It sometimes can be useful for the passionate shopper to identify the exact moment when what seemed a mere interest was upgraded into an out-and-out obsession. I experienced such a moment in a dusty Milanese optical shop a few years back. At Matuella, L'Ottico di Milano, I bonded with a pair of late sixties Christian Dior sunglasses that did absolutely nothing for my face. The frame was oddly hexagonal and its mottled green color is my least flattering. Nonetheless, I felt as if I'd struck gold. For around this very same time John Galliano, Dior's modern-day incarnation, and all his fashionable competitors started mining the past for vintage expressions in their work. I had the real thing.
In the four years since I adopted my Diors, there's been a revolution in vintage eyewear. There are Web sites, even entire shops (the best curiously all located in London) dedicated to shades from the past. "Sunglasses lend a little mystery to the person wearing them," says Cameron Silver, who recently introduced seventies models from Cazal and Diane von Furstenberg into his L.A. store, Decades, "especially if those sunglasses have a past, a story."
Silver's words take me back to another marker in my collecting life. In London one weekend, soon after I acquired my Diors, I zipped over to the world's mecca of old sunglasses, Cutler and Gross Vintage. The rare frames in owner Tony Gross's collection invoked a powerful connection with the 20th century's most extraordinary and iconic women. I channeled the divine Peggy Guggenheim in a pair of enormous white Pop Artish plastics, Ari-era Jackie O in massive, curved black numbers, Yoko Ono in minimal round wire-rims (and later the big black goggles). I felt as though I were seeing the world through their eyes.
Gross also pointed me in the direction of a pair of 1967 red-and-white horizontal-striped shades. He said they would work better with my present-day identity. He also took me through his most prized possessions, one-of-a-kinds from the forties and fifties, and the most requested: the Cazal wraparounds now coveted by hip-hop artists; the seventies Pucci styles highly desired by fashionistas; and the original Porsche designs that all the hedge-fund kings ask for.
Although my passion for sunglass collecting began in Milan, it is London I return to again and again. Linda Farrow Vintage at Harrods houses a stash of frames by Farrow (who made a name in the seventies designing sunglasses for Sonia Rykiel, Yves Saint Laurent, Emilio Pucci, and Jacques Fath). They were discovered by Farrow's son Simon Jablon when he was cleaning out an old warehouse. Just a few blocks away, bespoke frames are the province of Arthur Morrice, where clients choose from antique materials, which are then transformed into glasses expertly shaped to one's face. And on Sundays, the Internet site Klasik.org" class="external">www..org runs a stall at Spitalfields Market in the East End. Current stock includes rare eighties visors and seventies Pierre Cardin.
London's status as vintage sunglass central is really not that surprising considering how Oliver Goldsmith, one of the pioneers of glamour shades (he is responsible for the white pair Audrey Hepburn wore in How to Steal a Million), had a studio on Poland Street. Alas, original Goldsmith shades are the collector's holy grail—I visit Hepburn's religiously at the city's Victoria and Albert Museum—but Goldsmith's great-granddaughter Claire recently relaunched the family business after a 20-year hiatus. Her handmade designs are based on sketches from the archive and are held together with vintage hinges (the line is sold at Browns in London and Louis Vuitton's private-shopping Celux club in Tokyo).
Some may question if a trip to London for oddly shaped sunglasses is reasonable; collecting vintage shades has never been about playing it safe. "Hepburn's huge wraparound frames," Claire Goldsmith reminded me, "were the biggest ones we ever made, and she had the world's smallest face." Goldsmith plans to make them again for her next collection.
Vintage styles similar to the ones shown here can be found at:
ARTHUR MORRICE From $275 to $365. 11 Beauchamp Pl., London; 44-20/7584-4661
BROWNS From $295. 23-27 S. Molton St., London; 44-20/7514-0000
CELUX From $295. 5-7-5 Jingumae, Tokyo; 81-3/5410-8231
CUTLER AND GROSS VINTAGE From $365 to $6,400. 7 Knightsbridge Green, London; 44-20/7590-9995
DECADES From $125 to $350. 8214 1/2 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; 323-655-0223
HOOKY VINTAGE LIFESTYLE From $40 to $350. 238 Mulberry St., New York; 212-219-9987
KLASIK From $40 to $550. Spitalfields Market, Brushfield St., London; www.klasik.org
LINDA FARROW VINTAGE AT HARRODS From $290 to $440. 87-135 Brompton Rd., London; 44-20/7730-1234
MATUELLA, L'OTTICO DI MILANO From $245 to $370. 9 Piazzale Cadorna, Milan; 39-02/874-780