Eyewear has been in the family for Garrett Leight and his father Larry for 30 years, but it’s only now becoming a family business for them. Both generations of Leight men founded their own successful eyewear companies — Garrett in 2009 when he started Garrett Leight California Optical, which now has 800 wholesale accounts and four retail stores, and Larry 23 years prior, in 1986, when he launched Oliver Peoples, where he served as founder, creative director and head designer until the end of last year. Now that Larry has been released from his Oliver Peoples contract, in a case of reverse nepotism, son has hired father as designer and creative consultant to introduce a free-thinking new capsule called Mr. Leight.
As of now, many of the details are TBD. “Mr. Leight is going to be a division of Garrett Leight that curates projects for either ourselves or other things we believe in,” said Garrett. “We have a variety of other values, whether it’s made in America or sustainability. But if somebody comes to us and we believe in what they’re doing and they want to add eyewear, we would take that meeting.”
But very selectively. “We’re not open for business like anybody can get us,” said Larry. “We’re only selecting things that are part of our life vision.”
The more concrete end of that vision includes an extremely luxurious product — $700-plus for frames — in limited quantities that doesn’t follow a fashion calendar. The capsules will drop when the Leights want them to, available in short flash sales and at very select retailers, as well as Garrett Leight’s own stores. “I don’t care about commerce or the commercial [for Mr. Leight],” said Garrett. “We’ll make each collection and we’ll never make it again. Whatever the factory limit is, that’s exactly what we’ll make. That’s why there’s no wholesale strategy. People are going to want to reorder this and that’s not how it works.”
If that sounds a bit abstract and highfalutin for sunglasses, it’s because these two like to think big. Perhaps father more than son. When describing the attitude of the Mr. Leight line, Kanye West and Hermès are two names Larry checked. So far, Mr. Leight will produce the first eyewear collection for luxury sneaker label Buscemi next spring.
Asked about his career at Oliver Peoples, Larry, who is prone to tangents, digresses about being a dude who just wanted to surf and got his optician degree as a day job to support his quest to find the perfect wave.
“Being an optician, you really have to have skills about fit and comfort like a fine shoe maker,” said Larry. “Like, I wear Nike shoes because of my back… they feel so good…”
Garrett reins him in: “Stay on the story of Oliver Peoples! Stay on your career. Like, then what happened?”
What happened was Larry took his vintage-inspired frames, which were very different from the flamboyant, colorful Eighties fare on the market at the time, around the globe in a suitcase, selling them himself until they caught on in a major way. Then Oakley and Luxottica came calling. He sold the company in 2006 but stayed on in a creative role, though one can tell there was considerable compromise in the evolution from independent eyewear man to member of a major luxury conglomerate.
“It was interesting working for them,” said Larry of Luxottica. “It was challenging. I worked through a lot of different battles, won many and lost some and it was just very different. It’s definitely not the same in the beginning of any company that’s successful. The beginning days you always remember and I’m watching Garrett go through that now.”
Once Larry’s contract with Oliver Peoples expired at the beginning of the year, he was a free agent with 30 years’ luxury eyewear design experience to his credit. Joining his son’s growing company would seem like a no-brainer, but there was significant hesitation on both ends. “We had a typical father/son relationship growing up, where there were great moments, there were heated moments, passionate moments,” said Garrett. “I was traveling the country playing tennis on a national team. He would get on my nerves majorly. That was my experience working in an environment where we both wanted to win.”
It says a lot that Garrett chose to build his own company independently from Oliver Peoples and his father. Aside from a couple years with Oakley after college, Garrett did his own thing. Of course, some information was exchanged between family members working in the same industry. “We would go for dinner, and it’s not like we just talked about the weather,” said Garrett. But you know, ‘How’s your business? What do you want to do?’ type of conversations.” The real job conversation didn’t happen until this past January.
They met for the first time as potential business associates, rather than father and son. “I shared this idea with him that I wanted him to come on and mentor myself and Elena [Doukas], our head of design, so we could continue to grow as designers and create original things and be ahead of the trend,” said Garrett.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh, it won’t work with Garrett,’” said Larry. “‘It’ll be too hard. He’s going to think I’m going to be bossy. He’s going to think I’m going to want to control it.’”
But Larry was impressed with his son’s commitment to thinking unconventionally when it comes to design, marketing and distribution. “He’s a different age than I am and he is solidly in the new world of how you do business,” said Larry. “It’s nothing like how it was when I started, other than design, which is still important. But the marketing approach, which I was so good at, the PR, it’s all approached so differently now.”
Transparency and authenticity are two of GLCO’s key brand tenets. Garrett wants to put production front and center, as in at the stores, so customers can see lenses being cut and frames being made. He believes in “storytelling” and “content” — everyday words to his generation, which might sound new to his dad.
“I feel like now is a great time and there’s a lot of things changing in eyewear,” said Garrett. “For example, in my lifetime I think there will be legitimate Made in America eyewear factories. I would like to get a head start on that if I could. That’s one big, big dream.”
GLCO products are currently produced in China, but Mr. Leight will most likely be produced in Japan. The first collection won’t be ready until spring 2017 at the earliest, and they need time to master their biggest challenge. “The world is saturated with eyewear. It’s almost boring to think, oh another eyewear collection,” said Larry. “Going into it, we know this. That’s our challenge to take away this boredom.”