Climate change and award-winning English sparkling wine notwithstanding, Britain cannot yet lay claim to a Mediterranean sensibility. “On the Continent, sunglasses have always been seen as fashion accessories, while for Britons they are more of a utility, with one pair intended to go with everything,” says Frederic Laffort, head of northern region and global key accounts for Italian manufacturing company Safilo, which makes sunglasses for several designer brands including Dior, Céline, Marc Jacobs and Jimmy Choo.
There is, he says with some understatement, “great potential in this market”, and the signs of change are already apparent. In the first half of 2016, sales growth in the UK was one of the fastest in Europe, with luxury styles (those costing more than £215) selling twice as fast as in the overall market. And although, at £150m, the UK market accounts for just a small part of the €2.4bn western Europe total, it is clear that consumer attitudes are evolving. “We find customers buying a number of statement sunglasses to suit particular outfits and occasions,” says Paul Baptiste, head of fashion and accessories and creative manager at Fenwick, which stocks the boldest pieces from Dolce & Gabbana, Bottega Veneta and Chloé.
This change may owe less to our sunnier weather and more to designers bringing creativity to bear on an area they once disdained. Just six years ago, many luxury brands had sunglasses made under licence, and although they had design approval, all too often designs for different brands from the same manufacturer looked remarkably similar. Clearly, an opportunity was going begging.
Two key events have helped underline the importance luxury brands now place on sunglasses and the boldness of the designs they are promoting. First was the launch in 2011 of Prada’s Minimal Baroque – enormous, almost circular frames with curlicued arms. Scary at first, it has become the brand’s most popular style, recently redesigned with even bolder, monochrome curves (£328) or with refined, hand-appliquéd metal flourishes (£375). “Exaggeration becomes essential,” says Prada, and certainly these are as far removed as can be from anonymous metal aviators or “safe” tortoiseshell styles.
The link to geometry is no accident – it is the leitmotif of sunglasses’ bold new mood. Where Prada is about fluid curves, the next event – Marni’s launch of sunglasses with the Marchon group in Milan early last year – referenced straight lines or perfect circles, big shapes and geometric frames in segments of acetate and metal (hexagonal, £310). The spectacular event featured Susanna Beltrami’s performance artists wearing foam building-block shapes or swinging from geometric trapezes. At the same time – and even more so in his spring 2017 show – Alessandro Michele at Gucci made sunglasses a main catwalk event rather than the afterthought they had traditionally been. Some of the largest, most ornate styles, almost framing the face with crystal-set rectangles (£820) or mother-of-pearl and metal-inlaid downslanted arcs (£735) accessorised embellished gowns and shimmering brocade layers, amping up Michele’s maximalist signature.
“Frames have become as desirable as bags or shoes,” says Massimo Zuccarelli, creative director of eyewear at supergroup Kering, owner of Gucci, Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta and Stella McCartney, among others, which has recently taken its sunglasses manufacturing in-house with the launch of Kering Eyewear. “We increasingly have very strong designs that can sometimes go beyond wearability,” he says. “Our mission is to guarantee comfort and a perfect fit, using the most modern materials. Gucci’s ultra-bold styles with oversized sides, for instance, are carefully adjusted by the product team to maintain the designer’s aesthetic but give a wearable fit.”
Indeed, the unsung, essential element in sunglasses’ new geometry is technical development. Every big manufacturer invests to create strong but light materials that can sustain large frames and ornate design. 3D printing is the latest weapon, says Vladimiro Boldin, chief of product design and creative officer at Safilo, which has three factories near its Padua HQ and is using the technique on its Oxydo brand to create fretted, architectural bridges in resin on a metal-framed style (£335) or a deep but light frame (£245). With fashion currently revisiting the 1980s, sunglasses makers have been working out high‑tech ways to incorporate new twists to ’80s-style eyewear. “We can now add print to the mirror lenses that were popular then,” says Boldin. “They look spectacular but do not disrupt the wearer [Dior round, £385]. Or we can shade them much more colourfully [Fendi cat-eye, £300]. We can also work modern acetate into the flat, angular frames of the 1980s, which makes them much lighter and very comfortable [Marc Jacobs large oval, £180; Céline trapezoid, £249].”
There’s also a return of the 1980s mask shape, but with a far lighter and more feminine aesthetic (MaxMara acetate frame, £180), some featuring Swarovski crystals (Dolce & Gabbana, £1,695; Jimmy Choo, £265) and others in pure geometric form based on origami folding (Marni square, £310; round, £345). Kering uses the same technology for Saint Laurent’s sportier, lightly metal-framed rectangular styles (£345) and for Christopher Kane’s edgy circles (£295), while a 1980s-inspired frame graces Saint Laurent’s spangly trapezoids (£225).
An ever closer relationship with the brands’ designers has been a major force in driving the creative process. “We have our own team for each brand, who have direct access to the brand’s creative teams and archives,” says Zuccarelli. “So we can find and use identifying details, such as the hinge on a Pomellato style, taken from a ring design [cat-eye, £520]. It’s a blend of the designer’s direction and our expertise.”
Safilo’s Boldin also puts a high value on research. “We have four design studios globally, including New York and Hong Kong, that filter and analyse information from the street upwards,” he says. “We also have an archive going back to the 1930s for inspiration. Brands want us to push boundaries on design, function and mechanical engineering, and we have staff with backgrounds in the watch or jewellery industries to help.”
A new nimbleness on the part of sunglasses makers is also apparent. Traditionally, they start planning 18 months ahead, but the new monochrome logo created by designer Maria Grazia Chiuri for her first Dior ready-to-wear collection in October is already emblazoned on flat-lensed, metal-trimmed trapezoids (£485). Similarly, Fendi’s penchant for graphic stripes is in evidence on its signature cat-eye style (£300) and feminine spring fashion interpreted in a delicate yet oversized frame (£369). The same goes for the patch of handwoven intrecciato leather emphasising the geometry of Bottega Veneta’s limited edition titanium cat-eye (£1,295) or the chain detail from Stella McCartney’s Falabella bag defining the arms of her bold-framed oval style (£250).
Manufacturer Silhouette occasionally calls in a rising young designer to create an adventurous design that raises the profiles of both brands. The latest, Arthur Arbesser, is, like the company, Austrian, and has a love of Vienna Secessionist architecture, so the new geometry suits him. The style (£250), which is unisex and comes in a choice of colourways, has unusual double lenses, consisting of an oval lens embedded in a larger, contrasting cat-eye, suspended from flexible titanium arms.
But how easy is it to find bold, geometric styles to suit? “We advise people to pick the colour and embellishment they love and which will fit in with their wardrobe, and work with a store consultant to find the best shape for their face,” says Fenwick’s Baptiste. “If you’re not confident mixing them with other statement items in your wardrobe, make them the focal point, teamed with more classic pieces that won’t compete.” And have a great deal of fun in the process.