The effects of vintage’s popularity have already been felt in shoes, handbags and clothing, with fashion houses racing to keep up with youth culture trends that Millennial and Gen Z consumers discover on the secondhand market. Now the eyewear sector, particularly sunglasses, is beginning to feel vintage’s impact.
A significant and growing trend for vintage eyewear is pushing the larger eyewear industry to examine how it designs, manufactures, forecasts trends and pushes edgier styles into the market.
Archival styles from labels including Chanel, Dior, Gianni Versace, Giorgio Armani and Gucci are quickly selling out on Instagram-famous vintage dealers’ accounts. Shoppers say these styles offer a uniqueness, old-world manufacturing quality and a certain immediacy — they can buy into a trend with the click of an eBay button, rather than waiting a few months for big brands’ modern versions to trickle into stores.
“I think there’s something about a vintage pair that [feels] it’s unlikely someone else has the same ones. It’s part of your face and you have more of a personal connection with them, it’s part of your identity. So I think that’s what attracts people to vintage. You feel uniquely connected in an age when things are so mass produced,” said Rome-based vintage dealer Olivia La Roche, whose popular account often deals in deadstock designer eyewear she finds in flea markets around Italy.
The Instagram vintage world isn’t the only factor creating a wider cultural change around eyewear shopping. Celebrities, once responsible for initiating a craze around the latest designer sunglass style, have been wearing vintage eyewear and creating micro trends in the vintage dealing market. Bella Hadid, for instance, is among the celebrities spotted in vintage sunnies — one month wearing micro frame Tom Ford-era Gucci glasses and another wearing oversized shield styles from the John Galliano era at Dior.
Hadid’s specs often come from Treasures of NYC, an Instagram store run by Brittany Blanco and Robert Bird that has grown to nearly 260,000 followers. While a few years ago the two say that eyewear was not a major focus for them, over the past year sunglasses have become a “staple” on their page.
The average pair of vintage sunglasses they sell, like early-Aughts styles from Dior or Chanel, are in nearly new condition and priced from around $300 to $400, with some ranging up to $1,000 — similarly priced to new styles. “I think it’s kind of interesting that over the past couple of years, the prices of vintage designer bags have gone up so much, they’ve skyrocketed. Sunglasses haven’t reached that high yet. You can still find a good deal and there are still so many different fun colors and styles that are deadstock and available,” Bird said of the supply, which has been steadily depleting in other categories.
If Hadid or Kendall Jenner change their preference for one vintage style to another, oscillating between neutral tones and bright colors or miniature silhouettes to ones that are oversized, it immediately creates a ripple effect in the vintage market and changes the trajectory of trends. La Roche said two months in vintage trends at this point could represent more than a year in traditional fashion cycles.
“Last year I was going for Carolyn Bessette-type little alien glasses all the time. I was really after that shape that was small and rounded, then I got into the TLC-type, ’90s R&B, small square reflective lens. Lately I’m going toward things that are frosted in a bigger, classic early 2000s goggle style. Trends move so fast in the vintage world, I look back on some of my work in the shop, say, six or eight months ago and I’m over it. You just have to move really fast,” she said.
These shifts in eyewear trends are flying past the traditional industry, which typically has a 12-month production lead time before a design concept hits store shelves.
Blanco from Treasures of NYC added: “You see things go from teeny tiny and then it shifts into this giant shield style again. It happens so quick that it’s kind of dangerous for these larger companies with production timelines because they aren’t able to snap their fingers and produce styles on-trend in a month.”
Christine Messersmith of the Instagram account The Zoo, also based in Rome, is planning to increase its number of vintage eyewear drops to suit demand. In the past, the account has seen the styles it sells pop up on the wider market months later. “Vintage predates how designers make things. Vintage is a step before them and when vintage shops are selling a trend for a year and then designers come out with something based on that trend, it’s almost too late to the game,” she said of speaking to uber-trendy, early-adopter consumers.
Nevertheless, sales across the eyewear industry are growing — with Marchon president Nicola Zotta saying that early 2021 sales have already exceeded those set in 2019 and 2020 before the pandemic hit. Safilo, while still reporting loses, says it expects business to grow in the first quarter of 2021.
