Resurrecting the iconic styles of Bond, Bullitt and bygone explorers.

By Jahla Seppenan

For sunglass entrepreneurs Michael Charley and Tom Stewart, the journey to building their radical-styled Sunski glasses started in … kitchenware?

Michael and Tom were really trying to make a business out of being outdoors. They wracked their noggins for every potential business — “Use your chip and dip set outside in the sun!” Obviously most of their concepts didn’t make it past the “aha! moment”, but as the duo told SGB, “we’re scrappy, resourceful and pretty determined to succeed at whatever we put our minds to.”

And that’s exactly what they did. Sunski lift off in May of 2012, attracting wearers with its pop coloring and durable manufacturing. Since that time, the brand has made it through the trenches of Venture Out at Outdoor Retailer, to hold a solid, standalone place in the outdoor ranks, redefining itself and its designs as the trend-maker for cool eyewear — Steve McQueen cool.

We sat down with Michael Charley to pick his brain about upcoming trends, category competition and where to spend marketing dollars. We also held an epic face-off, pitting legendary icons and their timeless shades to a duel.

What trends will dominate sunglasses this year and going into next? Mirrored lenses are still very much in. We’re also seeing more and more low-cost sunglass brands entering the market, and most are offering complete warranty policies (lifetime) similar to the type we pioneered. And within that affordable sunglasses market, the wayfarer silhouette is still king.

Have buying patterns taken any sharp turns? Our customers are getting more daring with the styles they wear. People are first drawn to the style of Sunski because the bright and fun colors really let the product (and the people) stand out. It’s been that way since the beginning. But we take great care in thoughtfully designing on-trend and fashion-forward silhouettes, and our customers that normally wouldn’t wear such cutting-edge styles are adopting it in droves because the fun image of Sunski screams “yes, you can wear this!” 

How can a smaller sunglass brand take on mammoths like Luxottica? We simply don’t. A company like Luxottica has built their bed in the expensive sunglasses market. We are able to outcompete on price, quality, style — really every metric except marketing dollars. The younger demographic also prioritizes authenticity behind the brands they wear, and a monolithic company that licenses and subcontract-manufactures a bunch of other brand’s sunglass styles just can’t compete there. All the smaller “value” brands are not really competing against each other; most of the gains in the industry in this price point is territory taken from the old established vanguard.

Where is Sunski spending its marketing dollars? Nowhere. Our entire business is driven by word of mouth. Provide a good quality product at a good price that people want to talk about, and the sales make themselves.

How does Sunski retain its best millennial employees, when the trend is to jump around jobs? We offer what other companies can’t — specifically the best work/life balance you could ever imagine. Tom and I started this business so that we could play on nature’s schedule. We extend that benefit to our entire Sunski family. Once you get into the habit of surfing when the waves are good and skiing every powder day, you realize it would take a lot of money and catered lunches to outweigh that benefit.

What’s the worst material to make sunglasses from? For frames, the worst material is probably wood. Every material has pros and cons, but wood in particular has a lot of downsides. It’s heavy, rigid, difficult to clean and has a poor strength to weight ratio … even though it’s very beautiful. The next step up is cellulose acetate, which has very nice aesthetic properties but has almost no intrinsic structural rigidity and therefore requires additional metal support (and weight). Metal is pretty good for strength and weight, except once it warps or bends it is difficult to get the fit to return to how it was. We believe the best material is still good-old polycarbonate plastic. It was hailed as a miracle material in the 50s and that distinction still remains: light, flexible, extremely durable and comfortable and has a wide range of color applications. The major downside is the environmental harm caused by something that never breaks down or degrades; which we mitigate with Sunski’s unlimited warranty repair policy which keeps our glasses on heads rather than in landfills.

For lenses — that’s a whole other ballpark.  We’ve been working with industry experts for years to continue to develop cutting-edge substrate and coating technology. But this is all our trade secret. 

One of your new 2016 styles is almost a throwback to the Steve McQueen Persols. How does pop culture play in your designing process? Fashion is a circular vortex of iteration on the style of particular time periods. Everything comes back again. Well, most everything. We like to take our inspiration from cultural icons that share our own values for style and adventure: Bond, Bullitt, bygone explorers. We find style and attitude that resonates on a deep, soulful level, then use it as inspiration to create silhouettes that have never been seen before.

Sunski Dipseas in Emerald Tortoise

Sunski Dipseas in Emerald Tortoise

Time for an iconic sunglasses face-off! 

Johnny Depp’s aviators in Fear and Loathing vs. Keanu’s sporty Matrix shades? Definitely have to go with Mr. Depp’s style on this one. Laid-back, hazy, sunny, fun days versus post-apocalyptic human farming? I’d take the ticket to Vegas any day.

Blues Brother’s classic Ray Bans vs. Lolita’s flirty heart-shaped frames? Tom leads a funk band that frequently performs in all-black Sunskis. It would be sacrilegious to side against them. Blues Brothers, final answer.

John Lennon’s vintage round sunnies vs. Kurt Cobain’s alien-eye colored glasses? I don’t think I can take a side here: Iconic styles of iconoclasts whose creative careers were tragically cut short — I don’t even think I’m qualified to have an opinion on such weighty matters!

Sunski the major motion picture. Who would play you and Tom? Paul Newman and Robert Redford. We already figured this one out a long time ago.

— SunSki Co-founders Tom Stewart (left) and Michael Charley (right) on a hike outside San Francisco in early March 2016