In 1929, Sam Foster began selling the first mass-produced sunglasses, and it didn't take long for them to become wildly popular across the US. If you've worn sunglasses in the decades since, it's pretty likely they'll have been manufactured by one of several giant companies that totally dominate the industry. Previously, there were few design upgrades. Nothing much ever changed.
But recently, there's been an explosion of choice. The industry has evolved and is on a mission to be more inclusive and innovative; independent brands are increasingly taking market share away from the giants. If you're interested in product and brand design, the sunglasses market feels alive right now. Brands like Coco and Breezy, which puts inclusivity at the forefront of every collection with its genderless frames, are everywhere.
It looks like these smaller brands will influence the future development of the sunglasses industry, which is already worth around $20 billion, according to market research company Euromonitor International. That's lower than sunglasses sales in 2019. But, then, we haven't been traveling much in the past two years. Revenues for 2022 are forecast to grow by an average of around 10% compared with 2021, with the fastest growth in Asia. The luxury end of the market accounts for around 60% of revenues, a share that's stayed relatively steady over the past few years.
‘The global sunglasses industry is set to recover to pre-Covid-19 sales levels by the end of 2024,’ says Natasha Cazin, a fashion and eyewear senior consultant at Euromonitor International. ‘The category is recovering thanks to the reopening of stores, the increased digital offer, a strong demand for outdoors activities and an increase in travel activities compared to 2020, when they were at a standstill.’
One brand that's made waves in the Asian luxury market is South Korean company Gentle Monster. Founded in Seoul by Hankook Kim, it now has stores across the globe. Those stores are the main draw for many of the brand's customers – they're a real experience, with immersive displays from another world. In a Gentle Monster store, it's not unusual to meet an upended crashed spaceship or a tree hanging from the ceiling, branches brushing the top of your head. The company employs nearly 10 times as many spatial designers to work on its in-store concepts than it does product designers to work on its glasses. ‘Consumers are drawn into the stores by its collaborations, robots and innovative displays, even if they weren't thinking of buying any eyewear,’ says Natasha.
But the pandemic – and its impact on physical retail – hasn't helped. Gentle Monster closed its iconic standalone store in central London, putting a concession inside the high-end department store Selfridges instead. However, the brand isn't shying away from in-store experiences: it has recently opened new shops in China and South Korea, where it's growing its business. Italian brand Sunnei dealt with pandemic rules by welcoming one customer at a time into its new Milan flagship store, with what looks like a huge hole blown out of the wall, reflecting its quirky aesthetic.
The success of Gentle Monster in South Korea, Cubitts in the UK and Ibiza-inspired eyewear brand Capote in Spain is testament to the growing popularity of independent sunglasses businesses in a highly competitive, buoyant market. And the sheer number of independent brands is beneficial. ‘There's been this plethora of new brands that have entered the market in the last 10 years,’ says Cubitts' Tom Broughton.
‘In the last 10 to 12 years, [the independent sunglasses brand market] has got bigger,’ agrees Chris Knight, a sunglasses consultant and founding member of industry body Eyewear Industry Associates. When Chris was visiting trade shows a decade ago, he'd walk past small stands where independents marketed their wares, staffed by two or three people. ‘Now you see some really huge, humongous palaces,’ he says. ‘It shows you how much it's grown – and the value of those brands has gone up a lot.’
Taking on the giants
One of the benefits of the sunglasses sector for independent companies is that few eyewear brands make their own lenses, meaning that they're only responsible for designing and manufacturing frames. Another benefit within the industry is unhappiness with the status quo, according to Chris. ‘It's a complicated story, but there's one gigantic gorilla in the eyewear business, which is EssilorLuxottica,’ he explains.
EssilorLuxottica is an Italian multinational manufacturer with a market capitalization of $66 billion that employs 180,000 people worldwide. You might never have heard of the company before, which came about through the merger of the biggest lens manufacturer and the biggest frame manufacturer in the world, but you'll have definitely heard of their brands, such as Ray-Ban and Oakley, and the names of the high fashion brands they license, with the likes of Chanel and Prada among them.
