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Luxury eyewear company Oliver Peoples has been buffeted by change the last two years, but founder Larry Leight nurtures the vision he had when launching the firm in Los Angeles 20 years ago — creating top quality eyewear with a vintage ethos.
Oliver Peoples, which is favored by Hollywood heavyweights such as Renée Zellweger and Tom Cruise, has transitioned from a privately held company to a luxury standout in the portfolio of sport optics specialist Oakley Inc. to swimming in a sea of high-end eyewear brands such as Prada and Chanel at Luxottica Group. Oakley bought Oliver Peoples for $53.1 million in February 2006 before joining Luxottica in a $2.1 billion merger completed in November.
The fast-moving developments stunned Leight, who named the brand after a deceased eyewear collector whose stash of hundreds of early 20th-century frames Leight purchased for $7,000 in 1986. The frames continue to inspire him.
“That is the big surprise that we couldn’t control,” he said of the Luxottica deal. “Of course, we thought, ‘What if Oakley gets sold?’ We heard rumors about that, but I just couldn’t imagine that [former Oakley majority owner] Jim Jannard would do it.”
With the deal done, Leight, who is creative director, renewed his dedication to protecting the integrity of the Oliver Peoples brand.
“I don’t want to see the name ruined,” he said.
Oliver Peoples is paying homage to its history with the release of a 20th anniversary collection for resort-spring and summer 2008. Although not the initial intent, the collection highlights the brand’s heritage for the new ownership and for new clientele, which is essential to grow Oliver Peoples’ business. And it attempts to show that the retro-meets-modern aesthetic resonates enough to make the company an aspirational force in the global eyewear industry.
To get the word out about the anniversary collection, Oliver Peoples created a black-and-white ad campaign featuring Robert Evans, producer of “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” and teamed with him on a thick rectangular plastic frame for $365.
Oliver Peoples’ first big hit in 1987 was the 505, a fake tortoiseshell plastic optical frame made famous by Sting and Al Pacino, and worn by Christian Bale in “American Psycho.” A year later came the O’Malley, an acetate frame modeled after the glasses sported by former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley, and, in 1992, Oliver Peoples launched the MP2, a round metal frame with fake tortoise plastic inserts that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Larry David continues to wear.
This story first appeared in the January 7, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Oliver Peoples didn’t skimp on sunglasses in the collection. The brand dabbled in sun from its inception, but started developing seasonal sunglass offerings in earnest about seven years ago when corrective laser surgery’s popularity boomed.
Notable sunglass entrants for resort-spring are the $285 boxy Freya, the thick Wayfarer-like $365 Hollis, the enamel-accented $350 Ilsa and the limited edition $6,000 to $6,500 Diamond Harlot in 18-karat gold with round-cut diamonds. Oliver Peoples’ revenues are currently split evenly between sun and optical.
Gai Gherardi, co-owner of l.a.Eyeworks, a 30-year-old Los Angeles-based eyewear firm with a branded retail model that Oliver Peoples emulated, sensed when Oliver Peoples jumped wholeheartedly into sunglasses that it wasn’t going to be independent for long.
“That gives you access to a public other than optical stores and that was a strategic move on their part,” Gherardi said. “There is no company like Oliver Peoples that came from independent roots with a strong design element that has been taken up into that sphere.”
Oliver Peoples’ plans are a work in progress. Cos Lykos, Oakley’s vice president of business development and a proponent of the Foothill Ranch, Calif.-based company’s acquisition of Oliver Peoples, said: “The category of luxury fashion eyewear is very significant and the Oakley brand was playing a very small role in that. We felt that Oliver Peoples could be a very significant player in that market, and our goal is to grow the brand in a way that protects its exclusivity, fine workmanship and design.”
David Schulte, a former managing partner of private equity firm The DCS Group, was named Oliver Peoples’ chief executive officer in August 2006, and the company began leveraging Oakley’s immense infrastructure and enhancing the presence of its brands, which are Oliver Peoples, active lifestyle brand Mosley Tribes and licensed designer brand Paul Smith, at appropriate Oakley-owned stores, namely Sunglass Icon and Optical Shop of Aspen locations. It also secured capital to expand its retail reach, deciding to purchase a formerly licensed New York boutique and construct a store in Malibu, Calif., to the tune of around $700,000. That store, Oliver Peoples’ eighth, was designed by Commune’s Roman Alonso and opened in November.
Eventually, Leight predicted that Oliver Peoples could support at least 15 to 30 stores in the U.S. and several more units in major fashion capitals around the world. The company sells in almost 50 countries, but Leight said Oliver Peoples is underrepresented in South America, Central America, the Middle East, Australia and some Asian and European countries.