Think of "funny" specs, and the Germans spring to mind, all upswept cat- eyes and garish colours; Italians are known for their taste in gold or gilt frames and the more preppy styles. The English, however, 64 per cent of whom need them, are known for their lack of taste in glasses - but with the help of unlikely heroes Mel B from the Spice Girls and Vic Reeves (the female and male spectacle wearers of 1997), Jarvis Cocker, Elton John and some dedicated opticians, that image is being shaken off.
Since deregulation of free NHS glasses and eye tests in 1986, a host of independent shops run by opticians with an eye firmly on fashion have sprung up across the country. Angela Campbell, in Manchester, is a visionary who can encourage the most staid person into more interesting glasses. Her first shop in Ramsbottom opened seven years ago, and the small town is now famous for the diversity of glasses walking around it. "If you come to Ramsbottom, it's like walking down Madison Avenue in New York, but better," she says. (This strange phenomenon has been endorsed by Ramsbottom locals.) Campbell also believes that NHS glasses hold unpleasant memories for many people, and stop them wearing glasses. "We were all at school with someone who had pink-tinged NHS glasses held together by a plaster, weren't we?"
Eugene Grusiner is another optician who is campaigning to change the way her clients look. Her practice, the Eye Company in East Sheen (a second branch opens in Soho next month), has attracted a design-conscious bunch who not only change their glasses thanks to her advice but donate their old ones to help people in Africa. Her home town is Johannesburg, South Africa and, on her arrival 10 years ago, she thought London was the hippest place on earth. "Well, it was for clothes, and the shops were brilliant, but opticians were so boring; there was no originality, and no fun. Thank goodness it's changing," she says.
Grusiner is not a huge fan of the ultra-fashionable heavy tortoiseshell frames that dominate fashion, although she sells the Dolce & Gabbana, Alain Mikli and Paul Smith versions. Instead, the well designed smaller frames from brands such as Face A Face, LA Eyeworks, (Elton John wears them), Koh Sakai, Bada and Kata are favourites, especially now that technology means lenses can be much slimmer and lighter in weight. "Sometimes people come in and ask for Jarvis Cocker glasses. If I don't think they suit I always say so; they appreciate it in the end," she says. Grusiner also finds children difficult to please, and very brand aware. "They always want Calvin Klein frames, without fail," she maintains.
A complete pair of glasses is not cheap. The lenses alone can cost up to pounds 200, depending on their type and the various coatings that stop glare and reflection - and that's before the frames have been thought about. Choosing them is the most difficult aspect of buying a pair.
"There's only one person I sold glasses to and later thought, 'No, that wasn't a good choice'," she says. Grusiner's aim is to be the honest friend who won't nod at everything and say 'Mmm, they're nice'.
The larger spectacles chains are often accused of being 'supermarkets': low on both originality and personal service. Dollond & Aitchison, however, have been quick to realise the potential in exploiting the boom in designer specs. They have two perfect ploys to encourage those punters who would rather walk around in a haze than go to the optician. The first is Styleyes, a service that aims to match the perfect frame to each individual, which is available in every store.The other is Computereyes: a computer photographs the face with various frames and presents images on-screen from different angles. It can even determine lens thickness from the side for those with really bad eyesight. Sue Clark from D&A has seen a huge change in attitude since their introduction late last year.
"At one point, customers were actually paying image consultants to help them choose their frames," she says. "Now people tell us they wear their glasses more often than their contact lenses."
D&A has seen a significant increase in the number of frames sold, and is aiming to bring the computer service to a wider selection of their shops (it is currently available in 70 key branches).
Jason Kirk, of Kirk Originals, is another innovator who has brought about a quiet revolution in glasses. His clients include Seal, Liam and Noel Gallagher, Spice Girl Mel B and a host of media types. The most significant thing he has noticed since opening his Covent Garden store last year is the number of customers who buy glasses purely for aesthetic reasons.
"I had a guy last week who said, 'I need a pair of glasses to go clubbing tonight.' He's about the 20th person in the last few weeks. This guy didn't need glasses, but wanted to wear them to look cool."
If you wear glasses, take a good look in the mirror and ask yourself, "do these really suit me?" If the answer is no, get down to one of the new breed opticians who are just itching to get hold of you and transform your outlook on life. Take it from me, you won't regret itn
Sarah Hunnan, 14, student at Greshams school in Norfolk, recently signed to Storm models:
'I don't like these glasses; they make me look nerdy'
Wears: black, wire-rimmed glasses (MOD 123), pounds 160, by Calvin Klein, from Boots Opticians, 89 Regent Street, London W1, or freephone 0800 722020 for your nearest stockist
Joe Gary, 58, prison psychologist, visiting from America:
'I wear more rounded, wire-rimmed Armani glasses. I think these are too heavy for my face'
Wears: oval tortoiseshell glasses (2010HDJ), pounds 140, by Paul Smith,
41-43 Floral Street, London WC2, and Angela Campbell, 82 King Street, Manchester; 45 Bridge Street, Ramsbottom (enquiries, 0171-240 0009)
Elizabeth Simpson, 15, student at Sutton Coldfield Girls' School, recently signed to Storm models:
'I don't like these Mikli glasses at all, but I really love the Armani ones I tried'
Wears: marmalade tortoiseshell, large, square glasses (MOD 6052), pounds 199.95, by Alain Mikli, from InSpecs, 106 Draycott Avenue, London SW3; also from branches of Dollond & Aitchison (enquiries, 0121-706 6133)
Justin Sharpe, 26, 'boring job in the city':
'I feel just like Jarvis Cocker. Have you got my good side?'
Wears: square tortoiseshell glasses (DT 0359), pounds 87, by Cutler and Gross, 16 Knightsbridge Green, London SW1 (enquiries, 0171-581 2250); also from Angela Campbell, as before
Norma Simpson, 49, works at University of Birmingham:
'I look like a mad professor'
Wears: red, diamond-shaped glasses (104BGHG), pounds 180, by Paul Smith,
Alison Eames, 32, office manager working on site:
'I've had my Gucci glasses for years and have been meaning to find some new ones. I wouldn't have gone for this style but I really like them. Where are they from?'
Wears: blue tortoiseshell glasses (MAC 50377), pounds 105, by Jean Lafont, from the Eye Company, 194 Upper Richmond Road, London SW14 (enquiries, 0181-878 6466)
Richard Wall, 22, style director at Toni and Guy:
'I normally wear Cutler and Gross, but these are much cooler. Who are they by?'
Wears: black 'Harold' glasses, pounds 180, by Kirk Originals, 36 Earlham Street, London WC2 (enquiries, 0171-240 5055); also from Brosgill, 55 Street Lane, Leeds
Saman Moshar, 25, banker:
'I like them but they're a bit "Jackie O" for me. I normally wear contacts'
Wears: tortoiseshell glasses with wide arms (700AP), pounds 111, by Dolce & Gabbana, from Angela Campbell; the Eye Company; as beforeReuse content