The Eyes Have It: A Look at New Optical Trends

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There are certain famous faces — Woody Allen, Carrie Donovan and John Lennon come to mind — for whom a signature pair of glasses is as much a part of their look, decade in and decade out, as their noses or eyebrows.

The less iconic among us, alas, can look a bit passé. Once strictly utilitarian, glasses are arguably the last wearable item to cross over into fashion statement — and, like anything else, eyewear is subject to the caprices of taste. The bottom line: If you’re still wearing rectangular tortoise-shell frames, it’s time to get shopping.

“Glasses are becoming an accessory for a lot of people — not just women, but men as well,” observed Lisa Marchese, an optician at the three-generation family-owned Marchese Opticians, with several Philadelphia-area locations. “Glasses are right on your face. To me, it’s one of the first things people see.”


Mark Miller, who has owned Glasses Galore in Southampton, Newtown and Fairless Hills since 1978, seconded the notion that eyewear has become an entry point into the world of high fashion — a trend that has been gathering steam for about 15 years, as frames follow shoes and watches in the evolution from staple to self-expression.

“People want to put Chanel on their face,” said Miller. “They want to put Gucci on their face. Of all the things that Gucci sells, this is the cheapest way to wear” the haute couture label.

So what looks au courant in 2015? In a word: color — any color, although blue is enjoying a particular vogue this year, according to an informal survey of optical trends in eyewear shops across the city.

“I almost dropped dead when I saw the frame colors this year,” said Dr. William Troppauer, known to his loyal clientele at Eyeworks Plus as Dr. Bill. “I just couldn’t believe all the colors. Then I brought them back to the office, and everybody went crazy.”

One of Dr. Bill’s hottest sellers — at both his South Street and Doylestown boutiques — is an exclusive line from Thema, an Italian company that makes lightweight frames in nylon. “They’re the lightest frames you’ve ever put on your face,” he said. The frames not only come in 20 colors, from yellow and orange to pastels and the ragingly popular blue, “but you can change out the temples, too” for a customized look.

At Philly EyeWorks, owner Clifton Balter offers a total of 322 combination looks for the company’s locally produced, hand-finished frames: 12 styles, 16 front colors and 10 temple hues. The colors — translucent, gummy-bear shades like orange, pink and purple — are as in-your-face bold as the chunky shapes and winking, Phillycentric names like The Jawn, Yo Adrian and Brotherly Love.  Several of the styles are available in ombré, the two-toned trend that has jumped from hair color to eyeglasses.

Balter had owned InnerVision, a traditional optical shop, for years before launching Philly EyeWorks last year as an online business. Customers can visit the Rittenhouse Square showroom, which it shares with InnerVision, but online retail — complete with home try-on by mail — is one of the biggest trends in the optical world.

“This is kind of a local response to Warby Parker,” Balter said, referring to the high-profile discount brand that first popularized low-cost online eyewear. “They kind of do the old tortoise-shell stuff, copies of Oliver Peoples or whatever.”

Aiming for an alternative that was “fun, local and creative,” Balter tried out a hipper, more colorful selection, though he expected neutrals would be his bread-and-butter. “But people are drawn to the colors,” he said of Philly EyeWorks frames, each of which starts as clear plastic before being sandblasted, custom-tinted and assembled by hand. “We like that you can walk down the street in a pink frame with green sides.”

 With all this color, plastic continues to reign supreme in the materials category, though metals are lately mounting a challenge. “For awhile, we couldn’t give away a gold frame, but now it’s slowly coming back,” observed Miller of Glasses Galore. But he and others say the strongest materials trend is weight — the lighter, the better. High-tech formulations like Dr. Bill’s Italian nylon or TR90, a featherweight plastic, give that chunky look without leaving a dent in the nose. 

Lenses, too, are getting innovative. “There’s a lot of competition to make lenses better,” said Welsh, noting that photochromic and clearer transition lenses can dramatically improve the wearer’s experience.

Several new frame shapes are highly coveted, though opticians echo the observations of many a fashion critic: Modern tastes are so diverse — and audiences so fragmented — that it takes effort nowadays to be truly out of style.

“Every shape’s been done,” said Will Welsh, the Center City store manager for Modern Eye, an artfully cool boutique with another location in University City. “Kind of anything goes. There’s definitely more round than there has been in a long time. People are returning more and more to the classic shapes and doing twists on them.”

Round, schoolboy-style frames and chunkier squares have made a big comeback, displacing the decade-long dominance of rectangular styles, opticians say. The cat eye look is also “huge,” said Liz Fortuna, who — with brother Chris — owns Fortuna Optical, a second-generation family business in Marlton, N.J.

With so many eras getting recycled in mainstream fashion — sometimes it seems as though the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s are simultaneously undergoing revivals — it comes as no surprise that retro looks are popping up in frames, too. “The 1980s are considered vintage now,” Fortuna said with a chuckle. And it’s not just a question of frame shape. “Details like rivets and filigree, laser etchings in a metal frame, little finishing touches can give a more vintage aspect,” Fortuna said.

Vintage styles may also appeal to those who want to look distinctive, but aren’t quite ready to sport hot-pink ombré on their brows. “It’s been a retro look for the past year or so,” observed Dr. Bill. Retro to when? “The ’50s, the ’60s — very square frames, very thin to very thick,” he clarified. “And those large round frames are doing very well, too — the Harvard Law School look, that’s a classic.”

“Classic” is an asset for those who don’t want to appear obsolete, but also aren’t crazy about buying new frames every year to keep up with trends. “It’s an investment, so you want to sell people something that will be current with today’s styles, but won’t go out of style too quickly,” said Fortuna.

Lisa Marchese said the stores she buys for — in Drexel Hill, Narberth and Newtown Square — have a clientele that appreciates classic brands like Oliver Peoples, “which looks good on a lot of people,” she said. “And men love the aviator. That never goes out of style.”

Like a lot of opticians, Fortuna ends up wearing the same glasses for “a really long time. I’m bad,” she confessed. Though it’s worth noting that her taste is right on trend — navy blue cat eye frames from Oliver Peoples, a line that is very popular locally. Along with Peoples, Fortuna specializes in optical brands that are exclusive to the region, including foreign lines like Dita from Japan and IC Berlin. “They don’t make underwear and perfume and pocketbooks,” she said. “They just specialize in fine quality eyewear.”

At Modern Eye, customers also know to expect lesser-known brands and handmade, detail-rich frames in unexpected finishes: “matte, wooden, things that are a little more raw-looking,” said Welsh. While his customers are concerned with style, Modern Eye’s success with smaller labels is proof that not every fashion-forward lens shopper is drawn to the big logos.

“People like to know about the designers,” said Welsh. “They like to hear about the story behind the glasses.” Among the shop’s more intriguing offerings are Andy Wolf Eyewear of Austria, which sells a line inspired by the 1950s pinup Bettie Page, and FEB31st, an Italian brand made from sustainably sourced natural wood.

And for those truly obsessed with vintage, there’s the celebrity-endorsed line RetroSpecs, featuring restored spectacles first worn anywhere from the 1870s to the age of disco.

All of which shows that when it comes to modern optical style, the hottest look may well be a pair of indigo-blue, thin-temple, filigree-etched round frames sourced from recycled driftwood. But if that isn’t your thing, chances are there’s another pair that will update you just as nicely.

“What’s in is whatever looks good on you and what you feel confident in,” concluded Fortuna. “It’s whatever makes you smile.”

Hilary Danailova is a frequent contributor to Special Sections.

 

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