PARIS — Timed with its 60th anniversary, Vuarnet, the famed French sunglasses brand, has just opened its first store in the original site in which its founder, French optician Roger Pouilloux, developed the revolutionary yellow mirror SkiLynx mineral lenses that the label was founded on, designed to enhance perception of contrasts in a white-out.
The brand is named after the late French Olympic skiing champion Jean Vuarnet,who came in on the venture shortly after scooping the gold medal in downhill skiing at the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, Calif., sporting a pair of “02” frames supplied by Pouilloux fitted with the lenses.
Still part of Vuarnet’s assets, Pouilloux’s opticians, based on Rue Boissy d’Anglas in the 8th arrondissement here, has always remained an eyewear store, having been rented out to companies including Alain Mikli and Luxottica over the years. Ironically, it was never used for the Vuarnet brand until now.
Boasting a pared back contemporary feel, features in the redesigned space include wooden displays with curved edges nodding to the Sixties, and “wall of fame” boards tacked with photos of stars from across the decades in Vuarnet frames, including Romy Schneider, Miles Davis, Jeff Bridges as The Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” and Daniel Craig as James Bond in “Spectre.” A space in the back is dedicated to presenting Vuarnet lenses, as the brand’s point of difference in a competitive market. Key products from the new range on display include the Glacier 1957 and Edge frames.
The opening comes amid an aggressive relaunch of the brand under the stewardship of Vuarnet chief executive officer Lionel Giraud, with France, Italy and the U.S. the priority markets. Known for its bold cat-eye-inspired shapes and mineral lenses — which are produced in the brand’s own factory in Meaux, near Paris — the brand hit its peak during the Eighties, at one point overtaking Ray-Ban as the leading eyewear brand in the U.S. According to Giraud, Vuarnet’s brand awareness was so high at the time that American weather presenters, on sunny days, would often use the catchphrase: “It’s a Vuarnet day today.”
The business lost steam when Pouilloux and Joseph Hatchiguian — an optician who joined the company in the early Sixties — decided to split the company and operate the sunglasses portion of the line and the outerwear business separately. In 2009, the Alain Mikli group acquired both Vuarnet businesses. The Mikli group was sold to Luxottica in 2014, though Vuarnet remained in the hands of Alain Mikli majority investor Neo Capital, which owns brands including Tom Dixon, Miller Harris and Valextra.
Vuarnet two years ago bought back all of its licenses to refocus on its core sunglasses category. The plan is to relaunch an outdoor clothing line next year, possibly as a joint venture, but “most probably on our own,” Giraud said. In the meantime, a series of limited-edition lines will roll out throughout the year, including an anniversary logo T-shirt based on a vintage design, limited to 1957 editions, and a hook-up with Eastpak, due out in September.
In the Eighties, Vuarnet had a successful skiwear business in Europe, while in the U.S. market, the collection was mainly dedicated to logo T-shirts and sweatshirts, with the brand moving some two million pieces a year in the U.S. and Canada. “It was really iconic at the time,” Giraud said.
The first step in the brand’s relaunch is to reconnect with the old fans, “the 40-plus” generation, Giraud said. The launch of an e-commerce site in the U.S. in September will coincide with a digital communication strategy geared at connecting with a younger generation in the 30-to-40 age bracket. “Millennials are not our target. We are premium, authentic, French-made, with mineral lenses,” Giraud said.
In terms of ambassadors, the brand in early 2016 tapped high-profile French actor Vincent Cassel as its face.
Vuarnet, which reopened its U.S. subsidiary 18 months ago, counts around 1,500 doors worldwide with about 1,000 more doors to be added by the end of the year in France, as well as 200 more doors in the U.S., where it has about 300 points of sale.
Vuarnet has a corner in Printemps and is in talks to open one with Bergdorf Goodman over the coming few months. The brand tested a pop-up shop in New York’s SoHo between November and mid-January, and the plan in its bid to reconquer the States is to open stores in New York and L.A., as well as key ski resorts.
Total revenues in 2016 doubled to around 10 million euros, or $10.9 million at average exchange rates, and Giraud is looking to sustain the momentum, with a 30 million euro — or $32.3 million — sales target set for the next three years. The focus for distribution, he said, is premium opticians, which make up around two-thirds of the business; e-commerce; fashion and concept stores, including Colette in Paris, and sports boutiques “close to places where people sail or ski.”