worth roughly the same and men’s clothing about £16bn) and forecast to grow by up to 28 per cent in some developing countries in the next five years. We’re also seeing the best designer shades creep up towards to the £1000 price point.

How did that happen, I wondered? And why? And, to paraphrase Miss Kittin’s song “Ray Ban”, can we see the future through those luxe lenses?

It makes sense to ask at Cutler & Gross because they helped to create the luxury sunglasses market in the first place. Graham Cutler and Tony Gross – particularly the latter – had socialised in London’s bohemian cafes and bars in the Sixties, and when they started out as opticians, they brought their values of sybaritism, experimentation and playfulness to their work.

Both had to wear glasses, and couldn’t see why glasses frames couldn’t be beautiful and expressive, like clothes. The discerning public eventually concurred; Wilkinson remembers soon after she joined the company, young Essex boys who had gone to work in the city started to come in to buy glasses that they would wear with plain lenses to make them look older and more capable. “They would come in if they were going for a promotion and say, “Can you make me look a bit older and a bit more intelligent?”

She thinks it is that capacity to transform your appearance, and the way you feel, that is at the root of sunglasses’ appeal. “People are drawn to them because they offer such an easy, quick transformation from being yourself to feeling like someone extraordinary,” she says.

“They’re different from optical glasses, because optical glasses are about correcting defects. Sunglasses give you that extra boost that allows you to become someone remarkable, like a sartorial version of a vodka tonic, giving you an extra boost so you can be a bit brave, a bit taller, a bit more gorgeous.

"Because you can choose the shape, you can give yourself a particular look; you can look slimmer, or richer if you want.” And with brands being so important nowadays, all that can be an easy way of feeling a part of a beautiful brand.”

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We meet in her office on the fourth floor of the Cutler & Gross headquarters in Marylebone, where she is finalising designs for the Spring/Summer 2015 collection, and working on new frames for the company’s ongoing collaboration with Victoria Beckham.

Most of her drawing is done by hand, at a desk in a corner beneath found images of men in interesting glasses, and a poster advertising an Ettore Sottsass exhibition. Ranged across work surfaces are acetate samples, lenses, rough prototypes of temple-less frame fronts, and old Cutler and Gross frames, including the originals of the 811 frames favoured by Victoria Beckham, and the gingham print keyhole-bridges that Wilkinson did with Rei Kawakubo for Comme Des Garcons.

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The basic aim when designing a collection is to have 50-60 ideas based around a theme (S/S 15: the meeting of the natural and cosmic worlds) that are new enough to be interesting, but consistent with the feel of the 12,000-frame back catalogue. Cutler and Gross’ key look is the “wide, generous bridge” that allows the lenses to sit as far apart as they feasibly can.

“Because,” Wilkinson says, “the wider apart the eyes, the more they make people look happier, more appealing and approachable. You see the same principle in the design of Hello Kitty, for example.”

In the modern marketplace, though, the old two-collections-a-year system is changing to accommodate the multi-faceted global market. There are Classic and Premium lines each season, and a resort collection in January; there is an Asian fit primarily for China, with another for South Korea in development; an archive shop retails old stock so older styles will come back into fashion alongside new ones; the collaborations with other designers, “a way of expanding the business without flooding the market with Cutler and Gross” are on a rolling schedule.

Launching later in 2014 is a new super-luxe collection whose frames will retail between £350 and £1000, with each one released as a limited edition. The idea is to develop Cutler & Gross’ position as a post-luxury brand, whose glasses are exclusive and artisanal rather than simply branded.

Many of the mainstream luxury brands rely on frames that may be assembled in by craftsmen in Europe, but whose components are made by injection moulding in Chinese factories for $5-$7 per pair of glasses.

“It’s like they are, say, brand new Japanese 4x4s and we are a Landrover Defender. The Japanese 4x4 might have all the gadgets, and the majority of people might choose it, but you got to a stately home and they’ve got Defender in the drive. And the more the more the luxury market expands, the more people are driven to something above it with that extra quality. Nowadays, it’s not about luxury, it’s about exclusivity.”

