Nobody wants to make a spectacle of themselves, which is why the modern eyeglass wearer is thinking big. After almost a generation of rectangular, letter-box-shaped specs (which made women look like Sarah Palin and imbued men with a “trying too hard” self-consciousness that only TV stylist Gok Wan could get away with), prescription lenses the size of BlackBerrys are back. So just when you were thinking of disguising your vanity with disposable contact lenses, it’s not only OK to wear Eric Morecambe-style frames – in solid black or tortoiseshell – it’s positively cool.
So cool, in fact, that two London optometrists report a surge in sales of heavy spectacle frames with clear-glass lenses to customers with 20/20 vision. It’s geek chic, as pioneered by Michael Caine (when he played Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File), artist Damien Hirst, Austin Powers, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and Yves Saint Laurent – think slacks, safari suits and spectacles the size of tennis rackets. The designer’s legacy is in the current Yves Saint Laurent range of frames, from the David Hockney-esque 6224 (£157) to the flamboyant 2274 (£165), all produced under licence by eyewear specialist Safilo Eyewear, which also produces nerdy frames for Bottega Veneta, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen.
A change was inevitable. If you’ve ever sat in an office or on a train and cringed at the dawning realisation that everyone is wearing oblong spectacles that are virtually identical to your own, you’ll know that something had to happen. “Nerdy, geeky is sexy,” proclaims Steve “Steenie” Hudson, spectacle historian and owner of The Eye Company in Soho, London. “Those little rectangles were revolutionary. They were completely different. But that’s almost 20 years ago.”
Paul Smith was one of the first to make the break, giving his models the intelligent auras that heavy spectacle frames automatically imbue. His geekiest designs – the Butler (£195), Lyndon (£210) and Pirroni (£195) – sell at David Clulow.
The uncrowned king of the geek scene is former Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker. His studied geography-schoolteacher look is capped off with a pair of handmade 0894s by Cutler and Gross (£249). The company enhances its catalogue (the half-clear framed 0772, £249, is its most popular) with a Heritage Collection to celebrate its 40th year. The geekiest of all, the black 0692 (£249), is handmade from acetate, with a hefty 50mm inside lens measurement and a bridge of 19mm width and 8mm depth.
The look was flagged up on the World Global Style Network website, inspiring its European editor Anna Laub to design a range for women called Prism. Carved from acetate in Italy and available at Browns (£205), the five styles are pure nerd. None more so than the London, very big and in six colours.
Leaning against drawers of designer and vintage frames – 19th-century lorgnettes, pince-nez and copies of the red diamanté frames Marilyn Monroe wore in How To Marry a Millionaire – Hudson confirms that women are also seeking the “geeky” look. “The 1950s naughty librarian, a bit Miss Moneypenny, is desirable,” he says. He believes young faces cope better with larger frames while older faces are best served by something lighter in more modern-looking materials. A good example is the Parker from Danish company Ørgreen (£325) with a titanium frame and acetate hood (top part of the frame) which is retro-looking (think JFK) but has a flattering, contemporary edge. Marcello (£299) by German firm Mykita addresses geekism in a similarly high-tech way. Matte black with a grid finish, it has snap hinges and uses 0.5mm stainless steel to achieve a timeless, lightweight and flattering look.
There is a strong case for saying that America invented this new wave. It’s the look Superman’s Clark Kent adopted when he wanted to fool the Daily Planet staff that he wasn’t just another beefcake. And it’s a collegiate look that is practically built into Ralph Lauren’s DNA.
Luxottica makes a raft of designer frames under licence, including those for Chanel (the Denim, £195, ups the style stakes with tortoiseshell-effect fronts and denim-patterned arms), D&G, Prada, Ray-Ban and Ralph Lauren. The latter’s Polo (from £95) and Purple (from £185) ranges both look great with button-down collars and bow ties, cable-knit sweaters and corduroy.
Later this year, Claire Goldsmith, the granddaughter of Oliver Goldsmith, the Mayfair eyewear designer who gave stars including Brigitte Bardot, Peter Sellers, Sophia Loren and the aforesaid Michael Caine their fashionably oversized specs, launches her first ophthalmic range. She promises her designs will be a far cry from high-street oblongs, and be both “revolutionary” and “set the standard”. Brave words indeed, but if she has a tenth of her grandfather’s passion and imagination, it’s an exciting prospect.
This Goldsmith range (from £200) will only retail through 10 select outlets worldwide, and among them is Adam Simmonds’ boutique store in Primrose Hill, London. “Things are getting both bigger and heavier,” says Simmonds. “And I am very pleased, because for the past eight years there hasn’t been much change.”
Simmonds’ small and select range of frame-makers includes Theo, Chrome Hearts, IC! Berlin, RetroSpecs and Kirk Originals. His bestsellers remain anything large and tortoiseshell by Oliver Peoples, with the solidly built Hitch (£315) by LA Eyeworks coming second. Oliver Peoples produces Paul Smith frames and boasts a client list similar to the Academy Awards: Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Jerry Bruckheimer, Johnny Depp, Kate Beckinsale and Uma Thurman. Two big Oliver Peoples hits this autumn in Primrose Hill are the unisex Sheldrake (£190), which looks a bit like a Ray-Ban Wayfarer, and the feminine Zooey (£230), created with Zooey Deschanel.
Forever thinking one step ahead, Simmonds is already looking beyond geek chic to what could become the über geek look; less schoolteacher and much more presidential. “I get a lot of people saying, ‘I’ve been wearing these heavy glasses for years, and now that they’re becoming fashionable I want something else,’” he says. “These people are now looking to what I think will be the next big thing – the heavy top with metal-frame bottoms. They are a bit like the original Ray-Ban Clubmaster that JFK wore.”
You’re now in the frame.