In a shop on Madison Avenue, surrounded by flattering mirrors and soft lighting, a stylish woman is inspecting the finely crafted contents of several open drawers. Conferring with her is a bespectacled man who studies her face with intense concentration.
The man is neither jeweler nor makeup artist nor plastic surgeon, though, in a way, he's an amalgam of all three. He is Jamie Niblock of Robert Marc, consulting with a client on an impending purchase of eyewear.
Eyeglasses enjoy the distinction of being the only item of fashion to require a prescription. With an estimated 60 percent of the American population requiring vision correction, and a newfound appreciation of how eyewear can enhance a person's appearance, the optician has taken his rightful place as one of our most respected image authorities.
In addition, vision protection today is approached as seriously, and as stylishly, as vision correction. Medical research indicates that sunglasses are as important as sunblock, so the current tendency to accumulate shades (reflective Silhouettes for weekend wear, tortoiseshell Guccis for a weekday power look) is good for one's health. Glasses that shield eyes against both types of ultraviolet radiation (UV-A and UV-B) can help prevent the onset of everything from cataracts to corneal damage to macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss among Americans over age 50. Little wonder that sunglasses are enjoying unprecedented popularity. Opticians are offering an array of features like lenses that change color from purple indoors to blue outdoors, and dedicated stores like fashion-sunglass retailer Solstice, which carries every imaginable label from Oakley to YSL, are springing up all over.
Despite their proven health advantages, sunglasses have never suffered the stigma that plagued clear glasses. In the early 1930s, the U.S. Army Air Corps commissioned Bausch & Lomb to create an antiglare lens for aviators' sunglasses. The result was a lens that screened out 95 percent of ultraviolet rays, hence the now-illustrious name Ray-Ban. Ever since, sunglasses in general—and Ray-Bans in particular—have had an aura of jet-set adventure, appealing equally to pilots and Hollywood players.
Spectacles, on the other hand, have had an image problem since their initial appearance in the West in the 13th century, when Roger Bacon mounted magnifying lenses in a frame for optical purposes, thus creating what is widely regarded as the first pair of eyeglasses. Seven centuries later Dorothy Parker quipped, "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses," and the gibe stuck. Clear lenses weren't considered chic; women of style avoided wearing them in public. A rare sighting of glasses in Vogue was Irving Penn's famous 1950 photograph of two models in profile, one wearing the specs she normally wore when off-duty. If wearing glasses couldn't be avoided, the thinking was that the frames should be as unobtrusive as possible.
No longer. Sunglasses have cast a flattering light on their untinted counterparts as designers around the world meet the demand for good-looking prescription eyewear in jazzy colors, streamlined shapes, and space-age materials. Technology is enabling opticians to grind lenses so thin as to make the Coke-bottle glasses of yesteryear a blissfully distant memory.
"One pair of glasses used to last you five years, but nowadays eyewear is a real fashion statement," says Jill Fairchild, coauthor of the global shopping guides Where to Wear. "People change their glasses much more often and own multiple pairs. It's like buying shoes or handbags. Actually, forget the shoes and handbags—eyewear is the hot new accessory."
High-profile four-eyes are flaunting what was once considered a style handicap—like MSNBC's Ashleigh Banfield, whose rectangular glasses are as bold as her on-air reporting style. And the teenage contingent, an important consideration in any fashion-business move, has found a champion in a bespectacled lad named Harry Potter.
The global fascination with fashion was bound to have an impact on the burgeoning eyeglass market. If specs were once a style obstacle, they are now—just like their tinted cousins—status accessories to be coveted, deliberated over, collected, and changed with the seasons. Designers are turning out creations that artfully transcend the simple materials from which they're made. Madison Avenue's Morgenthal Frederics, for instance, offers a strikingly patterned yellow-and-black pair that resembles Tiffany glass, or the wings of a beautiful moth.
And as with any other wardrobe element, individualists are finding that off-the-rack options just won't do. Those who make their style statement with glasses every day would rather not see the same pair on anyone else, so opticians are seeing an increase in requests for customization, the optical equivalent of bespoke tailoring. Special requests range from the simple (customizing existing frames with offbeat colors or lenses) to the more complex (designing a frame to suit the individual or one made of unusual material like buffalo horn). Once they become attached to a particular frame, many customers will order an exact replica—or maybe ten.
Eyeglasses' evolution from dreaded prosthetic to bona fide object of desire would not have been possible without the fashion innovations of the 1960s, explains Pamela Golbin of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris. That decade was "the real turning point in eyewear," she says. "Just as they radicalized fashion, André Courrèges and Paco Rabanne began using eyewear strictly for decorative purposes. The emblematic pair was by Courrèges: They were white, like the rest of his 1965-66 silhouette, and it was as if you had your eyelids almost closed, with just a sliver to see through. Those sunglasses made it obvious that eyewear was not being used for any specific seeing purpose; it had become an accessory that didn't need to have a function other than a decorative one. And with that sort of attention given to sunglasses, prescription glasses naturally followed suit."
