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Made in the Shades: Eyewear Goes Deluxe

Who's that behind those $130,000 sunglasses?

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Who’s that behind those $130,000 sunglasses?

While the price of those limited edition jeweled Cartier shades will inflict sticker shock on many consumers, eyewear makers are targeting big spenders, namely, those who are plunking down thousands of dollars on designer handbags.

“America is trading up. What was once expensive is now the opening price point,” said Mark Ugenti, senior vice president of sales for Safilo’s retail sunglass division.

Safilo produces eyewear for such upscale brands as Giorgio Armani, Gucci and Dior.

“You look at handbag and shoe prices going up and up. In the future, you will see [eyewear] that is much more expensive [than now],” Ugenti added.

While celebrity cool was the push behind the Sixties ad slogan “Who’s that behind those Foster Grants?” opulent luxury is now the name of the game. Some are comforting their demanding upscale consumers with diamond- and ruby-encrusted 18-karat gold eyewear. Kieselstein-Cord Eyewear boasts a signature alligator fob bedecked in diamonds, and Chrome Hearts recently jeweled its Disfunctional frame to the tune of $10,000.

Loree Rodkin offers diamond-encrusted crosses, peace signs and hearts on custom eyewear, produced by Sama, where designer Sheila Vance is often asked to do custom work. She recently created the Pyramid of Diamonds frame with 3.23 carats of diamonds and another frame with an 8-carat diamond at the temple.

“One of the biggest trends for spring heading into fall is this idea of trading up into something that’s fine, like a fine jewelry sunglass,” said Ed Burstell, Bergdorf Goodman’s senior vice president and general merchandise manager of beauty, jewelry and accessories. “We’ve had success selling Cartier in the $3,000 range, gold and wood [Cartier frames] and the $5,000 range.”

Bergdorf’s will offer $4,000 frames from Kieselstein-Cord, a $6,000 Oliver Peoples limited edition and pricy ones, too, from Leiber and Golden Wood.

“The work going into all of these glasses commands a higher price,” Burstell said. “There’s a lot more handwork in all of these.”

A spokeswoman for Optical Shop of Aspen said its Miami store often sells out of the jeweled frames.

The high-as-the-sky prices were the talk of the town at Vision Expo East, which ended a three-day run on March 25 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York. Many companies at the show projected double-digit growth for this year on top of last year’s double-digit increases. The show had 561 exhibitors, the same as in 2006.

Cartier bowed its new jewelry-inspired Panthère eyewear collection at a private launch party a day prior to the trade show. The frames start at $500 and go up to $130,000 for a custom gem-drenched pair. In its Classic line, the company offers a signature option for select clients in which it will inscribe the consumer’s name, a phrase or a word such as “love” or a sports logo onto the top of the right lens.

While Cartier is known for its luxurious jewelry and watches, eyewear represents an entry price point for a fledgling Cartier customer.

“Cartier is about accessibility,” said Frédéric de Narp, president and chief executive officer of Cartier in North America. “Cartier is the fastest-growing luxury brand in America.”

De Narp said it’s the firm’s plan to keep having high-quality distribution of eyewear, made in its factory near Paris.

Brands like Armani, Robert Marc, Lafont and Fendi are wooing customers with limited edition styles that also offer the benefit of exclusivity. In recent seasons, some of Armani’s limited editions offered mother-of-pearl inlay, an intense treatment of crystals or an entire frame covered in crocodile-embossed leather.

Marc offered sunglasses with buffalo-skin temples, and Lafont had a limited edition frame for its 20th anniversary this year. Made completely of metal filigree, it will become a collector’s item, the company believes.

Leiber Eyewear, which is produced by Legacie, offers styles with hand-painted and hand-set Austrian crystals that are retired often. They retail from $465 to $1,100.

The latest limited edition Fendis boast hand-painted flowers and tiny studs that spell out Fendi on either temple at $600 retail.

“They’re very deluxe,” said Giancarla Agnoli, senior vice president of design at Marchon. “It’s a distinction for a fashion consumer who understands luxury. It’s a combination of luxury and uniqueness.”

Many companies attribute the emergence of this new deluxe eyewear market to the growth of the designer eyewear business.

Pierre Faye, senior vice president of Luxottica in North America, said the firm’s luxury designer brands, such as Bulgari and Chanel, which have an opening price point of $300, are booming, as are its premier fashion brands, like Prada, Ralph Lauren and Versace, which start at around $200.

“With increased pricing in handbags, designer eyewear is really an entry price point,” said Faye.

In other trends at Vision Expo, vintage styles made an appearance, such as in Ray-Ban’s Wayfarers and Carolina Herrera’s small, round tortoise frames. Aviators are still strong, but the more square-shaped Navigator has made an entry at John Varvatos and Marc Jacobs.

Shields are still important, but logos across the board are a bit smaller, akin to the trend in the handbag market. Notable ones include Dior’s Raindrop frame jeweled at the temples with a small Dior insignia embossed at the sides, and Betsey Johnson’s Harajuku Collection frames made of coated paper on acetate.

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