The story of sunglasses runs something like this. Cheap, mass-manufactured versions were invented in the US in the late Twenties, and by the late Thirties they had become a craze there.

“Dark glasses are new fad for wear on city streets”, Life magazine reported in 1938, noting sniffily that 20m Americans bought sunglasses in 1937, though “only about 25% really needed them.”

Europe didn’t really catch up until the late Forties, surging ahead in the Fifties when Elsa Schiaparelli, followed by Dior and others, introduced the idea of sunglasses as branded fashion accessory.

In the Sixties and Seventies, the innovation of plastic lenses facilitated larger and more adventurous frames. The Eighties boom that arrested a decline in the late Seventies and early Eighties is attributed by some commentators to the placement of Ray-Ban Wayfarers on Tom Cruise in Risky Business, but in Britain there was a little more to it than that.

Since the late Forties, the National Health Service, which had done wonders for the nation’s eyesight and produced frames, had dominated our eyewear that Wilkinson regards as design classics, but also fostered a notion of glasses as essentially medical. In those days, Gross remembers, “You could really only sell sunglasses to old people who were worried about damaging their eyes. And most styles were just awful. Very unflattering.”

In deciding to sell beautiful, handmade frames, Cutler and Gross became one of that group of British men, like the designer-retailer Paul Smith and magazine publisher Nick Logan, who used their Sixties experience to lay the foundations for Eighties-style culture and the individualism that drove it.

Their frames were made in a range of interesting colours and the designs all had a story; a sense of where the look had come from. They were not injection-moulded but bespoke: made in a room above the shop by a frame maker called George Smith.

All the work on the frames, from cutting the acetate to the milling of the lenses groove to the tumble polishing in wooden barrels with rough pieces of resin so as not to get the edges too smooth, was done upstairs so each frame was different, with tiny inaccuracies and unique edges.

The frames would be adjusted to give an individual fit, and although they could be wild – Elton John was an early customer – the marketing was all British understatement.

Individual styles had numbers, not names, and the branding was on the inside of the temple, the outside being unthinkably vulgar.
The game changed in the late Nineties when European and American fashion houses, led by Tom Ford at Gucci, reinvented themselves as global luxury brands that used their clothing collections as décor for their accessories.

Sunglasses, which have some of the highest profit margins in fashion, have been fundamental to that shift – all the more so in the last few years when brands have followed Prada in coordinating new styles with their pret-a-porter collections, prompting fashion journalists to announce the arrival of the “It-Shade”.

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Some of the companies who buy up brands and manufacture branded shades have become hugely wealthy: one reputedly making profits of up to 60 per cent, but there have also been new players at the exclusive, higher end.

Jonathan Van Blerk, CEO of London’s Eye Respect, a new-ish retailer of quality brands and manufacturer of its own, set up his company largely because he was “tired of everyone claiming to manufacture in certain ways and in certain countries when at the end of the day the biggest companies were just going to China and buying products ready made. My mission in starting the Eye Respect brand was to educate people through the process of handmaking products – letting them see the difference at points of sale.”

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Under the direction of Mohammadi, who took over as CEO when Tony Gross sold his shares in the mid Noughties, Cutler & Gross have responded by setting up an atelier in north London, and buying their own factory in north-eastern Italy – the global centre of the spectacle-making craft.

Their current one, acquired in 2013, is a three-storey modern building in Pieve di Cadore that employs 30-odd people crafting acetate and metal amid the peardrop and molasses smells of acetone and metal solder.

As their business had grown, they had used French and Italian factories where the frames were tooled by hand, but by the early Noughties had experienced production problems with local manufacturers closing down as the big players moved their production to China. Sensing criticism of their methods, some of those players are now moving some of their production back.

For Wilkinson, who trained as an optician rather than a designer, the design and manufacturing process are much the same as in 1982. She begins with a sketch, then has the front and temples cut from a sheet of acetate.

The acetate model is then converted to a computer drawing, in which form they can be amended, and the finished drawings can then be cut from acetate sheets by computerised machine.

Acetate is used because it is soft; the temples, strengthened with metal wire, can be heated and bent to a particular ear – the process which gave Wilkinson her ear-knowledge.

