Performance eyewear brands are bringing cutting-edge technology and materials to their retro and fashion-forward styles.

Writer: Carly Terwilliger

If you have a face, there’s no easier way to make it look cooler than adding a sweet pair of shades.

But for athletes and outdoor enthusiasts alike, the mother of all laid-back accessories needs to do more than channel their inner Californian. Comfort, durability, lighter weight and the incorporation of innovative materials like cotton or hemp all rank high on the list of must-have capabilities.

“Consumers want to look good, see well and be protected,” said Eric Crane, CEO and creative director at Electric, a sport and lifestyle accessory brand. “I also think that the athleisure trend, which has driven design innovation in activewear, is influencing the eyewear market.” Crane noted that brands like Electric are “releasing fashion-forward styling with performance features” to ensure that customers will come for the aesthetics and stay for the technical upgrades.

Kristine Robinson, senior marketing manager for Under Armour eyewear licensee Eyeking, breaks it down into two basic categories. “From a lens standpoint, improvements in manufacturing tolerance and precision for polycarbonate have led to more consistent clarity and impact performance for high wrap sport,” she explained. “From a frame standpoint, the broadened portfolio of materials that can be mass manufactured has led to exciting designs utilizing carbon fiber, titanium, wood and even graphene.”

From a broader point of view, Zeal Optics Marketing Specialist Nate Hrivnak commented, “the proliferation of technology has allowed for economies of scale, so products can be sourced efficiently, effectively and responsibly while being offered at a more affordable price.” That’s opened the door for smaller brands to take on the big dogs in the category.

“Advances in technology have been both good and bad in sunglass design and manufacturing,” said Crane. “In some ways the technology has allowed for unprecedented quality through the use of more innovative materials and suppliers who are investing in state-of-the-art machinery that has less impact of the environment.” In other ways, though, “through the use of digital 3D scanners and rapid prototype machines, young brands are just copying each other instead of really taking the time to invest in developing a design philosophy that is unique to them.” Although tech innovations are cool and show no sign of retreating, “Experience and individuality will always trump innovation,” commented Crane.

As to the specific tech features being offered, as Crane puts it, with “world class styling, flexible and lightweight mold injection and industry-leading polycarbonate shatter-resistant lenses, there’s no reason why you can’t own one awesome pair of sunglasses that can do it all.”  However, that doesn’t mean every add-on is appropriate for every activity. “Based on end use, different features will resonate more with certain consumers,” said Robinson.

For example, “Overall, there is still a big draw for polarized lenses in the market, but we only recommend polarized for certain activities or sports,” Robinson continued. “In golf, polarized lenses can actually hinder your performance because of the way the lens removes glare, thus flattening surfaces like the fairway.” It’s a cautionary tale about the perils of going in and grabbing the first pair you see without doing your research.

In response to the ever-growing number of eco-conscious consumers, brands are tapping unconventional materials in their manufacturing process. “Instead of digging down for petroleum-based plastics, our frames are created from sustainable agriculturally derived materials,” explained Native Eyewear Marketing Maven Meghann Maurer. “The biodegradable resins originate as the castor bean,” which is “more resilient and durable than those made of petroleum.” Zeal is also taking advantage of alternatives like “cotton, castor bean, hemp and wood pulp” that “provide a solution for innovative design and responsible manufacturing,” said Hrivnak.

Although eyewear brands are skilled at highlighting their products’ cutting-edge features and materials, it’s still important for the shades to visually outshine the competition in a store or on a website. “From a distribution standpoint, the shift in consumer shopping habits has given birth to more web-based, direct-to-consumer business models,” said Robinson. The trick is to predict which styles will catch the attention of these wide-ranging shoppers.

As with almost any article of clothing or accessory, the perfect style depends on who’s looking. “Nostalgia is a powerful emotion and fashion is always changing,” said Hrivnak. “However, the key ingredients involving elements of retro and rustic with current styles that are displayed and marketed properly prove to be a timeless recipe for most.” And Robinson observed that “Many sunglass consumers currently favor classic or retro silhouettes and seek to purchase those products across most channels of distribution, but any brand should be thoughtful about their own identity when deciding their assortments at a channel level.”

Commenting on the elusive blend of fashion-forward and nostalgic, Crane said, “I think that one doesn’t exist without the other. Most modern styles have hints of retro classic cool in them and are guided by a vintage aesthetic. Even the ‘80s are considered retro now, so there really isn’t much out there that isn’t inspired by some form of what has been done in the past.” Going the other direction on the time spectrum, observed Hrivnak, “with the addition of tech-driven sunglasses like Google Glass and Snapchat Spectacles, the intention behind the product shifts from protecting your eyes to sharing an enhanced visual user experience.”

Which brings us to the real reason active people have sunglasses stashed in their packs, cars and gym bags. Every athlete, fitness junky and outdoor enthusiast should own at least one good pair “because sunscreen,” in the pithy words of Hrivnak. “If you love the outdoors as much as we do, you’ll want to protect the window panes to your experiences outside.” In the vivid verbiage of Maurer, sunglasses are the only things standing between you and the “eye-cooking rays” that are the evil side effects of sparkling, sunny weather.

“One should be the bare minimum,” stressed Robinson. “With conditions changing, let alone your activity, there are different lenses and frames that are engineered to enhance your experience, provide the best level of protection and make sure you aren’t ready to rip them off your face when things get tough.”

Lead photo courtesy Zeal Optics, additional photos courtesy Electric, Native and Under Armour