It is not unusual for Miuccia Prada, as one of fashion’s most influential thinkers, to suddenly change the course of a season with a show, although she has perhaps only once radically altered a whole industry with one small object. In 2011 she launched her Baroque sunglasses style that was like nothing seen before: round and black with enormous curlicues on the arms – and pure optical Marmite. They looked wonderful on those who could wear them with panache, but were anathema to anyone used to the rather vanilla (to continue the flavour analogy) one-style-suits-all-clothes school of sunglasses that prevailed at the time. I thought they were fabulous art objects, but couldn’t imagine gearing every outfit to such a distinctive, dominating design.
That was then. Now (and they are still in Prada’s range, as a bestselling classic, at £210) they seem striking but no longer eccentric, and of course I’d wear them. Prada’s new styles are even wilder, though carefully aligned to the current catwalk look, as brightly coloured crystals contrast merrily with vivid frames (£325), reflecting the shades of the dresses in the brand’s jewelled street-art-portrait show. Many styles from other brands are the Baroque’s equal in design strength, but Miuccia Prada’s original shot across the bows of a then-rather-complacent industry was typical of a woman with some of the sharpest antennae in the business. Already there were stirrings of change. More sunglasses were appearing on catwalks as seasonal accessories, while growing numbers of independent designers were making less conventional styles – their response to customer demand for something more individual than the designs that big companies were then producing for the main luxury houses. As Sunglasses Shop fashion editor Cassandra Hollis says, “Prada has really led the way, refusing to let sunglasses be an afterthought. They became serious pieces on the catwalk, part of the whole picture. Simultaneously, Prada’s statement catwalk pieces became more wearable, and we wanted more from our sunglasses.”
Statement sunglasses have now become a burgeoning accessories category, with sales of luxury styles (over £200) having grown by 10 per cent last year, according to Eyewear Intelligence, which forecasts a 30 per cent rise over the next five years. Sunglasses are fast joining watches in the “wardrobe” category, where shoppers assemble a collection not just for different functions and events, but to set off specific outfits. The major manufacturers have responded by individualising styles for each of their client brands, working closely with fashion designers on both new materials and traditional crafts. Meanwhile, independent sunglasses designers are becoming increasingly mainstream, stocked in major department stores, and online and collaborating with equally independent fashion designers on their own collections. Recently founded brands such as Finlay & Co, which works only in wood (walnut, £170), offer customisation and – surprisingly for an accessory that is so easy to lose – there is little price resistance, even to Tom Davies’ bespoke models (from £1,000), made using horn, gold leaf and 24ct gold-coated lenses (which give very good protection) and designed from scratch for the customer. “At my store, 90 per cent of sunglasses sales are bespoke or made-to-measure,” says Davies. “People want quirky shapes and the interesting materials that are only in my top ranges.” (Gold-plated example, £745.)
Unlike perspicacious Prada, some retailers are surprised by the strength of demand. Maria Lemos, the founder of multibrand Marylebone boutique Mouki, says she finds “sunglasses sell all year round and there is no questioning of either avant-garde style or unfamiliar names. My customer is looking for niche brands she cannot find elsewhere and regards sunglasses as a short cut to a new look.” Designers who her customers snap up include Garrett Leight (son of Oliver Peoples’ founder Larry Leight) with his laid-back LA-inspired style (from £216), Bruno Chaussignand, whose classic-looking French styles are made using super-lightweight, unconventional materials (from £375), and Rachel Comey, who has collaborated with independent sunglasses and swimwear brand Prism (£265). Cutler and Gross, which also creates bespoke styles and whose sales have grown 400 per cent in the past five years, states that “sunglasses are the new high-impact accessory to acquire, completely seasonless to cater for an ever-expanding global market – South America is our latest area of interest”.
Department stores are also noticing a change in both offer and demand patterns. “We have big names, but it’s the less ‘safe’ pieces that sell,” says Fenwick’s Bond Street sunglasses buyer Jeevan Singh. “With Chanel, it’s the models with a bow on the side [£310], not the statement double C. They sit alongside niche brands that are in high demand, such as Anna-Karin Karlsson’s big, quirky models, Sheriff&Cherry’s chic designs or Le Specs for colour – styles that surprise.” Harvey Nichols is the only department store to showcase Finlay & Co’s maple-wood styles (from £120), carved from one piece or laminated, where the grain makes each pair unique. The brand was launched in 2012 by four professionals from other areas, and one of them, Dave Lochhead, says, “It came from a wacky West Coast idea originated by skateboarders, but we wanted to make it sophisticated, adding to the explosion of creativity in an accessories area that had been left behind. It’s working – we are up fifteenfold in the first quarter.”
At Harrods, Simon Longland, general merchandise manager of luxury accessories, notes how closely top brands’ sunglasses now follow catwalk styles on a seasonal basis, to dramatic effect: “There’s Dolce & Gabbana using gold filigree [from £340] and micro-mosaic craftwork [exclusive all-mosaic style, £5,000], or Valentino with fluorescent camouflage print [£235] and Rockstud detailing [£215], while the new Givenchy visors [£210] sold out as soon as they hit the shop floor.”
Luxury brands such as these still manufacture with major groups like Safilo or Luxottica, but the relationship is nowhere as remote as the licensing arrangements of the past. Indeed, the big groups would argue that they are now giving back individuality to the fashion brands. “Sunglasses are a fundamental communication tool,” says Alessandro Beccarini, international product development director for Luxottica, which makes for (among others) Dolce & Gabbana, Armani and Prada. “It is important to translate the brand’s values and the designers’ wishes, whether it is the hand-set glass mosaic work of Dolce & Gabbana’s new range or the ethereal shading of Giorgio Armani’s outfits that we reproduced in acetate [£294]”. The bright, broad-framed, modern 1950s styles (£190) in Stella McCartney’s summer collection are another example. By contrast, Bulgari’s styles – described by Sunglasses Shop’s Hollis as “the final word in bejewelled sunglasses” – are adorned with crystals and enamel (£245), or precious stones and detachable feathers on three unique versions (from £45,000), taking inspiration from high jewellery.
At Safilo, which makes for a designer roster including Alexander McQueen, Bottega Veneta, Dior, Fendi, Gucci, Marc Jacobs and Saint Laurent, creative director Massimo Zuccarelli says its designs depend on “a close synergy with the fashion houses that has recently become stronger than ever”. Styles encompass subtle intrecciato cat’s eyes for Bottega Veneta, adventurously vintage styles for Dior, bold, bright 1950s-inspired frames for Marc Jacobs and abstract animal stripes for Fendi. Elsewhere, sunglasses from smaller, independent designers are also capitalising on the new demand, with carved or inlaid flowers on 1950s silhouettes from Preen (from £200) and tortoiseshell-topped round or bright TV-shaped styles from Roland Mouret (from £235).
It is, in the end, about finding a style to suit you, which is why Davies’ made-to-measure format includes precise measurements of the face and consideration of colouring, and why Leight advises wearing a very flamboyant style only with understated clothes. As in most areas, expanding choice brings its own pitfalls, but while you clear extra shelf space for that sunglasses wardrobe, think on this: although optical eyewear remains more conservative than sunglasses, it is now firmly in designers’ sights and you may soon have as big a choice of eyeglasses as you do of shades.