History is repeating itself today as every major fashion powerhouse either produces decorative eyewear or contemplates joining the fray. There's a frame to fit every fashion leaning, whether Ralph Lauren-preppy or Donna Karan-edgy. Giorgio Armani's slender metal frames are as sleekly tailored and tastefully understated as his suits; Issey Miyake's innovative fold-up frames, created in collaboration with the French optician Alain Mikli, are the optical equivalent of the famous folds in the Japanese master's futuristically pleated clothing designs. Eyewear is so happening now that even smaller fashion companies are taking a second look. The Italian luxury-goods house Trussardi has come out with eyewear and optical accessories, and Judith Leiber has expanded its handbag business to include witty rhinestone-studded frames that are the natural answer to their crystal-pavéd minaudières.
There were some dark years that brought us some downright anti-fashion looks, including the regrettable 1970s trend of wavy temples, or sidepieces, in the hideous oversized eyewear collection endorsed by the beautiful Sophia Loren. Thankfully, today's glasses are so chic as to inspire those with 20-20 vision to wish they needed a prescription.
Case in point: the Selima Optique shops in Paris, New York, and Los Angeles, where optician Selima Salaun markets eyewear as a sweet indulgence. That winning formula is most evident at Lunettes et Chocolat, her offbeat shop in Manhattan's trendy NoLIta neighborhood that sells, yes, glasses and candy. Salaun recently collaborated with hair stylist Frédéric Fekkai to create fashion frames every bit as flattering as the mirrors in Fekkai's renowned Beauté de Provence salons.
Appearances really matter at Alain Mikli's eyewear stores throughout the world, which are all designed by Philippe Starck. And in London, the venerable Cutler and Gross (a favorite with fashion cognoscenti) recently responded to the craze for all things retro by opening Cutler and Gross Vintage, devoted entirely to antique frames.
Fashion accessory, collectible, objet d'art, travel souvenir, candy treat—today's eyewear is all that and more. "One used to buy glasses to see the world. Now you buy glasses to be seen by the world," says Fairchild. "People enjoy expressing their personality through eyewear." Today, that's easy to do.
Opticians are frequently asked what types of frames work best with particular face shapes. Jamie Niblock of Robert Marc advises keeping one basic guideline in mind when selecting a frame: "Choose a shape that contrasts with the shape of your face. If you have a round face, select something more linear. If your face is very angular and chiseled, go with something rounder. If you have a long face, choose a horizontal frame that breaks the lines of the face, such as an oval or a pillowed rectangle." Oval faces, of course, can carry just about any style of frame.
Gai Gherardi and Barbara McReynolds, eyeglass designers and co-owners of L.A. Eyeworks, advocate a more freestyle approach. "Don't listen to rules about face shapes and eyeglass shapes," McReynolds says. Adds Gherardi: "You are creating an individual statement. The only absolute rule is that your eyeball should look out from the center of the lens." That makes sense: If the eyeball meets the lens too close to the nose, for instance, one risks appearing cross-eyed.
With the enormous variety of intriguing frames available, designers are encouraging customers to take risks in expressing their personal style. "Get something interesting, not just safe," advise McReynolds and Gherardi. "And don't perceive your new pair of glasses as the only pair you're going to wear for the next five years." Alain Mikli puts it more poetically: For him, the "right" pair of frames is about love at first sight. "The optician can offer different frame styles, but the client must experience a coup de foudre," Mikli concludes. "After all, eyeglasses are a doorway to the soul."
LONDON Cutler and Gross Vintage, just down the street from the company's flagship store (at No. 16), carries an assortment of original frames by such legendary designers as YSL, Pucci, and Courrèges (7 Knightsbridge Green; 44-207-590-9995).
NEW YORK Robert Marc (575 Madison Avenue, other locations; 212-319-2000) • Morgenthal Frederics Opticians (699 Madison Avenue, other locations; 888-608-8700, 212-838-3090) • Alain Mikli (880 Madison Avenue and throughout the world, including Paris, Düsseldorf, and Hong Kong; 212-472-6085) • Selima Salaun's charming Lunettes et Chocolat offers chic shades and eyeglass frames alongside hard-to-find European chocolates (25 Prince Street; 212-334-8484).
LOS ANGELES L.A. Eyeworks, the boutique that introduced the concept of eyewear-as-artwork (7407 Melrose Avenue; 323-653-8255).
CHARLOTTE, NC Solstice, devoted entirely to sunglasses, features frames by fashion's biggest guns, including Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, Ralph Lauren, DKNY, and Christian Dior (SouthPark Mall, 4400 Sharon Road; 704-364-2448). There are five other locations across the country, including one in Orlando's Florida Mall (8001 South Orange Blossom Trail; 407-812-1818).