When Elizabeth Gryska received a Saks Fifth Avenue gift card, she intended to use it to buy a high-end handbag. But the $600 (Rs24,500) card wouldn’t cover half the price of a Chanel bag she coveted. So, she bought a different Chanel accessory: sunglasses.
“When I wear them, they make me feel as if I have money to spend,” says Gryska, a 23-year-old New York publishing assistant, of her brown, oversized sunglasses with interlocking Cs. Compared to the $1,000-plus handbags, the shades were a bargain at $350.
Now that starter accessories such as handbags have become so expensive, sunglasses are emerging as the new entry-level luxury item. To gain a foothold in the growing eyewear market, makers differentiate their products by using rarer materials such as buffalo horn and wood. Some are adapting details from their ‘It’ handbags for the eyewear consumer: Fendi has large buckle details on the sides of its new $295 B Buckle shades to mimic its $1,500 B Bag. Louis Vuitton sunglasses have gold hinges reminiscent of the locks on its leather goods.
Luxottica Group SpA, the world’s biggest maker of eyewear, currently sells glasses through its LensCrafters and Sunglass Hut chains and plans to introduce a chain of stores focusing on luxury shades next year.
Globally, the market for $150-and-above eyewear is growing at double-digit rates, compared with single-digit growth rates for the eyewear market as a whole, says James Hurley, an analyst at Telsey Advisory Group.
Trends in sunglasses move slower than in the apparel and accessories markets. “It is not as dramatic as the handbag market, where there’s an ‘It’ bag or shape,” says Pierre Keyser, chief executive of Luxury Optical Holdings, a year-old company that owns 39 specialized optical boutiques in the US.
What’s in:Oversized frames continue to be popular, although this season there will be some subtle differences—big frames that have been squared off on the sides, or more streamlined aviators. White plastic frames are also gaining traction. At the top of the luxury market, many consumers are moving away from heavily logo-ed styles and opting for subtle details such as laser-cut designs or lightweight materials such as horn, ebony and wood. The Los Angeles brand Chrome Hearts designs handmade frames out of silver and stainless steel that retail for $495 to upwards of $10,000.
Until a decade ago, sunglasses were mainly a functional item, not a branded fashion accessory. That changed when European brands, following the lead of Giorgio Armani, began entering into lucrative licensing deals with Italian manufacturers such as Luxottica and Safilo Group. In the past two years, labels including Polo Ralph Lauren and Tiffany & Co. have inked licensing deals with Luxottica, and Marc Jacobs has signed with Safilo, another big maker.
Celebrities such as Mary-Kate Olsen and Nicole Richie also raised the profile of sunglasses as a coveted luxury item. Victoria Beckham even has her own line of upscale sunglasses, DVB, which sell for around $300 a pair.
Stylist Rachel Zoe, whose clients include big-sunglasses wearers such as Mischa Barton and Cameron Diaz, says sunglasses are popular with a wide swathe of the population because “you don’t have to have a certain body type or shoe size” to wear them.
Despite the myriad labels, most sunglasses are produced by just a handful of companies via licensing deals with brands. The labels usually have in-house eyewear designers (some also collaborate with the licensee’s design team). Luxottica currently makes sunglasses for more than 20 brands, including Chanel, Prada and its own Ray-Ban label. Safilo, the No. 2 maker by revenue, produces sunglasses for around 30 brands including Yves Saint Laurent, Dior and Giorgio Armani.
At Morgenthal Frederics, a chain of eyewear stores in New York and Boston owned by Luxury Optical Holdings, sales of $1,000-and-above shades carved by hand from buffalo horn have quadrupled in each of the past two years, causing the company to produce buffalo-horn analogues for all its 80 plastic models. “People are willing to pay more for the lighter feel of horn,” says Jeff Press, director of product development and design for Luxury Optical Holdings.
Luxottica was surprised to discover that Japanese consumers were willing to spend more than $20,000 for a pair of super-luxe customized frames. When former Gucci designer Tom Ford entered the eyewear market last year, many styles in the line were nearly $400.
Yet, many shades still cost less than other luxury products, which is why consumers are absorbing price increases. “Truth be told, I would have paid more,” says Melissa Sweet, a bridalwear designer in New York, who shelled out almost $400 for a pair of Tom Ford glasses because, she says, they fit her face perfectly.
It’s going to take more than the right fit to convince Emily Miller to splurge on designer sunglasses again. The Washington, D.C., attorney recently spent $250 for a pair of Fendi shades after a saleswoman at Nordstrom convinced her they were a great deal compared to a pair of $400 Chanels. “Good sales technique,” Miller says. “I lost them before I even got the credit-card bill.”
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