Sunglasses haven’t been out of style for a moment since they were introduced to the public by Sam Foster, founder of Foster Grant, in Atlantic City in 1929. Ray-Ban aviators were distributed for free to Army Air Force top gunners in the 30s, prompting their popularity. Sexy cat-eyes were sported on classy film stars Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly. Promoted by the 60s slogan, “Who’s That Behind Those Foster Grants?” celebrities and their branded shades have been coupled to appeal to the rest of us for decades. And, it has worked beautifully.
A perfect storm
Trends in accessories come and go, evolving as our needs change. Long gone are the days of mandatory hats and gloves. Neckties on men and hosiery on women are no longer required in today’s relaxed office environments. One can easily imagine a cash-free future when wallets will have no purpose. However, spheres of sun-filtering plastic balanced on the face by sidepieces, which we call sunglasses, have a bright future. The perfect storm for consumer demand is a functional item that’s considered highly fashionable. As long as our heads get cold in winter and hot in summer, and the sun shines in our eyes, it seems that hats and shades are here to stay.
Given that perfect intersection of practicality and style, non-prescription sunglasses are a multi-billion dollar industry. However, cool looking sunglasses needn’t put you back $200 a year or more. Over a typical lifetime ownership of dozens of pairs purchased to replace lost or stolen, sat on, scratched, or outdated, we’re talking big bucks. And the price just keeps soaring. Alas, America is not leading the shade brigade. In fact, one Italian company shipped 65 million sunglasses from their factories in 2011. The world’s top-selling Ray-Ban Wayfarers, as worn by JFK, a young Bob Dylan, and The Blues Brothers lost their American branding in 1999. Even Foster Grant was purchased by Paris-based Essilor in 2010.
Drugstore versus department store
Experts maintain that once you introduce 100% protection against ultra-violet rays, which can be further enhanced with polarizing lenses to cut out glare, drugstore sunglasses offer the same protection as those costing many times more. These days, technology brings us durable and lightweight materials suitable for extremely demanding sports and intensely fashionable street wear. In fact, many consumers don’t realize that Milan-based eyewear giant, Luxottica, owns LensCrafters and Pearle Vision as well as Oakley and Ray-Ban, and three dozen more famous designer brands. Their main competitor, Safilo, is based 150 miles away in Padua, Italy. Licensing lesson learned, there is often little or no difference beyond the branding, and that’s what you’re paying for.
Try online shopping
If you think you’d never buy a pair of glasses online because you need to try them on first, consider the Warby Parker $95 solution that’s taken on the perfect storm eyewear industry with a new, affordable option. But, be quick about it, before this clever New York City startup is bought up by Luxottica Group.