Eyewear, however, seems aware that its current timeline does not match the cadence of the larger fashion market and sees room for improvement in the speed, efficiency and number of edgier designs firms release. As consumers become more knowledgeable and sophisticated with access to social media, there is a growing demand for the kind of more unique eyewear that has driven many toward vintage.
“Honestly, yes, we should speed up,” said Matteo Battiston, chief design officer at Luxottica. “But we do have a point of strength compared to independent eyewear brands that have just one story to tell. If you have a wide portfolio you can play with different stories and it’s less amplified,” he said.
While the majority of eyewear consumers are looking for styles they can wear every day, there are a growing number of shoppers seeking out what Zotta calls “extraordinary shapes.”
“People are spending more time in front of screens and I think an interest is coming across through the screen in a more interesting and different look,” he said. “Eyewear plays a role in this more than shoes. We have started to see increased demand in new shapes and bolder colors.” Marchon continues to review its distribution to create opportunities for limited-edition products.
Zotta also noted that, “What we are doing as an organization is looking at how we can build a supply chain to react to demand signals. We are trying to be more agile because demand moves at the speed of light. You need to be able to interpret what works but also what takes off, and what matters is the ability to move extremely fast.”
Battiston added, “In the last 12 months, we have been exposed to communication involved in working from home and living life in digital spaces. The women’s market is more granular in terms of trends and that’s where social networks play a huge role in determining trends and inspiration.”
Marcolin’s product development director Alessandro Beccarini said over email: “Our design teams are always looking to the brand’s DNA and to past designs, but the key is to reinvigorate things with both a modern spirit and technology. We know that the average customer keeps their eyewear for over two years and wears it daily. What else do you have in your closet that you wear daily? Possibly nothing you wear more frequently than your glasses. So we want our products to be special…but we also know that through modern technology we can improve this better than ever.”
While sunglasses are the primary space where demand for vintage is strongest, Vladimiro Baldin, the global product officer at Safilo, feels its effect is spilling over into the optical market as well.
“I feel that more and more prescription eyewear is becoming more trendy. Even though Gucci is not part of [our] portfolio anymore, it has been very good and strong at putting prescription eyewear on the catwalk. Prescription glasses have gone from a functional device to more of a fashion statement — an accessory to beautify the face,” he said.
Safilo is fine-tuning a fast-track process to put out more fashionable product in six months or less. The company thinks that reading glasses are another frontier to explore more fashionable styles and is preparing for an “explosion” of micro trends once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and people get dressed up again.
Bird from Treasures of NYC added that, with some of the more recent fashionable styles like tiny frames worn at the tip of the nose, glasses have surpassed function and are becoming more of a novel fashion accessory. “They’ve become a face accessory, people consider how they look on the top of their head, on the tip of their nose, hanging off the side of their purse. It’s not about what’s the most flattering on your face anymore,” he said.
But the question is, how will the mainstream eyewear market interpret these trendy codes? The majority of consumers are looking for more conservative styles, but vintage dealers say if modern designs generally lean ever-more commercial, it will cause the eyewear market to lose its footing in fashion.
“It does feel like the mass-produced modern designs are made for someone [a consumer] who doesn’t want to take a lot of risks,” said La Roche.
Ron Gott, a buying manager at Fabulous Fanny’s — the New York City vintage eyewear shop located in Manhattan’s East Village for the past 20 years — is often responsible for selling vintage styles as inspiration to larger companies. “We wait a year, a year-and-a-half and then see the distilled version of what they bought. The seed is there, but they always try to update it to the point of extinction, they refine it too much and get too far away from what the design aesthetic started with,” he said.
Zotta said this is where eyewear needs to strike a better balance. “The U.S. market is largely an ophthalmic market and because of that, the demand is largely conservative [in style] and you don’t need to be faster than the 12-month production cycle for that. The fashion portion comes from sunglasses and that’s where you have to be extremely reactive and innovative.
“Even though most of the demand is on the conservative side, that’s not where you build your image, reputation or equity. You really have to invest in these capabilities to be relevant from a fashion standpoint — that’s the true value of production. The consumer is looking for something more sophisticated every day and I see that continuing to evolve as a force that manipulates eyewear to become better.”