When Costa sunglasses was purchased by Luxotica and left Daytona Beach, FL, it left a few key employees in the lurch. But they didn’t waste any time getting back into the sunglasses business. Led by ex-Costa VP Al Perkinson, a new team has launched Bajío Sunglasses, a line of shades aimed to fill the void as the only independent premium eyewear brand in the market. With a headquarters and lens lab in New Smyrna Beach, FL, not far from Costa’s old facility, the company keeps its eye on the future as it enters the sunglass space. 

SGB executive spoke with Perkinson for his take on the industry, new brand, launching a company amidst the pandemic, and more.

Who else is with you in the venture from Costa? Most of our senior team worked at Costa, including our heads of sales, e-commerce and operations. And many of our other employees did as well. We decided to move back to New Smyrna to start Bajío because it would create jobs for some of the 300 people who lost their jobs when Luxottica closed Costa. It gives us an incredible pool of talent and experience. The town and the people we’ve hired are very grateful to have us here.

What did you learn at Costa that you’re now taking into Bajio? When I started at Costa, twenty years ago, it was a $7 million Florida sunglass brand—a small player among giants, like Oakley, Ray-Ban and Maui Jim. Over the next 17 years, we took on the giants and did pretty well, growing Costa to $160 million. We were named one of the Top 10 cult brands in North America and became known as a leader in environmental causes. My role during that time was to build the brand, handle communications and drive overall strategy. The biggest thing I learned was how to take a small brand and make it a big one while doing good things for people and our planet.

Did Costa leave a void in the market after they were purchased, and is that what you’re filling? Yes, there is a void, but it’s not just in the fishing community. The top four performance brands are all over 35 years old. They were built for the Boomer generation. Bajío is built for the next generation, and that is the void we’re filling.

What trends do you see in the sunglasses category? There’s been a lot of consolidation in performance eyewear; a couple of giant companies have bought all of the sunglass brands. There’s also been consolidation at retail. With that, we see a decline in innovation and energy in the category.

Has it been hard launching a new business during the pandemic? It’s been interesting. COVID created issues throughout the process. It delayed our fundraising initially, which also shortened our development time because of factory closings and quarantines. And when we finally got products produced, there were shipping challenges. It was hard to find space in containers and on planes. Then, in January, I got COVID, which slowed me down for a bit. On the positive side, the early delay enabled us to have more think time and refine our plans. And now, we believe that the pent-up demand to get out and play will create a boom that we can ride.

How have retailers responded? They’ve been highly responsive and supportive. We’re focusing distribution on specialty retail. They appreciate our philosophy of keeping things simple, treating them with respect and providing high service levels. And making things fun again. After all, it’s fishing.

Speaking of which, you have a large ambassador team of fly fishers, artists, environmentalists, and the like. What are they doing? Our goal is to build a community of people with shared beliefs, and our ambassadors are people we believe embody those beliefs. They’re people who love adventure, connecting with other cultures and helping to protect and renew our oceans. They have different ways of expressing those beliefs. Some like to paint, some make films, some write, some make music. But they all fish. They’re our storytellers who bring others to the party. It’s fun to create a place for all of them and watch their perspectives intertwine.

How high tech is your lens lab? Our technology is sophisticated, but our techniques are old school. We cut our lenses one at a time in our facility in New Smyrna Beach and burnish them by hand. We carefully inspect every frame and pack and ship them individually. We have a small experienced team. It takes longer, but we believe it improves the quality and decreases problems for our retailers and consumers.

Your debut collection features 12 frames and six lens options, allowing consumers to customize. How hard was that to design, and how important is customization? Our lens strategy wasn’t easy to execute. We asked our production partners to create a line of lenses that hadn’t been created before. We wanted a stairstep range of light transmission levels, unique base and mirror colors for each lens and reductions in blue light at a high level. It took some time, but they were able to get it done. We’re proud of what we accomplished, and the feedback we’re getting from our pros is that we succeeded in spades. We now have patents pending on everything that we did. Customization is also important to our customers. They want to make products their own and be co-creators in the process. The ability to pair any frame color with any lens is the first step for us. There’ll be more soon.

You mentioned blue light filtration. What is it? Light is on a spectrum. It looks like a rainbow in the sky. Each color comes through at a specific place on the light spectrum. Our lenses block or reduce certain types of light so that it never reaches your eye. One of those is blue light, which causes haze. When you reduce blue light, you reduce certain health risks, you sleep better and the world looks much more clear.

You’re working toward carbon neutrality. How are you doing that, and why? Carbon is harmful to our oceans, especially our flats and our reefs. Reducing carbon emissions helps the oceans, and so that’s why we do it. Our desire to be carbon neutral is part of an overall goal to operate sustainably. It goes hand-in-hand with using eco-friendly materials, and we have to consider both. If we build something out of recycled paper, for example, but have to burn a lot of fuel to ship it across the world, then we’re negating the benefit. Our goal is to use factories that are green and close to home and use materials that are eco-friendly. It’s hard, and we’re not there yet, but it is an important goal. In the meantime, we’ll be buying off-sets to make up the shortfall.

You’ve also partnered with the Fly Fishing Climate Alliance (FFCA). Why? It is the brainchild of Rick Crawford, owner of Emerger Strategies, a sustainable business consultancy, and the voice and founder of the Sustainable Angler Podcast. His goal is for the fly-fishing industry to become the first carbon-neutral industry. He seems to be off to a good start, and we’re happy to be part of the effort.

Are you all fly fishers? Fly-fishing, especially saltwater fly-fishing, is my and my wife Marguerite’s passion. When we decided to start our company, we wanted it tied to the things we are passionate about. Saltwater fly-fishing was at the top of our list, so we called our company Bajío (Spanish for the flats) and built it around protecting what we love.

Photo courtesy Al Perkinson