Shopping: The eyes have it: if you want to be hip, get some frames

No more `four-eyes' jibes - glasses are the fashion accessory everyone wants to wear.

If you want to be trendy, now is the time to be short-sighted. Glasses (yes, it's cooler to be in your face than ponce about with words like face furniture, occhiali, eyewear or even "spectacles") are the latest, must-have accessory.

Once banished from magazine pages, pop icons, from Robbie Williams and the Gallaghers to Annie Lennox and Scary Spice, are flaunting them; magazine shoots are full of them. Next week alone sees the UK launch of collections from Philippe Starck/Alain Mikli, Loaded magazine and French Connection.

Indeed, most fashion designers have already complemented their sunglasses collections with them - Armani, Paul Smith, Dolce & Gabbana, Jill Sander, Calvin Klein, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Katharine Hamnett. You name them, almost without exception they'll be there. And soon the high street brands will surely be following them en masse. These days, glasses have moved on a long way from the associations they once had with greasy haired, acned geeks.

Take the new glasses vocabulary. Out are taunts like "men don't make passes" and "speccy four-eyes"; in is a new bedroom speak of sex, love and passion. You "love" your glasses, you're "passionate" about the ones you buy, "our glasses make you look sexy".

Clearly the marketeers have moved in on the dowdy, clinical optician's world. They've opened their eyes to the fact that Britain may be a fashion leader, but it's aeons behind its European and US counterparts in the glasses department (the Italians buy six pairs of glasses for every pair sold here). And cutting-edge consumers are already lapping it up (sales of spectacles have grown 62 per cent in five years to over pounds 2bn annually and, as the population ages, stand to show further dramatic increases).

"It's very strange that we've been so far behind in fashion terms," says Jason Kirk of Kirk Originals, whose Covent Garden store is one of the new breed of eyewear retailers, selling themselves as style consultants rather than opticians. "For some reason the British have always separated the art and science of wearing glasses. I think it's because of the lingering feeling that opticians are purely medicinal. But now opticians are coming into the market who aren't just sitting around waiting for people to wander in like a dentist's surgery does."

Kirk, the son of a provincial optician, is keener on the artistic side: he sells glasses, has facilities to make lenses, and machines to fit the best specs to your face; but he doesn't do eye tests - you have to arrive with your prescription in hand. In fact, he sells at least one pair a week with plain glass.

He's also fervent about re-dressing the British face, and is one of the leading lights behind London's first eyewear trade exhibition (London International Optics) next weekend, which launches with around 100 top optical designers, 30 or 40 of them new to Britain. As Alain Mikli, a leading French eyewear designer and LIO exhibitor, says: "Today it's very interesting to do business in the UK because it's an open market."

Mikli, who set up in France 20 years ago, sells all round the world, but his company only started selling direct to the UK last September. Now, in addition to his own ranges, Mikli is topping the bill with his old friend, iconic furniture designer Philippe Starck. And, as well as launching the new Starck/Mikli collection, Starck Eyes, in this country later in the year, he's also bringing out a collection with Issey Miyake and working with Jill Sander.

"Before, you could have nice clothes and ugly glasses and no one would say anything," he says. "Now glasses are as much a statement as the clothes. You have to play with glasses. We play with shoes, with belts, with hairstyles and we have to play with glasses too".

"Everyone else is now doing the retro look - the Fifties and Sixties - but Philippe and I are looking towards tomorrow, to the third millennium. Nothing too fancy, just designed by Starck and Mikli: but very technical and practical, the minimum for the maximum."

Hard on the heels of the fashion designers comes French Connection, one of the first high-street brands to step into the glasses market. And its rationale is the same: "Eyewear is a natural extension to the lifestyle we are now selling," says Jill Read, the licensing director, about the new French Connection and lower-priced FCUK ranges.

"What people have on their face is the most visible thing they are wearing, and they are putting more and more money into high design and high quality instead of the stock frame. The whole world has been doing it, but the British are just getting into it."

The new collection comes in 40 styles including navy, deep reds and pinks, but Read adds a cautionary note: "A high percentage of people will not wear those fashion colours, so we are also stocking classics like tortoiseshell and blacks."

It's not just a question of British reserve, though. Strong colours sit less well on pale faces than on more olive-tinged continental skins. According to Natalie Warren, of celebrity eyewear company Cutler & Gross (clients include Leonardo di Caprio and Elton John), this may be one reason why the Brits have been slow to take risks. "It's easier to wear strong colours if you have darker skins, so we don't experiment with colour."

Stylistically, Cutler & Gross says the mood is swinging away from the boxy, masculine look that's dominated recently towards less Fifties'-style plastic (acetate) frames - and, increasingly, customers are buying a new pair of specs each season. "We're keeping the frames small and sharp, not Jackie O, because people are more likely to experiment with frames if they are small: they don't feel so conspicuous. We're selling a lot of light tints - pinks, blues, yellows. Specs to give a look."

If image is all important, are contact lenses heading down a sidetrack? Not so, insists Nish Kotecha of the opticians' chain David Clulow, which has seen a 15 per cent year-on-year rise in sales of glasses. "People are combining the two," he says. "Wearing glasses for work and contact lenses for activities like sport."

The world of fashion is indeed a fickle business. Ten years ago, glasses were seen as a necessity, today they're very definitely an accessory. Yet, whatever the pundits say, what sells well depends on who wears what, and when. For now, at least, the stars' clear focus on glasses will keep them up there in the limelight.

Stockists: Kirk Originals (0171-240 5055); Cutler & Gross (0171-581 2250); David Clulow (0171-486 1485); French Connection (0171 399 7200); Starck Eyes (0171 431 7316) - French Connection and Starck Eyes only available from the end of March.

London International Optics (0181 987 7540) is at Olympia, London, 13 to 15 February, trade only.

Flip-top "Authentics" case, pounds 7.95, Optimum, (01332 365 808)

Black case, pounds 10, Cutler & Gross (0171-823 8445)

Blue Aston case, pounds 9.95, The Conran Shop (0171-589 7401)

Flat green leather case, pounds 20, Smythson (0171-629 8558

Red glasses bag, pounds 15, Cutler & Gross (0171-823 8445

Inflatable sunglasses case, pounds 9.95, The Conran Shop (0171-589 7401)

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