It wasn’t just the glasses that had commentators at Gucci’s autumn 2015 show reaching for the geek-cum-bluestocking synonyms. They were part of a move by new designer Alessandro Michele to distance the brand from the dark, sex-on-legs image it has cultivated ever since Tom Ford’s days. The glasses (from £150) went well with the quirky mix of vintage-style fur coats, flowing dresses, pussybow blouses and beanie hats that made up Michele’s vision, and the large, light frames (£250) were flattering – but overtly sexy they were not. Ralph Lauren also occasionally promotes its opticals through the catwalk (Polo Ralph Lauren round style, £119), but it is still a relative rarity for fashion brands to put optical glasses on runways – which is surprising, as they are becoming as much a style item as sunglasses have long been.
Sunglasses stopped being purely functional in the 1950s, says bespoke maker Tom Davies, “when Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe made them fashionable. But most people just carried on with one pair of opticals.” That’s now changing at an accelerating rate. “The days of eyewear simply aiding vision are long gone,” says Perry Moore, managing director of Marcolin UK, which manufactures for brands such as Roberto Cavalli and Tom Ford. Industry professionals like Marie Wilkinson, design director of specialist maker Cutler and Gross, and Alessandro Beccarini, product development director of the Luxottica Group (suppliers to a raft of luxury brands), say the change is partly due to the influence of glamorous glasses-wearing celebrities such as Keira Knightley, who favours large, dark-rimmed styles, and Patricia Arquette, who wore Versace frames (£160) to accept her Oscar this year. Franck Bonnet, fourth-generation craftsman at Parisian bespoke glasses maker Maison Bonnet, says, with Gallic charm, that while “sunglasses free women to release their fantasies and embody another personality depending on their outfit, the goal of spectacles is to turn a handicap into a seduction asset”. Meanwhile, Marcolin UK’s Moore believes “people now realise that the impression the right frame can make is greater than any other accessory”.
Until recently, growth was slow. “There is nothing else you wear all day every day in order to function and that changes your whole look – and yet many people still view glasses as a utility item,” says Gail Steele, director of King’s Road opticians Auerbach & Steele, which sells its own range (from £275), alongside independent brands like Mondelliani. “The average British wearer buys one pair every 2.8 years, but they wouldn’t dream of wearing the same bag or shoes with everything from eveningwear to jeans for that long.”
However, she says her hip urban clientele “increasingly has an optical wardrobe with different shapes and colours, and bolder looks”. Davies makes a similar observation: “While five years ago women would rush to have work done, they now prefer having three or four pairs of glasses that are non-invasive and enhancing. We feel better and more confident when we put on sunglasses – and now that there is far more choice with optical frames, people can find the same feel-good factor.” For Lise Tyler, design director at Oliver Peoples, the shift in perception “from a medical device to a form of self-expression” has been helped by the higher numbers of women in top roles – everywhere from business to the arts – who wear glasses, and social media that features these tastemakers globally.
Independent brands are some of the leaders of optical fashion. “Just as individual makers work with small-scale fashion designers to push the envelope on sunglasses and encourage the big groups that service the luxury brands to do likewise, this is now happening with optical glasses,” says Davies. Cutler and Gross provides a broad sweep of frames, so customers can ask for optical or sunglass lenses, while designers such as Eye Respect offer the ultimate choice with new, fast-changing, light-sensitive lenses made by photochromic lens company Transitions Optical.
Now, however, luxury brands have also taken up the challenge, using advertising muscle to raise the optical profile. This is especially effective when it features personalities such as Kristen Stewart, the face of Chanel’s spring/summer 2015 eyewear campaign, which includes the light-framed Bijou (from £580), with delicate pearl and enamel elements, and a style (£440) with fine details taken from its hit Boy bag. Then there are striking campaigns with a philanthropic angle: Prada Journal, which, alongside studious-looking dark frames (£230), offers a jury-judged literary prize (back to those librarian overtones), or Giorgio Armani’s Films of City Frames, where fledgling film makers have been given the chance to make short movies with people from six countries wearing its Frames of Life glasses (£189), giving the range global social media traction.
So, with opticals increasingly on the runway, in glamorous campaigns and providing greater choice, how confident are women in choosing styles that enhance, and what should be their criteria? “Look for a style that suits your aesthetic, then decide what its purpose is – formal event? weekend wear? – before considering your face shape and colouring,” says Oliver Peoples’ Tyler. “There are practicalities: are they comfortable and will they suit your personality? We find three categories cover most bases – strong frames such as our Wacks style [£207], a statement frame, like the ones we did for Rodarte [£260], and a light, feminine look such as Jardinette [£210].”
Cutler and Gross’s Wilkinson, on the other hand, considers face shape the first essential, followed by the look a woman wants to project in relation to her wardrobe, “so you could have a business style with attitude, such as our 1013 slightly upswept design, or 1030, which is more angular, or a softer, feminine style like 1165 [each £295]. Jenna Lyons [creative director of J Crew], for example, wears a bold, square black frame with a strong-shouldered jacket, or pairs a finer frame with a soft shirt for more casual occasions.”
Beccarini of Luxottica Group also advocates treating “spectacles like bags or shoes, with a classic model – perhaps Armani – for daytime, a bold style such as Dolce & Gabbana’s Spain in Sicily [£223] for impact, and a style with precious details for special occasions.” Silhouette’s Swarovski-trimmed Crystal Diva (£639) or its new superlight, streamlined, limited-edition Titan One in titanium (£260), or Tiffany & Co’s blue-lined style (£295) would work here.
The rise of interesting coloured frames – such as Miu Miu’s Wink (£205) or Rasoir in red with frameless bottoms (£205), Persol’s finely made bicolour frames (£210), Auerbach & Steele’s striking blue and leopard-print pair (£275) or Armani’s bicolour blue round style (£189) – is another driver of the trend. “Modern acetates allow a much wider choice of colours and patterns, which encourage people to experiment,” says Marcolin UK’s Moore. As a result, “women are choosing less conservative styles in a way they didn’t two years ago and are more likely than men to own several pairs,” adds Abbas Pirbhai, practice manager at City opticians Hodd Barnes & Dickins (a key stockist of Silhouette). “Although multiownership is still in its infancy, I think the economy picking up is creating greater confidence and desire for more self-expression.”
The pinnacle of this self-expression is to have glasses tailored to your colouring, face shape, lifestyle and taste, in which case one style may have a wider remit. Davies, whose bespoke glasses (from £495 for acetate, £1,200 for buffalo horn) take four to five weeks to make, thinks two pairs are enough for most clients. “The essential harmonies are with eye colour, browline and hairline, and once the shape is right we work on material – often horn, which comes in many colours – and frame size,” he says. “A bolder and a plainer style cover most occasions – in top-quality materials they all have presence.” Bonnet, whose creations (from €1,000) take three months to produce, adds: “Women’s main concern is that the spectacles we make them enhance their eyes and their look.” As interest grows, perhaps there will soon be a waiting list for certain styles. “It” glasses, anyone?