Four-Eyed Pride

This story appears in the Spring 2015 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below. 

Story by JAIME LIN WEINSTEIN | Photos courtesy of WARBY PARKER

There is, perhaps, nothing more telling of the present popularity of eyewear than the fact that you can currently purchase a range of plastic lenses intended to “make you look cute, not see better” (as the product descriptions on Urban Outfitters’ website claim). Indeed we’re in an era where a certain subculture of Millennials has been known to sport glasses with non-prescription lenses as an accessory to their flannel shirts and skinny jeans, but the numbers speak to a larger trend. A recent report from market research group Euromonitor International claims volume sales for spectacles exceeded 380 million units for the first time in 15 years in 2014.

With roots in classical antiquity, eyewear has long been a marker of old age, but somewhere between the four-eyed monikers from days of yore and Steve Jobs, glasses have developed a positive connotation across multiple generations. And despite recent technological advancements in contact lenses and laser surgery, people are electing to wear glasses. “Laser surgery is safer than it’s ever been before and is having fantastic outcomes, but still some can’t overcome the risk or anxiety that’s associated with it ... And for other people, [eyewear] provides a real opportunity to express them- selves,” suggests Dr. Whitney Hauser, assistant professor at Southern College of Optometry and founder of Signal Ophthalmic Consulting in Memphis, Tenn. Couple that with the technological developments of glasses themselves — “The coatings and the add-ons that you can add to lenses make the picture clearer than ever and they last longer. And people that have had to have thick glasses before, the new lens materials can make them more eligible for trendy things that used to be unavailable to them.” — and the practical reasoning behind their increasing approval starts to become, well, clearer, in the other sense of the word. 

But practicality alone doesn’t drive sales. Like high-heeled rain boots or designer cell phone cases, eyewear has transcended the line from necessity to accessory. “Glasses have turned into a fashion statement and I have more patients coming in wanting lenses without a prescription than with one,” says Gazal Tabrizipour, owner of Atlanta Vision Optical. “It’s the unique colors and materials we can use now that we weren’t able to use before ... We have buffalo horn and acetate plastic ... It lifts your cheeks and brings out your features ... it adds a nice little flair,” she says.

Then, of course, you can’t deny the influence of the big designer brands (Chanel, Prada, Gucci, Burberry), which all invest highly in their eyewear collections each year — and in their corresponding advertising campaigns. Tom Ford, for example, notably casted the burgeoning, young models Gigi Hadid and Patrick Schwarzenegger in ads for his fall collection last year. And with current ages of 19 and 21, respectively, it appears Ford may be enforcing the younger audience appeal. Fashion is, after all, an industry that’s been relying on the purchasing power of youth for a long time. And in a society obsessed with staying young, maybe this is where the motive for glasses’ mounting approval lies.

Regardless, businesses out there are capitalizing on the trend, including both established brands, like Tiffany & Co. (the 178-year-old jewelry company launched its first eyewear collection in 2007), and new, like Warby Parker. Founded in 2010 and known for its free “Home Try-On Program” and reasonable prices (a pair of eye- glasses, including prescription lenses, starts at $95), the once online-only retailer now has 12 brick-and-mortar locales throughout the country — including its first Southeast store in Atlanta last year. And they’re earning a pretty penny. The stores sell an average of $3,000 a square foot annually and helped the company reach a business milestone in June: They reported having donated their one-millionth pair of glasses. As a benefit corporation, Warby Parker donates one pair of eyeglasses for every pair sold. And with that, we can estimate they’ve done at least $100 million in sales over their four years in business. Tabrizipour, too, saw the uptrend in the marketplace, and designed her own line of glasses, called Gazal Eyewear. Just released in July of 2014, “Sales took off, four times the amount we expected it to do,” her husband, Saeed, shares.

The media will report there’s a glasses-wearing celebrity to encourage eyewear for just about anyone’s star tastes, too, from Jennifer Aniston to John Mayer. You’ll rarely catch J. Crew creative director Jenna Lyons without her signature black frames. And a number of actors of varying ages are often seen proudly sporting their lenses on and off the red carpet — Kristen Stewart (24), Zooey Deschanel (35) and Brad Pitt (51) included. “I turned on the TV the other day and Snoop Dogg is on with his new pair of glasses!” Saeed remarks. Who knows if they’re prescription or not.

“Honestly, finding a pair of glasses that are trendy, and not only make you see better, but feel better about yourself, gives a huge sense of confidence for a lot of people,” Hauser adds, no matter what age. “Most people wear glasses to see better, but certainly there are people that do it to look different, and in their minds to look better ... and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.” Neither do we.