Some brands have become such an accepted part of our daily lexicon that their etymological origins aren’t even questioned.
Take Ray-Ban for instance; the sunglasses brand was born in 1937 to protect the pilots of the US Air Force from the sun – to literally ban the sun rays. While sun protection is still paramount to Ray-Ban’s offering – as is the original aviator style – the brand has come a long way.
With such an established product at its heart, it would be all too easy to sit on its laurels but Ray-Ban has long been as interested in innovation as its own heritage. But when your starting point is an icon of its own, how do you pursue the new, without attempting to reinvent the wheel?
“On one side we respect where we came from, so we talk about heritage and authenticity,” explains Ray-Ban’s global brand director, Sara Beneventi. “We talk in some way about our past, but we always try to reinvent it. We don’t consider Ray-Ban a fashion brand; we’re more a kind of cool, trendy brand. But on the other side we want to make sure that it’s not just about design or style, but about quality, innovation and everyday comfort.”
This summer, Ray-Ban launched its District 1937 collection, which has been five years in the making, according to Lucia Morini, a product manager at Luxotica, the Italian owner of Ray-Ban. On first sight the frames are familiar – the wayfarer, the aviator and the more recent addition, Erica, are all present and correct. But, upon closer inspection the frames are crafted from surprising materials – the most experimental of which are leather, velvet and denim. “What is new is not the design, but the materials,” Beneventi says. “They are in some way unexpected in eyewear.”
While Ray-Ban may not be the first to offer leather frames, Morini explains that the process they use – akin to shrink-wrapping acetate frames in leather, sealed without glue – is where the innovation lies. “Ray-Ban is unconventional, it has a rock spirit,” Beneventi says.
To celebrate the launch of the new collection, the brand held a party in the Garment District of Manhattan, which gave its name to the collection, where artists who work with each of the materials were commissioned to create original pieces tied to the collection – including a huge denim portrait of Debbie Harry –wearing Ray-Bans, naturally – by the artist Ian Berry. Musical performances from Blondie and the emerging band MS MR were chosen to represent the innovative spirit behind the collection and the brand’s ties to New York.
“Blondie represents the unconventional punk rock period of Ray-Ban,” Beneventi says. “Let’s say on one side we have the original wayfarer as an icon and you have Blondie who is an icon from the music world. On the other side you have MS MR, who represents reinvention: we reinvent traditional materials, they reinvent rock music.”
Of the relationship with Blondie, Beneventi is proud that Harry and her Blondie bandmates have chosen to wear Ray-Ban: “What we are really proud of, is that as a strategy we never do paid placements, it’s really a choice of the artist.” It’s without doubt that Harry is the modern definition of an icon, and in a world of lucrative celebrity endorsements that she pays her own way speaks volumes. “I have a drawer full of them,” she says on the day of the launch party.
Indeed, looking back at some of the most famous images of Harry from her four-decade spanning career, its notable just how often she is wearing a pair of Ray-Bans. “Everybody at CBGB had them,” Clem Burke, Blondie’s drummer, says of the New York punk club that played a large part in the band’s history.
For her part, Harry disputes her status as a style icon, declaring it “absurd – some women truly are stylish and style is their life. I’m confronted with the same problems [as other women her age, Harry recently turned 69]. Sometimes I think ‘my God – you can’t wear a mini at your age’. I think mood and comfort are really the most important things, if you don’t look good in it, don’t wear it”.
While other women her age may be more comfortable in pastels and pearls, Harry wore a leather mini skirt at the launch party, and a top designed to emulate sleeves of tattoos – such freedom of spirit is a perfect fit for the Ray-Ban project.
“Somehow or other a reputation of style from those early days has stuck with me,” Harry says in a way that is defiant rather that deprecating. “The punk ideal was radical, and anti-social and everything was laced with a lot of irony and that’s an underlying theme to [everything I do today].”
As Ray-Ban’s No 1 market, as well as its original home, America is a huge priority for the brand – and its storied history with musicians is just one part of that puzzle. “It’s a strange mix between mainstream and coolness,” Beneventi says of the wide scope of the brand’s strategy.
That balance is important elsewhere, too – take, for example, the collection’s denim style; the process to use the most workaday fabric was so innovative it took 18 months to develop, and was swiftly patented so it couldn’t be copied. As Morini says: “Every single worker has a pair of jeans, it’s something really common, it’s every day – but you’ll never find something else like this on the market. And that’s Ray-Ban.”