SUNGLASSES TAKE ON NEW FOCUS

Byline: Marc Karimzadeh

NEW YORK — At the International Vision Expo eyewear trade show last week, industry executives worked the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center to a soundtrack that included Corey Hart’s 1980s hit “Sunglasses at Night.”
The song summed up one of the key trends in eyewear: Business is moving at a healthy clip mainly because customers are increasingly looking to accessorize their wardrobe with sunglasses at any time of the day, come rain or shine.
That said, there was a growing contingent of retailers from the three Os — ophthalmologists, optometrists and opticians — welcoming the increased fashion choices in prescription eyewear, with the variety of colors that will not just help brighten the selling floor, but also sway consumers into treating it like other accessories classifications.
“There is growing demand and the consumer is more and more aware of the need to build a wardrobe not just with sunglasses but with [prescription] eyewear as well,” said Christian Roth, eyewear maker and creative director at Charmant Group’s upscale CXD division. “The retailers are getting vibes from the market that consumers want fashion frames.”
Richard Morgenthal, president at four-unit Morgenthal-Frederics Eyewear, said, “There was a plethora of different styles and designs. The consumers are getting more sophisticated and think it’s important to change their eyewear more often.”
Among the trends at the show, which ended its three-day run in Manhattan on March 25, and other off-site eyewear presentations, were:
Retro-looks: Oversize plastic frames or Seventies-inspired crystal accents.
Rimless: Borderless shades from aviators to large shields.
Titanium: Lightweight metals in minimalist designs.
Color: From two-tone laminated frames to gradient lenses in pinks, blues and tans.
Flash mirror: A hint of mirror that works in various light situations, while offering full protection.
“We saw a trend in those frames embellished with rhinestones and in rimless eyewear, which will probably continue going forward,” said Eileen Warner, vice president and divisional merchandise manager at Saks Fifth Avenue.
Mark Ugenti, Safilo’s vice president of sales for the sunglass division, said: “The sunglass business is phenomenal. We are a recession-proof, small item that is not particularly expensive in the luxury world.”
The return of color in the category has generated much momentum. Ugenti said compared to a year ago, when 85 percent of sunglasses were either black or tortoiseshell, the ratio to color is now more balanced.
“Color really started in 2000, but it is continuing to get better,” said Helen Neff, president and chief executive officer at Solstice, the LVMH-owned chain of sunglass stores with six U.S. units. “Different brands are homing in on what colors work for them. It makes it easier to convince consumers that they need a different frame for every outfit.”
“It’s a great year for sun,” said Jean Scott, vice president of product development at Luxottica Group. “Many of the three Os are starting to grasp the concept of needing to get behind sunwear, since people are beginning to wardrobe them.”
Much of the talk at Vision Expo centered on Luxottica’s recent purchase of the industry’s dominant U.S. specialty retailer, Sunglass Hut. This deal will give Luxottica, with its staple of brands that includes Ray-Ban, Emporio Armani and Chanel, a strong U.S. retail presence in both prescription eyewear and sunglasses.
While Scott declined to comment on plans for the chain, some industry executives expressed concern about Luxottica selling only its own merchandise at Sunglass Hut units. But many said the new deal will likely have a positive impact at retail.
“This is a wake-up call,” said Al Berg, co-president of Marchon, which manufactures designer eyewear lines, such as Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, and launched its latest eyewear license for Nike at the show. “Out of the turmoil comes evolution in the industry.”
Berg added that within 10 months he expects to see heightened cooperation between brands, their design teams and retail divisions.
“Its always very exciting just to see the expansion and growth within the business, and we continue to see that,” said Robert Marc, the designer and president of Robert Marc Opticians, which has five stores in Manhattan. “At Vision Expo, everyone was putting their fashion foot forward.”
Marc noted that color was a major trend, particularly for ophthalmic styles in blues, pinks and violets.
“Color gives people options and an ability to wardrobe,” he said. “It’s not that black and tortoise are not big, but color is an expansion of the business.”
In Robert Marc’s wholesale business, he said sales were led by plastic frames in colors, with much interest in multicolored laminations.
The state of the economy, though much talked about, did little to dampen spirits.
Richard Morgenthal, at Morgenthal-Frederics Eyewear, said: “When the economy turns, our business doesn’t go down because it does have a function that is important. You can substantiate your purchase and say ‘Besides loving them, I need them.”‘