AT Morgenthal Frederics, the fashionable eyeglass store, a pair of espresso-colored Stephanie frames, hand-carved from 12 layers of horn from Asian water buffaloes, sells for $1,495. And that’s not counting the mother-of-pearl flourishes, which push the price to $1,795.
Blame shrinking competition, the creeping cost of technological advances (scratch-resistant, anti-reflective coating anyone?) and the runaway prices of luxury goods: designer eyeglasses that cost $500 and up no longer shock.
But a new breed of online retailers is trying to upend the design house monopoly. Starting with Warby Parker, these companies design their own lines of vintage-style frames, usually affixed with quirky names like the Preston that were seemingly lifted from a Dartmouth yearbook circa 1949. And they are quickly carving out a following among young, urban myopics.
The spirit is a little bit Zappos, a little bit punk rock. “When you walk into LensCrafters, you have this illusion of choice,” said Neil Blumenthal, a founder of Warby Parker. “But what you don’t know is, every single frame is designed by the same company, manufactured by the same company, and being sold out of a store owned by that company.”
Sure, buying from these new eyewear shops might mean having to forgo the ostentatious logo and the titanium skeleton. But spending $100 on a pair of stylish glasses also means it’s easier to treat them like any other fashion accessory and swap frames as often as you change shoes.
Founded in 2010 by four friends from the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania, Warby Parker (warbyparker.com) set the standard: the under-$100 price for frames and lenses, the Netflix-like try-at-home option, the Web-based try-ons, the Sartorialist-esque photos and the feel-good donations. It also offers free shipping and returns, along with anti-scratch and anti-glare coatings for no additional cost.
Never mind the buttoned-down CVs of the founders; the New York company is channeling hipster in the ’50s sense (Warby and Parker are two Kerouac characters).
Its professorial Sinclair model could have been lifted from grainy snapshots of a young Allen Ginsberg posing on a Greenwich Village rooftop. Some of the female models evoke old photos of him, too; that’s a good thing by today’s style standards. The Owen and the Crosby scream “Buddy Holly” to anyone over 35, “fashion blogger” to anyone under.
There are sleeker models available. The narrow, rectangular Sibley and Reece frames are retro, too, but seem to hark back no further than the late ’00s.
The Sell: The retro-cheapo original.
Formerly Spexclub, Lookmatic (lookmatic.com) also started in 2010 and has all the earmarks of another Web startup spawned by scruffy postgrads. There are models in gingham shirts, collaborations with Generation Y actors like Jason Schwartzman, and its own style blog chronicling optical trends.
But the Los Angeles company is the brainchild of the eyewear veterans Jeff Cole and Robert Hillman, former top executives at retail giants like Pearle Vision and Cole Vision, and Mr. Cole’s son Joe Cole.
That doesn’t mean its frames won’t pass muster among the Stumptown coffee set. Lookmatic offers a wide range of “Mad Men”-era horn rims, with old-school quirky names (Lucy, Oscar and Parker). It also samples from more recent pop history: the red, Wayfarer-style Jesse frame is straight off the redhead in Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” video from 1984.
For the truly adventurous, there’s a “Jetsons”-like cat’s-eye model, the Kat. But those are probably best attempted by under-30 sketch-comedy writers, alt-weekly sex columnists or Dame Edna.
The site tries to appear hip with a blog written by someone named admin. There’s also a “virtual try-on.” Otherwise, the site is serviceable and clean.
Prices: $88 ($35 more for photochromatic lenses).
The Sell: A cooler Pearle Vision.
This newcomer seems to be betting the house on a more-Brooklyn-than-thou strategy. Classic Specs’ (classicspecs.com) founders, Richard Ray Ruiz and Andrew Lipovsky, look as if they could be in a Weezer tribute band, have a booth at Brooklyn Flea and own a pit bull named Dixie Cup.
It, too, offers a free try-at-home service, keeps prices in the two figures and makes no secret of its charitable donations.
The frames evoke the classics line at Moscot, the century-old eyewear retailer in Manhattan. The Amherst frame, in gunmetal fade acetate, for $89 with lenses, could be mistaken for Moscot’s Lemtosh, which retails for $225. The Furman, similarly, begs comparisons to Moscot’s Terry, which was a collaboration with Terry Richardson, the bad-boy fashion photographer.
The women’s collection is more colorful, featuring modified cat’s-eye models in red (the Bliss) and brûlée tortoise (the Coco). They seem like a prism into a lost world of Palm Beach cotillions from the Eisenhower years.
The Sell: Moscot for the masses.
Michael and Roger Lee, brothers in their 30s, started this bicoastal company in March, and they like to remind customers that they are lifelong four-eyes.
So maybe it’s no coincidence that Mezzmer (mezzmer.com) seems committed to raising the self-esteem of the young and the bespectacled. (Eyeglasses make you look “smarter, more creative and innovative,” the site’s blog insists.)
At least they’re cheap. Mezzmer delivers frames made of cellulose acetate (billed as a good thing) and lenses made from lightweight, impact-resistant polycarbonate, all at a price of a midrange bistro dinner for two ($99). The men’s selection of retro plastic frames is familiar — basically, the Many Moods of Clark Kent. The women’s line pushes into tomboy territory, like with its wire-bottom browline model, made famous by Malcolm X.
There is no virtual try-on feature, but conveniently the site helps shoppers narrow their choices by breaking down offerings according to frame size (wide, medium, narrow) and face shapes (heart, oval, round, square).
The Sell: For the educated consumer.
When a bunch of postgrads had the retail-eyewear equivalent of a loft party, it was probably inevitable that Bluefly, the big online fashion discounter, was going to rumble in and elbow its way to the keg.
After learning through surveys that 79 percent of consumers would buy multiple pairs of glasses if they cost under $100, it started Eyefly (eyefly.com) in June, in partnership with A + D Labs, an optical company. The result is an eyewear site with downtown aspirations and Seventh Avenue production value, right down to its look-book shots by the fashion veterans Anna Wolf and Tommy Ton.
Eyefly offers a familiar range of midcentury tortoise frames. Can’t figure out which pair is right for you? Flip through LookBooks that feature everyday New Yorkers wearing — guess what — Bluefly outfits and Eyefly frames.
There are also metal rim options that wouldn’t look out of place in your average architecture firm. And in the avant-optical world, that’s the highest compliment one can bestow.
The Sell: Bluefly for your face.
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