Byline: Rose Apodaca Jones

LOS ANGELES — What makes a legend most? How about a six-inch action figure from one of the top-grossing films of all time?
For Gai Gherardi and Barbara McReynolds, the visionary founding designers of l.a. Eyeworks, the toy likeness of Joe Pantoliano in “The Matrix” — clad in leather and their very own Streb frames — yielded a singular thrill. The tiny tough guy now stands on a window base inside one of their wildly decorated offices, seemingly keeping watch over their seminal Melrose Avenue store.
That’s just one of many from the pop culture pantheon to which the eyewear firm could attribute its fame. For two decades, l.a. Eyeworks has made an impression on the way the world sees itself. It celebrates the 20th anniversary of its signature collection this year.
For all that time, Gherardi and McReynolds have been champions of the eyewear wardrobe concept, where, prescription or not, there’s a frame for every mood, outfit or day of the week.
“When we started, the market was so extremely boring,” said McReynolds. “The capabilities in manufacturing were pretty limited. Twenty-one years later, the industry has grown up. The competition is great, and I love it. Even the bigger companies are making some pretty bold statements.”
In Los Angeles, ground zero for making bold statements in eyewear, l.a. Eyeworks was a pioneer in linking frames with fame, and also with art. It put glasses on Elton John for album covers; supplied the wire-rimmed Bodhi that Chuck Close stares out from, in an enormous pixilated self-portrait once shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and created and supplied the updated versions of 3-D glasses for audiences at the stage production of the Philip Glass digital opera “Monsters of Grace.”
A bit too arsty? There’s l.a. Eyeworks’ role in the feminist classic movie “Thelma & Louise,” in which Susan Sarandon assumes her independent ways after slipping on a pair of its sunglasses.
“We’ve always believed what’s happening on the face is more important than the belt and the purse and the shoes. That’s especially true now,” said McReynolds. “I’ve always said, ‘Don’t let me look in your closet and let me find more shoes than eyeglasses.”‘
And of course, there are the more than 175 famous mugs, some infamous, featured in the company’s long-running print advertising campaign. Andy Warhol, Jodie Foster, John Waters, Sigfried & Roy, Sir Ian McKellan, RuPaul (in drag), Pedro Almodovar, Pam Grier — the diverse alumni of the campaign form a cornerstone of the eclectic nature of the l.a. Eyeworks culture.
While photographer Greg Gorman has always been the eye behind these dramatic black-and-white portraits, an exception was made this summer when the company featured a woman’s face from a Margaret Keane painting, digitally altered with the artist’s permission to frame Keane’s signature wide-eyes with a pair of l.a. Eyeworks glasses. The company is cosponsoring a current exhibit by the artist, who’s become a pop cult favorite as a Big Eye Master pioneer.
With characteristic humility, the two remain awed by their own associations. “It is a really special feeling to find your artificat around the planet,” said Gherardi. “A lot of times, it’s a surprise. Once, at the Pasadena flea market, I heard someone telling a customer, ‘Don’t you know? Those are vintage Eighties l.a. Eyeworks. I won’t come down on the price!’ I thought, ‘Wow, that is very cool.”‘
Very cool — in a cozy, offbeat, creative kind of way — has defined l.a. Eyeworks. Among their innovations: the signature round and square temple pieces inspired by the feet of Gherardi’s favorite creatures, frogs.
Their ongoing ad campaign slogan, “A face is like a work of art. It deserves a great frame,” indicates it has always been about making eyewear more than a prosthesis. Art has always been at the core. Jim Reva’s installations became familiar sights in their Melrose store windows. They recently commissioned 200 paintings by populist artist Steve Keene. The faces all featured in their series will be wearing glasses, of course.
Neither she or Gherardi care much for the term “patrons” to describe their art sponsorships. “Participation, support” is what Gherardi prefers. They have also long supported fledgling and forward eyewear lines through their stores, such as IC Berlin, Prada and Two Theo.
“We appreciate all the beautiful ripples that happen afterward,” McReynolds said, “the relationships that come with them. We had all of the paintings lined up throughout our office, and all of a sudden, we’re in another world. It’s our world, but the visuals have changed. It jolts you. Your thinking changes. I get all of a sudden 100 ideas from this.”
Not that they have been short on ideas lately.
A third store is set to open early next year a block down from their headquarters on Beverly Boulevard here. (Their second store, in the Orange County uber-mall, South Coast Plaza, opened in 1989.) The 2,000-square-foot corner space, a showcase for l.a. Eyeworks product only, will serve as a template for future retail rollouts in Tokyo and San Francisco in 2002.
The new store will also feature new divisions the company is introducing in the next year. In spring, retailers will get the first peek at the sunwear collection, a first for the brand. The four plastic and five titanium frames will be retail priced from $175 to $225 and also be available for worldwide distribution in department stores and specialty stores.
A secondary opthalmic line will follow, priced lower than the original line, which retails from $145 to $360. For 2002, look for the l.a. Eyeworks Couture line, the possibilities of which they promise will be endless.
All of this is in addition to having secured the distribution license in May for Chrome Hearts eyewear.
“They’re like two kids in a candy store right now,” said Ruth Handel, their longtime spokeswoman. “Their studio is a polymer extravaganza.”