‘[EssilorLuxottica] dominates the industry,’ says Chris. It does this by exerting a certain level of control over its customers. It offers them good prices on brand names like Ray-Ban and Oakley, and attractive stock displays, in exchange for having large parts of a store dedicated to showcasing its products. ‘High-end, independent opticians hate that and despise these companies, and they're looking for brands that are different and offering a higher quality and a more diverse style than the sort of thing they can get from EssilorLuxottica,’ Chris explains.
Exclusivity is another crucial selling point for independent brands. ‘They're not sold everywhere,’ says Chris. This allows them to approach retailers and offer the rights to sell their products in a specific region or market.
Building brand narrative
Greek fashion and lifestyle company Zeus+Dione is an independent brand that's distinctly proud of its national heritage. It was launched in 2012 during a financial crisis that really hit Greece hard, in order to try and counteract some of the negative headlines that were being written about the country. ‘Everywhere was saying: “The Greeks want to be out of the Eurozone,” and things like that. We love our country, we love the people, and we love that there's a deep knowledge of craft, and talent,’ says Dimitra Kolotoura, co-founder of the firm. ‘We produce everything in Greece.’ The brand's designs are intended to illustrate the Greek way of life, and to highlight the contribution that Greece makes to the world, combating the image of the country as reliant on others to help it out.
Just a couple of years after Zeus+Dione's founding, the company decided to launch its first pair of sunglasses. ‘I'm a collector of sunglasses myself,’ Dimitra says, ‘and I thought: since we're doing a lifestyle brand, how fun would it be to create our own sunglasses?’
The company found a Greek-based boutique manufacturer to make their first design, the Apollo, in five colors, which immediately sold out. The next season, the brand created two further designs – which also sold out. A full collection of 25 or so designs in six colors followed. ‘Now, it's a massive collection, and it gets sold everywhere,’ Dimitra says, ‘from Australia to the States.’ Indeed, sunglasses bring the company a significant share of its revenue. Department stores including Saks Fifth Avenue stock the glasses and they're the bestselling accessories in Zeus+Dione's range, accounting for half of its income in that category.
Zeus+Dione's sunglasses have even made it onto the small screen: the brand's thick-rimmed, butterfly-winged Nike II sunglasses can be seen on the terribly chic Camille in season two of Netflix series Emily in Paris.
Different by design
Just like Zeus+Dione's Dimitra, Alexander Capote, from Venezuela, was a vintage sunglasses collector and dealer before launching his own designs though Capote Eyewear in 2013. ‘It was always my passion,’ he says. Capote Eyewear has now grown to become a major independent brand, with a physical store on the Spanish island of Ibiza. It's famous for its outlandish designs, and for brokering collaborations with celebrities and large companies (an upcoming partnership is with an architect that Alexander declines to name).
‘I think people want to be different,’ he says. ‘For me, it's about quality and uniqueness.’ Zeus+Dione's Dimitra agrees it's all about standing out: ‘Design, design, design. We're offering something that other brands haven't got.’
Three inclusive eyewear brands
Few people would disagree that the fashion industry has a diversity problem, but many probably don't understand the scale of the issue. Until a handful of years ago, there was almost no eyewear specifically designed or manufactured for black faces. Thankfully, with brands like Coco and Breezy, Reframd and Kimeze, that's all changing.
1. ‘Inclusive eyewear products for a diverse world,’ is Reframd's tagline. Founders Ackeem Ngwenya and Shariff Vreugd say they were forced to wear ill-fitting products growing up and throughout much of their adult lives, too. The Berlin-based brand scans each customer's face before 3D printing their frames, making their products perfect for anyone.
2. London-based brand Kimeze is committed to designing frames specifically for black faces. Founders and sisters Clare and Christina Kimeze spent three years meeting manufacturers and designers and working with 3D scans of faces in the black community. Their glasses come in three shapes and a range of colors to suit a diverse range of black skin tones.
3. Twin sisters Corianna and Brianna Dotson founded their eyewear brand, Coco and Breezy, in 2009, spotting the need for sunglasses to cater to a more diverse customer base. Today, Coco and Breezy sunglasses come in four basic categories – round, rectangle, cat-eye and aviator.