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Fashion: It's cooler in the shades

If you want to look chilled even when you're frying this summer, you'll need some stylish sunglasses. At least they'll save you from squinting at the talent
Sunglasses used to be a mere afterthought on the fashion front. They received scant mention in style bibles and magazines, being nothing more than a last-minute buy at the airport along with a Frisbee, a tube of Factor 15 sun lotion and a bottle of Quick Tan. But not any more. It may have taken some time for us Brits to catch on - we are a nation suffering semi-permanent sun famine, after all - but sunglasses are now considered a wardrobe essential, a sign of self-expression and, since fashion designers began lending their names and logos, the most powerful of summer status symbols.

That said, we still wouldn't dream of looking all Italian, coolly speeding around on a Vespa with no head protection save a pair of Dolce & Gabbana shades clamped to our faces. Nor do we aspire to the innate vanity of the French, who are told at a tender age (boys as well as girls) not to venture outside during the summer months without wearing protective (and achingly stylish) eyewear to prevent squinting or, quelle horreur, wrinkles.

That's not to say that we don't love our shades. We may be utterly hopeless with our summer wardrobes - what's the point in investing effort and expense in a bunch of clothes that may well be worn for only a couple of weeks abroad? And we may be useless at looking after our pasty complexions - preferring to fry ourselves a shade of prickly pink, than patiently paste on the lotion.

In fact, as a nation we are completely at odds with a stylish summer lifestyle. Face it. We choose egg-and-chips-twice rather than a healthy portion of tortilla; we prefer a round of beers or sickly sweet cocktails to a fine bottle of beaujolais; and we would rather buy a tacky T-shirt that reads "My brother went to Majorca and all I got was this bloody T- shirt", than a local hand-crafted lace tablecloth.

Fear not, though. There is one thing we can get right in summer - arguably over and above our stylish European neighbours - and that's our sunglasses.

Perhaps it is because we are avid film watchers and have consequently learned that a simple, or indeed not so simple, pair of shades wields power. We know, for instance, that a pair of sunglasses can conjure up mystery - Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe and just about any other screen siren you care to mention was never without her shades - incognito and glamorous in one fell swoop.

Today's stars have also learnt the trick; so much so, that some are more recognisable with their sunglasses than without. Take Anna Wintour, the editor of American Vogue, a superstar in the fashion world, whose facial features are barely known because she hides behind vast black blinkers. Some say this is because she doesn't want to be seen to have nodded off on fashion's front row; others claim it is because she doesn't want to give anything away to the competition. Whatever the reason, sunglasses obviously serve more than the purpose for which they were originally intended; bad hangovers instantly spring to mind.

Ultimately, though, shades are cool. Ray-Ban, in particular, the best- known sunglasses producer, has proved this time and again by having its product strategically placed on celluloid. When Tom Cruise appeared in Top Gun as the hero fighter pilot we knew he would save the day and get the girl, because he looked so slick and capable in his Ray-Ban Aviators. When the cast of Reservoir Dogs strode across the screen in slow motion, it wasn't just their sharp black suits that signalled trouble, it was the Ray-Ban Wayfarers they were wearing.

Both of these styles are still popular today, but it was when fashion designers - first with Giorgio Armani - began licensing their names to manufacturers that, with a bottle of perfume or a silk tie, everyone could buy into designer kudos without breaking the bank. According to Emma Gladdish, buyer of sunglasses at Harvey Nichols in London, it is the Gucci brand which currently out-sells all others. Although the new hot contender for the number one slot this summer is Chloe, designed by our very own Stella McCartney. Gladdish says that the store is receiving around 20 calls a day from customers who are desperate to get their hands on the most popular Chloe style, which is similar to a classic Aviator, but with the inimitable McCartney touch - a diamante heart set into one of the lenses (pounds 120, pictured).

Harvey Nichols also offers a pair of sunglasses, designed by Philippe Starck and produced by Alain Mikli, which is said to be suitable for any face shape. "They look sleek, a bit space age, with lenses that are rounded at the bottom and straight at the top, but the arms adjust and can rotate through 360 degrees, so they won't break," says Gladdish. The drawback is the price - from pounds 200.

If you have problems finding sunglasses, or optical frames for that matter, that suit your face, try Kirk Originals, based in London's Covent Garden (or mail order 0171 240 5055). The store has a "mirror multi-view" camera which takes pictures of you in four of your favourite styles and then prints out the results, so you can see at a glance what suits you best.

Most sunglasses retailers agree that round is out and squarish or oval shapes are the style to buy this summer, and that coloured frames, rather than traditional black or tortoiseshell, are taking the UK by storm. Get all the trends in one pair from David Clulow's range, which includes soft squares in two-tone red (pictured), blue and green, from pounds 69.95.

If you buy one thing this summer make sure it's a pair of shades; after all they are the epitome of cool. But be warned: the rule that big shades suit big features and small suit small features isn't necessarily reliable. That said, if you can't get to the Kirk Originals store, take a trusted, honest friend with you, or suffer people running for the bug-killer every time they see you.

Clockwise from top left:

Khaki thin-wire frames, pounds 70, by French Connection, 249 Regent Street, London W1 and stores nationwide (0171-399 7200)

Les sunglasses, pounds 150, by Kirk Originals, 36 Earlham Street, London WC2 (0171-240 50555)

Diamante heart sunglasses, pounds 135, by Chloe, from Harrods, Knightsbridge, London SW1 and selected stores nationwide (01635-529 997)

Leopard-spot sunglasses, pounds 85, by Valentino, from Selfridges, Oxford Street, London W1 and stores nationwide (01423 538005)

Red perspex sunglasses, pounds 69.95, by David Clulow, 41-43 Wigmore Street, London W1 (0181-864 4040)

Mirror-frame sunglasses, pounds 35, by Fabris Lane, from Dickins and Jones, Regent Street, London W1 and other House of Fraser stores nationwide (0181-974 1642)

Checked sunglasses, pounds 75, by Burberry, 165 Regent Street, London W1 and selected opticians nationwide (01423 5380055)

Lilac perspex sunglasses, pounds 95, by Gucci, from Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge, London SW1 and stores nationwide (01423 538005)

Cream sunglasses, pounds 99, by Calvin Klein, from Dolland and Aitchison, Regent Street, London W1 and opticians nationwide (0800 7220202)