The cool new vibe of retro specs

Glasses evoking the charm of yesteryear while giving a cool nod to modernity are now in focus, says Nick Scott

Le Corbusier wearing his trademark specs
Le Corbusier wearing his trademark specs

Men who wear glasses are so much more gentle, sweet and helpless,” says Marilyn Monroe’s flighty band player Sugar Kane in Some Like it Hot. This might have been the case in the late 1950s when the film was released, or even in the late 1920s of its setting, but here in 2018, spectacles resembling the eyewear worn in those and other past decades give off not so much an air of unthreatening vulnerability as one of cool poise. It’s something not lost on either high‑end opticians or major menswear brands, whose newfound affection for a retrospective approach to eyewear is proving a hit with stylish men. 

From top: Rolf wood Topolino frames, €795. Maison Bonnet glasses originally designed for architect and designer Le Corbusier, price on request
From top: Rolf wood Topolino frames, €795. Maison Bonnet glasses originally designed for architect and designer Le Corbusier, price on request

Maison Bonnet – the family-owned bespoke glasses maker based in Paris, which opens a London flagship in June – continues to produce the frames it once made for Le Corbusier, Jacques Chirac and Yves Saint Laurent. “Today people are revisiting those styles [all price on request] and playing with their visual references,” says Franck Bonnet, the fourth generation of his family to helm the company. “The small round glasses of the ’30s, the thick newsroom-style black frames of the ’50s, the extraordinary designs of the ’70s, or the exuberance of the ’80s: our bespoke approach allows us to reinterpret and adapt these influences according to each client’s desires, personality and facial features.” 

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At EB Meyrowitz, the London-based luxury opticals brand founded in 1875, it’s a similar story. “We’ve always attracted clients because of our traditional craftsmanship, design and materials,” says director Jamie Davison-Lungley. “But lately we’ve also seen a growing interest in styles from the first half of the 20th century.” The company is now recreating a number of archive pieces dating back to the early ’30s and ’40s – including the delicately elegant Blenheim and the George models, which come in acetate (£995) or horn substitutes (£2,500). 

From top: Cubitts Broadfield frames, £125. Ray‑Ban aviator opticals, from £124
From top: Cubitts Broadfield frames, £125. Ray‑Ban aviator opticals, from £124

Younger, hipster brands are also in on the act. Take Austrian label Rolf, which handmakes wood, stone and horn frames in the Tyrolean alps, including the Lennon-esque Topolino (€795). “Wooden frames and new ‘disruptive’ business models are being driven by newcomers to the market from entrepreneurial, tech or digital backgrounds, who have seen the potential in the glasses business,” says Gordon Ritchie, managing director at Kirk Originals. And with hipster entrepreneurs there often comes a vintage vibe. 

Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Kirk Originals rose to prominence with the unofficial ambassadorial aid of Mick Jagger, Oasis, The Smiths and Paul Weller, and is now regaining its cult status – in part through glasses that evoke the charm, attitude or cool of yesteryear with an appealing nod to modernity, such as the Brigham in olive green, the Margate in smokey grey (£225) and the chunky Harris in polished tortoiseshell (£425). All will pay dividends to a man looking to channel Michael Caine as the first action hero to wear glasses – Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File. 

Tom Davies 1983 Collection glasses, from £295. Zanzan Rizzi glasses, from £230
Tom Davies 1983 Collection glasses, from £295. Zanzan Rizzi glasses, from £230

For Tom Broughton, who founded Cubitts in 2012, the sheer elegance of postwar frames is a classic case of form following function. “In the late 1940s, the NHS tested different shapes and found universal appeal in the Panto – later worn by Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird and so popular now,” he says. “They have a round shape but are slightly peaked, with a wider top than bottom because this suited natural eye movements better than the round frames that preceded them.” Cubitts’ own Broadfield (£125) features the Panto lens, while those wanting to step up the retro could try the Guilford (£125), whose traditional ‘W’ bridge rests on the crest of the nose rather than the sides. They might give a more mature wearer a touch of the Swiss-chalet watchmaker, but they nail retro hipster (think Daniel Day Lewis in A Room with a View – about as tastefully antiquated as one can get without going full pince-nez). Another Cubitts model (£425) offering weapons-grade retro is from its made-to-measure Gold collection; it features a windsor rim and curl ends that hook behind and under the ears  – think Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders.

Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Indeed, popular culture is the inevitable gust in old‑school frames’ sails. Tom Davies’ new 1983 Collection (from £295) fashioned from cotton acetate also draws on a movie reference. “About five years ago I rewatched Brewster’s Millions on a flight to Chicago and was so inspired by the frames worn by Lonette McKee’s character that I spent most of the flight designing the initial collection,” he says.

Gucci GG0318S glasses, £300
Gucci GG0318S glasses, £300

And it’s not just films that provide inspiration. Italian handmade sunglasses specialist Zanzan designed its first opticals for 2018 and has three backward-glancing models in its collection. The D-frame acetate Rizzi (from £230) is inspired by Gigi Rizzi, who spent the summer of ’68 as playboy beau to Brigitte Bardot; the Arango (£275) is a cross between the Panto shape and classic aviators and takes its inspiration from John Lautner’s architectural masterpiece Arango House, in Acapulco; while The Libero (£275) recreates the quadrilateral specs sensibilities of Marcello Mastroianni and is named after the “free” position in Italian football because of its versatility. It also adopts what the company calls “a contemporary approach to European vintage” – or to put it another way, lighter modern alloys with a vintage effect.  

Michael Caine in The Ipcress File
Michael Caine in The Ipcress File

Ray-Ban is another sunglasses brand with an eye on retro-inspired designs. For the first time in its 80-year history it is offering its traditional aviators with clear prescription lenses (from £124). “In the past year there’s been a lot of interest in aviator shapes with a ’70s feel,” says Cubitts’ Broughton. Paul Smith’s brushed-silver Davison glasses (from £215) and Gucci’s GG0242S (£335) borrow from the same gene pool. And the Italian giant’s GG0318S (£300) goes further and takes Gary Oldman’s distinctly 1970s bins in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy up a flamboyant notch.

Kirk Originals Harris frames, £425. Kirk Originals Margate frames, £225
Kirk Originals Harris frames, £425. Kirk Originals Margate frames, £225

Paul Smith and Gucci are not the only major menswear brands focusing on retro eyewear. Dolce & Gabbana’s Jazz design (£260) features a keyhole bridge, common on heavier, thicker (more old-school) glasses as it distributes weight more evenly. They come in light Havana, striped brown and striped blue and brown, but the black pair offers the clearest nod to the era.

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Ermenegildo Zegna also uses a keyhole bridge on its thick-framed glasses (£165) reminiscent of Woody Allen’s trademark specs, but embellished by an elegant woven-leather effect on the temples and hinges. Another pair of round specs (£210) in slim metal with the brand’s iconic chevron pattern on the hinges and temples have more than a touch of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones about them.

From Woody to Indy: it’s quite the retro spectrum. And with so many options now available, it seems it really is a feast for the eyes.

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