Jean Vuarnet, French Olympic skiing champion and namesake of the iconic eyewear brand, died Monday at the age of 83. The cause of death was a stroke.
French optician Roger Pouilloux introduced Vuarnet to eyewear when he outfitted the French Olympic team with a set of “02” frames to wear at the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, Calif. Vuarnet scooped the gold medal in the downhill skiing category wearing the shades which were fitted with special, coated, yellow mirror Skilynx lenses invented by Pouilloux in 1957, designed to enhance perception of contrasts in a white-out.
Shortly after the win he met Pouilloux in person. The pair struck up a friendship and six months later created an eyewear line in Vuarnet’s name, though the early designs sported a joint Px Vuarnet logo.
“Vuarnet was a sporting giant but his name was also synonymous with great elegance. Our aim with the brand is to maintain this legacy, this combination of fighting spirit, performance and elegance,” said Vuarnet chief executive officer Lionel Giraud.
Known for its bold, athletic-inspired aviator 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 minority investor Neo Capital, which owns brands including Tom Dixon, Miller Harris and Valextra.
Looking to reconquer the American market, Vuarnet, which opened a U.S. subsidiary 15 months ago, in early 2016 tapped high-profile French actor Vincent Cassel as ambassador. The brand recently unveiled a collaboration with Rag & Bone and is currently operating a pop-up store in New York’s SoHo district.
Vuarnet is scouting for a permanent store location in New York or Los Angeles for 2017, Giraud said. “We are coming back from scratch, but I’m confident that in the near future the U.S. will become our main market,” he said.
In terms of sporting legacy, Vuarnet defined a skiing technique called l’oeuf, or the egg — in which a skier becomes more aerodynamic by squatting down and leveling their torso perpendicular to the ground.
Vuarnet endured tragedy in 1995 when his wife, Edith Bonlieu, and son, Patrick, were found dead in a mass suicide alongside fellow members of the Order of the Solar Temple cult. They had been discovered, along with some dozen others, in a star formation around a campfire in the mountainous French region of Vercors.