Lenses are made by Carl Zeiss from CR-39, which is a UV-absorbing plastic first developed in World War II as a material for fuel tanks on B-17 bombers.

For each hinge, four holes are drilled into the frame, and pins inserted with the excess being trimmed off and the heads hand polished. Once made, the frames are polished by tumbling and then by hand with smoothing then glossing waxes, to give them a deep lustre; mass-manufactured frames are dipped in acetone, which is why some finishes peel off.

Similarly, cheaper frames’ hinges are heat-sunk rather than pinned. Wilkinson likes hinges, and takes particular enjoyment hunting through for vintage designs in the back catalogue of their Italian suppliers.

“Our exposed hinge-pins are the only decoration we allow – they show the raw, honest feel of the glasses. We use them as a term of craftsmanship, to show the glasses are handmade. I like the detail and functionality of them. The shineers [the little loops that the screw passes through] can be wonderful things. “A five-shineered hinge is just beautiful.”

I go to have a sunglasses consultation with Wilkinson at the Knightsbridge Green shop. To begin with, she shows me the first-floor room for bespoke clients, a spectacular little space with a tan leather Queen Anne sofa and four walls of mirrored tiles, and then we go downstairs to the displays.

She advises people to start with the strongest facial feature and choose what works with that, then to think about nose and ears and eyebrow lines; the former should be the right shape to allow the top of the frames to follow the latter.

"After that, there is trick and a rule for everything. Beard? Don’t leave too much space between the top of the beard and lower rim of the lense, because it creates too much contrast between dark glasses, skin and whiskers. Big ears? A thin, simple temple so that all the focus is on your frames and eyes at the front of the face. Problem nose? Get a bridge that’s the right width. Worried about ageing? Concentrate on how flattering the style is, and choose frame colours that match your colouring; usually softer, natural colours will help.”

“And what about hair loss and bald heads?” I ask, and she lights up. “Then you can really play. It’s so liberating! The sunglasses can sit higher on the face, and larger and rounder shapes will shift the emphasis and break up the forehead. You can also have a wider temple. Wide temples on guys with no hair look cool, because they move the drama to the side of the head.”

Would she have let David Cameron go to Wimbledon in those fake Ray Bans?   

“No, not at all. He’s got classic looks, so he’d look great in tortoiseshell, something elegant and old school. He has a slim face, so he could wear something quite square. He’d be great to style, actually.”

I settle on style 0894, a large, squarish pair sometimes worn by Jarvis Cocker (another rule: if you are a tall or, er, wider gentleman such as I – larger frames will look better, while smaller one may create a pinhead effect).

Wilkinson says they look great, and I agree; looking at myself in the mirror and at the people around the shop I have that feeling that, I realise, you only really get when you put on a pair of sunglasses that you think suit you. Basically, it is the coolest you ever feel.

Why should this be, though? There are plenty of theories, though they don’t tie up neatly. Miss Kittin’s Ray Ban, which describes her sunglasses as “The screen between the world and I”, is quite typical of pop songs in portraying sunglasses as symbols of glamour, voyeurism and isolation.

Vanessa Brown says shades make us feel good because they represent composure, and “self-possession in the face of seemingly overwhelming forces”; because we are increasingly alienated from work, each other and the natural world, we cover our eyes to show detachment and control.

When I asked a Freudian psychoanalyst about this, he partly agreed. Dreaming about wearing them, he said, could be a sign of invulnerability, to see without being seen, to know without being known which was part of the masculine desire to be all powerful; the same could possibly be said about the $385 sunglasses based on Sigmund Freud’s reading spectacles now on sale in New York City.

The theories are fine, but rather overstate the feelings of actually wearing shades. Tony Gross, as one might expect, seemed to put it better when he said he believed that everyone “should feel like a film star when they wear sunglasses.”

It seems likely that most of us do, secretly, and who knows, one day soon we may all look like one too. Even David Cameron.

Taken from the Spring / Summer edition of The Big Black Book, Esquire's style maual for successful men, out now. You can also download the Esquire UK app here.

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