Shades of stardom

When Jack Nicholson was asked by a paparazzo to remove his sunglasses, he inquired of the young photographer, “Are you new at this son?” Josh Sims peeps behind the stars’ shades to explore the relationship between celebrity and eyewear


Flip through the pictures on FashionEyewear.co.uk’s website and the models look oddly familiar: one looks rather like Ryan Gosling, another like Scarlett Johansson. And that is who they are. The internet retailer’s latest resource allows shoppers to select a brand or style of glasses and see which celebrity has been spotted wearing them; or to select a celebrity and discover quite which type of sunglasses they are sporting. And then, of course, to move directly to buying them.

According to Fashion Eyewear’s managing director Tej Johal, the new part of the site has been launched simply in response to the number of people calling the company to ask whether it stocked the eyewear they had seen on some or other movie or pop star (rarely do literary figures or artists make the grade).

“Consumers aren’t really interested in the latest trends in sunglasses – they want what a certain celebrity is wearing,” he says. “And even the strangest looking styles can sell well based purely on being seen on a celebrity. We even decide what to buy and how many partly based on what we know celebrities will be seen wearing in the media. The fact is that consumers might not be able to afford the celebrity’s £10,000 dress, but they can afford to get their sunglasses.”

But, in such media-savvy times – when the masses know all too well how their patterns of consumption are manipulated, how some of the bigger celebrities are paid to wear certain brands or, at best, get much of their ensemble gratis – can the stars really still determine what eyewear is hot and what is not?

According to Robert Denning, co-founder of San Francisco-based eyewear company Westward Leaning, more so than ever. “An industry insider may know the behind-the-scenes marketing mechanics, but from an outsider’s perspective, celebrity is still terribly glamorous,” he argues. “Retailers, for example, love a celebrity angle because it gives their sales staff a selling point. I’d say celebrity is the single biggest driver of sales in sunglasses.”

In part, he notes, this is because of the broad appeal of sunglasses – perhaps the only fashion accessory in which the same model might be worn across the demographic spectrum. But it is as much because of the profile of eyewear itself as the celebrity it adorns: in every paparazzi shot, the eyewear is centre-stage purely by dint of being on the celebrity’s face. Exterior branding may make the style identifiable, whereas their clothing would take considerably more research to identify.

“And then,” as Mr Denning puts it, “there is the fact that celebrities just do tend to wear a lot of sunglasses.” That the unspoken endorsement is found in a paparazzi image, rather than in a movie, still is key as the former at least suggests the choice of eyewear is the celebrity’s own.

According to brand director Chiara Bernardi, Persol continues to operate “teams throughout the world to nurture relationships [with celebrities], but these are quite spontaneous relationships – it’s about celebrities picking up the brand in their private life. That’s important because consumers can spot when a celebrity choice is fake and when it’s personal”.

But for all that, the sceptical might believe the relationship between celebrity and trends in sunglasses, and so sales, is artfully controlled. However, Westward Leaning says it has never paid a celebrity to wear its products, but admits to “certainly being very generous in giving products away if celebrities are particularly interested”.

Consumers might not be able to afford the celebrity’s £10,000 dress, but they can afford to get their sunglasses

Yet results can be unpredictable. One of its styles, a distinctive model with beaded arms, was recently snapped on Justin Bieber, one of the biggest stars in the teen world. Result? No apparent impact on sales whatsoever. But then a relatively minor ex-reality TV star turned celebrity blogger, called Olivia Palermo, wrote about a particular pair of the company’s glasses and propelled it from its fifth best-selling style to its number-one seller overnight.

The lesson, Mr Denning suggests, is that in the social media age it is not enough to have a celebrity just wear your glasses, they have to publicly express an enthusiasm for them, be that via interview or through their own Twitter or Instagram output. Certainly brands that give away their product to celebrities often do so on the gently enforced proviso that they tweet about it in exchange. Most people will not care what they wear; their fan-base, however, will care considerably, with their wallets where possible.

Certainly Steve Hudson, owner of influential London eyewear store Eye Company, argues the number of people not caring is on the up and that, rather than bringing any one style of glasses to the fore, celebrities just do what they have done since the 1930s – make sunglasses look cool.

“It was movie stars who first started to wear them as something other than purely functional – whether to protect their eyes from studio lights or to hide, we can’t be sure – and so the suggestion came to be that, if you were wearing sunglasses, maybe you were someone. It was celebrities who made the associations we still now make with sunglasses,” explains Mr Hudson.

And perhaps this relationship between star and sunglasses was ever thus. Oliver Goldsmith, the specs company now run by the eponymous founder’s granddaughter Claire Goldsmith, found its first brush with fame by providing the styles favoured by the likes of Michael Caine and Peter Sellers in the 1960s. And these were styles that, thanks in part to David Bailey’s photography, in turn helped make them icons. Perhaps the same is true of Peter Fonda in Ray Ban Olympias, Steve McQueen in Persol 714s, and so on. Now, of course, the next stage in the relationship is that celebrities launch their own eyewear lines.

“I think we can expect more and more of that,” says Marie Wilkinson, creative director of Cutler & Gross, which also makes eyewear for Victoria Beckham’s three-year-old line. “Celebrities are realising the power of their influence in eyewear because they have always been such perfect vehicles for it, much as glasses have always been such a perfect vehicle for a logo. Certainly celebrity choice is some kind of recommendation, but it does depend on the customer.”

Indeed, the Eyewear Company’s Mr Hudson suggests that more people are outgrowing their celebrity-dependency in line with macro trends of recent years, in fashion and society at large: the shift towards the low-key, logo-free and artisanal, and towards individualism, this in part a consequence of the power of critique and community brought about by the blogosphere, which is encouraging consumers to decide what they want for themselves.

“I’m not sure many sophisticated shoppers go out to find the actual style as worn by a celebrity for that reason,” he says, admitting to having indirectly helped make fashion designer-cum-film director Tom Ford a lot of money by styling Daniel Craig’s eyewear in Quantum of Solace. “Certainly, in the shop, if a celebrity is associated with a certain frame, that’s the last thing we mention. A customer is more likely to be put off by that.”