• 11 minute read • by Susan Chan •
To throw shade, if going by the Urban Dictionary, is to express contempt for someone. In this particular case, it was much more literal.
Shade, or rather a pair of shades, flew off in the midst of an embrace. My sunglasses, perched neatly atop my head, slid off in slow motion, struck the pavement, and cracked like eggshells.
Said pair of sunnies had come into my possession as I journeyed to a Floridian wake. Forgetting to pack my aviators from home and unprepared for the brightness of The Florida Keys, I selected an over-sized plastic pair in dark green at a small convenience store away from the main strip. For two-fivers, they were perfectly incognito, bearing a distinct resemblance to Chloë without the domineering logo stamped on the sides. They quickly became a favorite of mine.
But now, as I surveyed the sunglass carnage, post-embrace with dismay, I realized the decimated pair would need replacing. As much as one can enjoy shopping in New York, where the best is available 24/7, I was not looking forward to this task. According to Yelp, there are over 1000 shops alone that carry sunglasses in the city. An APB was out for info on wearable shades of interest, a task that required a woman of considerable time and vision.
What’s a girl to do?
Sunglasses were originally developed as protective gear for dust, light, and soot, used by speed kings during the Industrial Age. As cars and motorcycles became more accessible to the masses, however, they became more of an accessory of leisure.
Per il sole. For the sun they were, but for the night they became. Donning them in the dark became a popular trend. Beat poets and musicians like Miles Davis and later Roy Orbison started to use them as audience blinders during their performances. Hollywood stars also jumped on the trend, using them as shields against blinding flash photography, nosy paparazzi, and the never-ending public gaze.
Strangely enough, the very idea of deflection became appealing. The French have a word flâneuer, meaning stroller or wanderer, that represents the meaning of the cool gaze—detached and observing; self-possessed. Sunglasses were the manifestation of this very idea, and so, subsequently, every raffish hustler, gangster, slacker and rebel out there began to fancy the look, catapulting sunglasses into an industry of their own.
I’m no flâneuer, but I’ve always fancied that off-duty, effortless girl in Wayfarers, the object of the wistful male gaze in Don Henley’s faded summer romance:
“I can see you—your brown skin shining in the sun,
You got that hair slicked back and those Wayfarers on, baby,
And I can tell you my love for you will still be strong,
After the boys of summer have gone.”
For a few bucks, this look could be mine. So off I went, in pursuit of a new persona.
The design and style of sunglasses you choose can have a huge impact on the way your personal brand is perceived. You can elect to fit in or stand out. Are you an Oxford comma or an exclamation point? Like it or not, your glasses precede you.
Then there’s the matter of habit. Are you someone who lovingly buffs, polishes and then retires your shades into their proper case? Or do you forget that they’re in your back pocket, sit on them by accident and lose them like umbrellas? Your answer may dictate whether you go designer, high street or just the street vendor route because this can start to add up if you answered yes to the latter.
Nevertheless, it was time to get shady. My first stop was Warby Parker (incidentally a name derived from two characters from a journal of renowned Beat poet, Jack Kerouac). The Washington Street location is a cross between a book and magazine shop, if bookshops had exposed brick walls, concrete floors and reclaimed woodwork—perfect for the literati.
I surveyed the shelves of vintage-inspired options. It’s a poorly kept dirty secret in the industry that spectacle markup is as high as 90%. In 2010, these folks figured out a way to design and sell them in-house, eliminating licensing fees and the need for third-party brick-and-mortar stores, thereby passing the savings back to the customer.
Regardless, it was a daunting task to edit the options down to one, but at least the surroundings were more pleasant than the Sunglass Hut. I finally narrowed it down to a magnificent Quimby pair that boasted oversized rims of absinthe green, rounded charcoal grey lenses and a jaunty keyhole bridge at the nose. These shades had the potential to turn heads.
