From hand-cut frames to cutting-edge technology, designer brands are taking sunglasses to ever-more sophisticated levels of chic
Why do we wear sunglasses? The prosaic answer, of course, is to protect our eyes from the damaging rays of the sun – a function of immense importance all year round in a place such as Dubai.
But few would deny the secondary, rather more satisfying function of shades: their instant conferral of inscrutable anonymity upon the wearer. Don a pair of razor-sharp Ray-Bans or slide on some immense Prada bug-eyes, and you instantly look smarter and cooler. Crucially, you’ll also look completely unreadable, and therefore somehow invulnerable. You take on that movie-star persona you’ve always craved, whether it’s Steve McQueen wearing Persol or Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly rocking chic Oliver Goldsmith.
Perhaps, then, that’s the difference between sunglasses and shades. The first of the former came courtesy of the Inuits of Alaska, around 2,000 years ago: they carved snow goggles out of horn, ivory, bone or wood, with a slit to see through, which protected their eyes from the glare of the sun on snow. The goggles are still used by Inuits today, and are as perfectly functional as a pair of Oakleys or Aviators.
But if the eyes are the windows to the soul, it makes sense that covering them with a pair of shades lends an aloof, unreadable air, and that became apparent in 12th-century China, where judges would wear lenses made from smoky quartz to hide their emotions in court.
Of course, things have moved on, and sunglasses have become synonymous with Hollywood glamour, particularly after the American Sam Foster’s introduction of Foster Grant sunglasses in 1929. He found a ready market on the beaches of Atlantic City, and sold his first range through a branch of Woolworths there. In the 1960s the company used stars such as Mia Farrow, Anita Ekberg and Raquel Welch in an ad campaign with the slogan “Who’s that behind those Foster Grants?”, and the connection between sunglasses and glamour was forever sealed.
Jamming on a pair of sunglasses became a time-honoured way for stars to “disguise” themselves from their fans – not that it strictly worked: little is more conspicuous than a stunning beauty wearing shades and enveloped in a scarf with an upturned collar.
Where Hollywood went, the general public followed, desperate to emulate the style of their idols. Over the years, ever-increasing levels of bling have been applied to what remains an essentially simple design, and now the likes of Bulgari and Cartier make gold and diamond-encrusted eye wear to rival the carved emeralds that the Emperor Nero reputedly used as lenses through which to view his gladiators.
Yet sunglasses are almost unique in fashion terms, in being style-led and sitting at the cutting edge of technology. In the 1930s the US Army Corps commissioned Bausch and Lomb to create glasses that would protect pilots from high-altitude glare. In response they created a distinctive dark green lens. Then, in 1936, the Polaroid Corporation invented filters that would protect against harmful UV rays from the sun. By 1937 the two innovations had been combined in Ray Ban Aviators, and a year later the style became available to the public. Since then, the Aviator style has become instantly recognisable. Meanwhile, sports brands such as Oakley continue to innovate with lenses, coatings and clarity to create the most effective eye wear for snow sports, cycling, running, driving and surfing.
Today’s sunglasses buyer, though, may have a different agenda to his or her ancestor. While the pursuit of the exact shades worn by a particular star was once the aim, now it is individuality that appeals, at least as far as the fashion brands are concerned.
While there is something to be said for having found THOSE baroque, curly-armed Pradas or a pair of classic tortoiseshell Persols, the domination of the market by Luxottica, which owns or licenses 80 per cent of the world’s eye wear brands, from Burberry to Versace, means that there is a certain pleasure to be had from seeking out tiny, exquisite little independent makers. Cutler and Gross’s handcrafted frames are unique, while Linda Farrow’s collaborations with designers such as Maison Martin Margiela and Erdem have taken a vintage brand into sublime modernity. Several small companies such as Shwood and Finlay & Co are making sunglasses with hand- crafted frames from natural materials, including wood and stone, and new launches, such as illesteva, Barton Perreira and Garrett Leight, are finding fans among celebrities, fashionistas and anti-fashion-brand naysayers alike.
In response, those classic brands are producing ever-more limited editions to keep their fans happy. No longer must one choose between just black and tortoiseshell Wayfarers: now a multitude of colours, finishes, lens colours, arms and patterns are released every year, ready to mix-and-match, allowing you to effectively design your own Ray-Bans.
It’s all a very long way from a bit of whittled bone in the Arctic.