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The eyes have it: Sunglasses are no longer just about the logo

High-end sunglasses used to be just about the logo, but now designers are making them an integral part of their seasons’ collections
  • @R_Gonsalves

Sunglasses, sunnies, shades – whatever you call them, they have long been an important part of a brand’s commercial (read: money-making) offering. But over recent years, it seems that one of the biggest trends in eyewear is to tie in with what’s seen on the catwalk.

“Eyewear collections are becoming more and more closely tied to the ready-to-wear collections, expressing through colours, shapes or embellishment the main seasonal themes showcased during fashion shows,” says Alessandro Beccarini, the group international product development director of Luxottica, which manufactures for brands such as Prada, Miu Miu, Dolce & Gabbana and Ray-Ban. “Because eyewear is shown in magazines, advertising and stores with the rest of the collection, it contributes to building and spreading the brand’s seasonal message.”

Traditionally, one of the most lucrative ways to build a brand is to branch out into accessories: be it handbags, shoes or sunglasses, these are the more affordable pieces that round out a successful business. Interestingly, the youthful and fun-loving brand House of Holland chose to launch an eyewear range in 2012, two years before creating a handbag range for autumn/winter 2014. “It was a strategic decision, as the eyewear is under licence,” Henry Holland says. “The technical and manufacturing knowledge to produce eyewear is something we needed a partner to facilitate, and that also meant a minimal initial investment from our side. We were still quite small when we launched eyewear but it felt like a great time to expand into an accessories category for us.”

Worn by Beyoncé, Rihanna and Lady Gaga, Holland’s frames are manufactured under licence by Sunshades Eyewear. In fact, almost all sunglasses – be they stamped with a designer or optical brand name – are produced under licence by a small number of powerhouse firms: Luxottica, Safilo and Marcolin are the market leaders, but they are seeing increasing competition.

Miu Miu

Based in Australia, Sunshades Eyewear also manufactures for brands including Karen Walker and Preen, and its chief executive, Rodney Grunseit, has noticed a shift in eyewear trends: “We are seeing growth in unique and exciting designs. Celebrities and fashion leaders are no longer wearing fashion-branded eyewear just to be associated with the brand name, but rather are searching out looks that make people take note. The sales of brands in our portfolio that do this – like House of Holland and Karen Walker – are growing the fastest in the current eyewear market. We call this our ‘fearless’ approach to design, which drives the market in terms of fashion brands.”

Grunseit recognises an increased pace in the trend turnover in what he calls “avant-garde designs”, but, interestingly, this is balanced out by more general trends keeping pace with a one- to three-year span: “Cat’s-eyes have just about peaked after three or four years; we’re even noticing Wayfarer types slow down now.”

While Holland’s designs are particularly bold (“We were never going to be a simple black-frame kind of range”), there are still plenty of classic branded frames, for those who don’t want to make a design statement. “Not necessarily all sunglasses are seen as a fashion purchase to be changed each season,” Beccarini says. “Unique styles – what we call talking pieces – can be easily linked to fashion, but easy-to-wear iconic styles are something that can last.”

The New Zealand-based designer Karen Walker has shown her eyewear as part of her New York Fashion Week show since it launched in 2006: “Eyewear is an intrinsic part of our look and also of our business – everything we do is linked together through our innate brand values: fun, optimism, strength, sense of humour.” Rather than linking indelibly to a specific collection,Walker instead creates designs that are based on classic shapes with a cool, contemporary twist. “I think people like that our eyewear designs are subverted classics; we don’t try to do edgy for the sake of edgy,” she says.

Dolce & Gabbana

In the eyewear market for nearly a decade, Walker has noticed a change in the eyewear market over the decade that she has been in the industry that time: “A lot of big brands are now putting more energy into designing eyewear rather than just licensing their names out for generic eyewear looks, and there are also a lot more independent brands now.” Indeed, the “independent” sector has experienced a rapid rise thanks to the increased demand for sunglasses that are something special: the Seventies’ success story Linda Farrow was relaunched in 2003, thanks to a discovery of vintage frames. This success led to the brand manufacturing original designs under its own label before collaborating with designers, such as Dries Van Noten.

With so many brands staking a claim, it seems that sunglasses should be a saturated market, but new brands, such as Jack Spade, which launched eyewear last month, continue to be introduced. A contributing factor to success is the price tag that puts most sunglasses at a more attainable level – one that ready-to-wear, handbags and even shoes are increasingly removed from. Price sensitivity is key – Jack Spade’s marketing director, Dan Lakhman, wanted to “offer customers an excellent collection that’s incredibly affordable”, but many high-end brands have seen their sales stagnate or slump “if their designs don’t justify the higher prices they once did”, according to Grunseit.

Another factor is the power of the licensees. Last week, first-quarter financial results reported by Luxottica saw the company’s net profit at €157m (£129m), while one of its main rivals, Safilo, reported a net income of €16.5m for the same period. It seems, then, that whatever the weather, the forecast for the sunglasses market remains bright.