Personal Luxuries

Shades of yesteryear

Men’s sunglasses are channelling vintage and coming up with classic shapes that are as cool as Steve McQueen, says Jonathan Futrell.

April 14 2011
Jonathan Futrell

Let’s face it: it’s sometimes so much easier being a man. Take fashion, for example. We men usually prefer classic, tried and trusted perennial style – with just the odd contemporary tweak here or there. It’s a fashion axiom never more palpable than in this year’s range of men’s sunglasses.

OK, the frames may be getting stronger and more flexible, the lenses lighter and, in some instances, virtually indestructible; but the overall flavour of shades for men in 2011 is as timeless and enduring as a two-button, notched-collar jacket – and as cool as Steve McQueen (more on him later).

At the heart of all ranges is the aviator style, every bit as essential now as it was when Ray-Ban unveiled its metal-framed sunglasses designed for US military pilots in 1936. Since then, they’ve shaded policemen, Hell’s Angels, rockers, sportsmen – you name it. Today’s interpretation is a fraction bigger than the original, in keeping with the general trend for larger frames. Otherwise, they are essentially the same. And Ray-Ban’s other iconic model, the Wayfarer, first introduced in 1952 with trapezoidal lenses – wider at the top – and instantly turned iconic by James Dean, is also everywhere. As are the round, metal or acetate “tea-shade” frames, aka John Lennon glasses. The new Vintage Aviators and Wayfarers (both from £120) come in an ever-changing variety of editions, and the groovy John Lennon frame (also £120) in gun metal with grey lenses.

The retro look is stronger than ever, says Steve Hudson, owner of The Eye Company in London’s Soho. “It’s at the heart of a new range of LGR sunglasses that we’ve taken on from Italy.”

LGR was founded by Luca Gnecchi Ruscone on discovery of vintage frames once belonging to his Kenyan grandfather, an optician who opened up shop in Asmara, Eritrea. The family fled Eritrea during the civil war of the 1970s, but in 2006 Rome-based Luca visited the country to discover the shop full of frames imported from Italy 50 years earlier.

He subsequently put the designs into production, and the results are much more than modern classics. The Keren (round frame), Asmara (aviator-style) and Dakar (Wayfarer-style) – from £220 – have “flex” hinges that grip the side of the head. But it is the lenses that really set the bar: in 100 per cent UV mineral glass, ground by Italian lens specialist Baberini, in up to 12 colours, they are practically indestructible.

Classic shapes are the hallmark of Paul Smith’s sunglasses. His Ortsett frame (£188) is an aviator style with a double bridge, while Allan (£156) is a softened interpretation of the Wayfarer.

Since my own family depended upon affordable, no-nonsense Polaroid sunglasses for days out on Littlehampton beach, it’s no surprise to find this manufacturer, which supplies lenses to countless other brands, also trawling its design heritage for inspiration. The Best Under The Sun collection is basically Polaroid highlights from the 1930s to 1980s. My personal favourite is the Memphis (£69); its metal frames edged with brown acetate are bluesy and traditional without being dated.

While some makers stick close to tried and trusted designs, others, including the Danish frame-maker Orgreen, are adept at pushing old favourites into the future. Orgreen’s aviator style, the Drake (£250), exudes Nordic modernism and pragmatism with steely grey frames and clean, industrial cutaways along the arms and above the bridge. The Francis (£250), with temple corners snipped away, and the McQueen (£250), a thoroughly 1970s take on the aviator, show that Orgreen’s designers are unafraid of tinkering with icons.

Bolder still are Mykita’s mirrored-lens aviators. The Berlin-based company specialises in high-tech, acid-cut frames. Breaking out of its comfort zone, the Mykita & Bernhard Willhelm collection (all £245) – Franz, Sepp, Alois and Andreas, in gold, black and a pink so shocking that even Elvis would have thought twice – looks like it was forged from a single element.

The ubiquitous aviator is also the cornerstone of the first collection from new kid on the block Finest Seven. Designer Jesse Stevens – formerly of Miu Miu, Cutler & Gross and Oliver Goldsmith – is pitching for the top end of the market with limited editions using Zeiss lenses.

I like his sunglasses, and his attitude. “There are precious few moments when a man gets to express himself in a fashionable way,” says New Zealander Stevens. “Two of my personal favourites are shoes and sunglasses – oh, and wallets.” Perhaps an oblique reference to the eyebrow-raising price tags of his shades, which start at £495. The signature frame of his collection is the 24ct gold and 14ct white gold Zero 01 aviator (£695), available with grey, brown or green lenses. There is more nostalgic appeal with the Zero 03 (£595), which has a solid cellulose acetate frame and a fluid 14ct rolled gold “brow bar” that extends either side of the temple to become the arms.

Prada Private is a semi-bespoke line for men and women (£300); the men’s have a trapezoidal Wayfareresque feel in black (£300) or tortoiseshell. Off-the-shelf, each pair has the letters P and R between the arms and hinges, but buyers are offered a range of substitute letters and icons, including stars and skulls.

The 2011 retro obsession is confirmed by the world’s most successful eyewear company. Luxottica owns brands including Oliver Peoples as well as holding the manufacturing licence for labels such as Bulgari and Burberry, and five years ago it took on the Ralph Lauren marque, reputed to be worth $1.7m. Now it has reissued Ray-Ban’s 1970s John Lennon frame (£120), while a Ralph Lauren interpretation of this look has an East Coast feel with tartan frames (£259).

A Luxottica spokesperson told me there is evidence too of a distinct shift of emphasis, responding to the current demand for more discreet, masculine frames with less branding. Pride of place in the vast Luxottica range this year is Persol’s relaunch of the phenomenally successful PO 714 (£279), as worn by Steve McQueen in the 1968 heist movie The Thomas Crown Affair with the beguiling Faye Dunaway at his side. These completely folding acetate frames, with chrome hinges on arms and bridge, first appeared towards the end of last year: the 300 pairs allocated to each country sold out in two days. Recognising a thoroughbred classic when it sees one, Persol has now reissued the style as the PO 714 SM, marketed with images of McQueen wearing his favoured pair (brown acetate, blue lenses) behind the wheel of an open-topped Jaguar XKSS. Cool, sporty, tough and, above all, manly, it’s the sort of classic cut that, clearly, is the only way for a man to face up to the glare of 2011.

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Sunglasses