As I checked them out in the well-milled industrial mirror, I wondered: While this pair achieved the impenetrable and deflecting aura I wanted, did it simultaneously exude desperation? Was I trying too hard?
Suddenly I felt overwhelmed. Disturbed, I fled the scene sans a purchase.
Maybe it was foolish of me to focus on aesthetics alone. In reality, it was for function, and perhaps on this occasion I should consider more enduring brands. One of German Industrial Designer Dieter Ram’s “Ten Principles of Good Design” is: “Good Design is long-lasting.” There are experts in every style, but few virtuosos when it comes to longevity.
Ray-Bans is a perfect example of attainable and long-lasting fashion. They initially partnered up with the United States Army Air Corps who were looking for sunglasses that would protect their airmen from sunray damage; a partnership that birthed a wire-rimmed model called “Aviators”. Fifteen years later, they burst back to the shade scene with “Wayfarers”, which possessed a revolutionary plastic frame and was well received by both the fringe and the well-heeled folk.
Persol is another notable icon in the world of modern design, best known for the shades Steve McQueen donned in “The Thomas Crown Affair”. Persol’s proximity to Fiat, however, was what encouraged optician Giuseppe Ratti to market his unique combination of smoky-tints lenses and rubber rims to Italian speed kings.
Solstice in Soho (sorry, Sunglass Hut) carries both lines. When I walked in, I found myself surrounded by racks and racks of designer sunglasses. Diors series of sub-zero reflective sunnies were particularly striking. In my frazzled state, I briefly considered attaching my destroyed pair together with Super Glue.
The “Steve McQueen”, a horn-rimmed[i] style that also comes in black, is the most famous export of professional explorers (recently seen on Anthony Bourdain). They can fold down via brow and sides and fit nicely into a chest pocket. I marveled at their function but grew depressed knowing that they’d only be used for simple city explorations with me, a fate Senor Ratti did not intend or deserve, considering his efforts.
Turning my attention toward the Ray-Bans, I tried on some Aviators. I realized instantly they were way too severe. Their distinctive cutaway at the nose required an aquiline beak to pull off, and on mine grew comically entertaining, as I was one mustache and a cigar away from being mistaken for Groucho Marx. Their wire frames screamed, “NOTICE ME!” which I wasn’t so sure about. I gravitated toward the Carbon Fibre series instead, which offered more modest options. Yet, I grew disappointed in their broody darkness. No dice.
The Wayfarers angle into the face from the bridge of the eyes, an ergonomic feat that stayed on without sliding toward my nose. The oversize version was less angular than the standard size, whose rectangular frame divided forehead from features. Forget deflecting! My eyebrows were simply unavailable. Audrey Hepburn would disapprove.
Further findings revealed the oversized Wayfarers used in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s “were, in fact, an homage to Ray-Ban designed by Oliver Goldsmith, which they still sell today. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Turns out, they are also equivalent to owning a princely bauble nestled in a box of robin’s egg blue.
Sorry, Don. Guess I’m not the girl for you.
50 Grades of Shady
I went home, 500 pairs of sunglasses later and fatigued. I tried to repair the broken sunglasses, but the left lens and rim were beyond scratched up. After much deliberation, I decided to continue wearing a secondary pair for a little while longer. Yes, they’re white-rimmed with whiskey-colored lenses, a seemingly obvious Aviator knockoff, but at least there’s a flattering nose cutaway.
It’s not a perfect situation, but as any designer will have you know, the appearance of beauty (for the most part) is highly controllable by enhancing certain features through proportions. Regardless of where it’s purchased, a good fit is half the battle when it comes to projecting yourself pleasingly in view of others.
It has been said that if you find somebody to love in this world, you better hang on to them tooth and nail. Since looking good is a full-time job, I reckon in this case it applies to inanimate objects as well.
[i]The term horn-rims are misleading. Originally made from animal horn and tortoiseshell as they’re mostly milled in acetate, better known as plastic, to look like the real thing.