(Wall Street Journal) As the co-founder of Oliver Peoples, Larry Leight’s vision has shaped the image of some of Hollywood’s most stylish individuals and personas. Johnny Depp is a fan, as are Jack Nicholson, Angelina Jolie, Reese Witherspoon, Jay-Z, Madonna and Brad Pitt. The brand is name-checked in Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho” (Christian Bale wears a pair in the 2000 movie), and the company has recently worked with actress Zooey Deschanel on a collaboration. The brand, which started only 25 years ago, is today the benchmark for “vintage geek” chic eyewear.
When Leight and his brother Dennis, both opticians, began their range of sunglasses and glasses in 1987, they had in mind “the American intellectual look.” Drawing inspiration from a haul of 6,000 sets of old shades from the 1920s and ’30s that were sold to them by a dealer, the brothers began their business with just three styles—the “O’Malley,” the “505″ and the “1955.” They named the company after a man whose name appeared on a set of invoices and papers that accompanied the glasses.
Oliver Peoples was born during a moment when über-dark, logo’d sunglasses spelled excess and gross vulgarity. “We were making retro, intellectual eyewear, always with the influence of the classics,” says Leight. “Word spread and then everyone wanted a pair.” Everyone included the likes of Barbra Streisand, Sharon Stone, Helmut Newton and Sting. Leight thinks that there’s an art to wearing both glasses and sunglasses.”Wearing the right sunglasses is like finding the right lipstick. It’s trial and error,” he says. “These days, sunglasses or even glasses are a vital part of getting dressed—they make a statement, you are sending a message. Be sure it’s the one you want to send.”
There is, of course, an element of attention-seeking in the wearing of sunglasses—and, for that matter, glasses when one doesn’t really need to. Leight says he is unsure whether eyeglasses were required by the three NBA players Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, who recently wore them for their postgame analysis interviews, but he says that it doesn’t really matter. “They looked great. Well, Westbrook and Durant looked great,” he says. “What they were saying is: We want to be taken seriously.” As for the wearing of sunglasses movie-star-style when it isn’t even sunny (and most especially during the winter or inside), Leight considers it obnoxious. “That is the look-at-me factor,” he says. “You see someone in sunglasses in a place where they are not required and you think: Wow, that must be someone. Mostly, it’s not. But either way, it is just plain rude to wear your sunglasses inside so that no one can see your eyes.”
Leight thinks that the purchase of glasses and sunglasses is quite often driven by iconic referencing—in other words, you buy a pair of sunglasses because you want to look like someone else. He runs through the options: Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Jennifer Aniston, Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, JFK, Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961), Tom Cruise in “Top Gun” (1986) and “Risky Business” (1983), Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator” (1984), Brad Pitt in “Fight Club” (1999) and Steve McQueen in “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968). To which we might add, Will Smith in “Men in Black” (1997), Daniel Craig in “Casino Royale” (2006) and American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.
These days, as Leight points out, you can buy photochromic lenses, which have some degree of protection but allow people to actually see your eyes (think Jack Nicholson). “A lot of actors and actresses do this because they say they have to wear something in the bright light of awards shows,” says Leight, shrugging his shoulders with what looks to be a degree of healthy skepticism.
It shouldn’t really matter why people buy his glasses. The fact is, they do. As testament to the niche he has carved in the market, Leight and his brother sold the company to Oakley, a subsidiary of Luxottica Group and one of the largest names in sunglasses manufacture, in 2006 for $55.7 million.
Inevitably, Leight has views on how to buy your sunglasses or glasses: “One of the biggest mistakes is following a trend. Don’t.” Leight says you should do your homework—think about what you want beforehand and get inspired by styles you like on other people. “Too many of us buy sunglasses on impulse, let’s say at an airport,” he says. “Bad sunglasses or eyeglasses are like poorly fitting shoes. You love them at first and within a week of wearing them, you are asking yourself why you bought them.” Your glasses should, according to Leight, be comfortable: “They should not lay on your cheeks or the bridge of your nose, or pinch behind the ears. In fact, they should fit you like a well-tailored suit,” he adds.
“These days, sunglasses or even glasses are a vital part of getting dressed—they make a statement, you are sending a message. Be sure it’s the one you want to send.”
He references types of eyeglasses, too. “You know, there are looks—the bookish female; the intellectual filmmaker—Woody Allen; the schoolboy, Harry Potter thing; the Gregory Peck thing.” (The company created the “Gregory Peck” range of glasses and sunglasses, modeled on the actor’s original pair in the 1962 film “To Kill a Mockingbird”). Leight likes the way comedienne Tina Fey looks in her glasses, ditto Katy Perry, Lisa Loeb, Damien Hirst and Philip Johnson.
“Oh, and you can’t forget Elton John, Buddy Holly, Elvis Costello and, of course, Andy Warhol.”