Garrett Leight California Optical may be relatively young—it was founded just last year—but, as the son of an industry heavyweight, Leight has more than his fair share of experience with great sunglasses and frames. We just debuted our first collection from the label on Gilt MAN, so we called out to L.A. to talk inspiration, the brand-building process, and eyewear icons with the man himself.
JP: Let’s talk about you and your background. What was the chronology of launching your own brand? How did it come about?
GL: It started at Oliver Peoples, working with Jon Buscemi [co-founder of Gourmet Shoes] on Moseley Tribes. I knew glasses [Garrett’s father Larry is the President and Design Director of Oliver Peoples] but it was about building a brand and a story about a brand. Building that DNA was really exciting to me.
But I wanted to go with a recipe for success, so I asked if I could open the [Oliver Peoples] Malibu store. My real intention was to see how that worked. I’d also never really worked retail before and I wanted to learn how to be an optician. I wanted to deal with customers and see all the equipment I needed for that.
That’s huge, because if you’re just working in a vacuum, designing or brand building, then you can loose sight of what’s real. A brand can only be as successful as its connection to the public. There are things that you could think are genius, that don’t relate out there.
That’s the beauty about designing a real collection—a designer always has things that they know they want to do, but having that retail experience really grounds you. It just leads to more success. My dad has always been great at that. He has things that are exciting, that are great for press, but then you have the things that are timeless and make sense. Frames that people can come back to, and that sell, really. So that’s what taught me the ropes. And then I quit.
I opened the shop [A. Kinney Court] in Venice Beach and started on the collection. But it took about 18 months to get it right, because I really wanted to make them in China. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The collection is about classic shapes that are perfectly made and value was very important. It’s not like there’s gold all over them, they’re just great frames that will last forever. We sourced materials from all over the world—Italy makes the best plastic, Germany makes the best hinges and Japan makes the best lenses—but they had to be constructed in China to offer the best value.
The designs were based on the customer and iconic people like Arthur Miller and Hunter S. Thompson who flew under the radar. So the designs were done well before we could actually make them. They had been done for two years.
But you had to nail the process because you wanted people who held those glasses for the first time to be like “Oh man, here we go.”
Exactly. And now that the process is nailed and our factory is speaking our language it’s really going to go off. I’m so happy that people have reacted so well to the first season but in my head I’m thinking, “Just wait.”
Who do you really take your cues from? Besides Hunter S. Thompson, who were you thinking about when you did this collection?
Allen Ginsberg is a big one. He’s got amazing style. Bukowski had a rad frame he wore. It was the same one for thirty years but I’m a big fan of it.
Those are all distinctly American, which is interesting. A lot of people look to Italy and Britain for their frame inspiration. When you’re making these glasses, who are you making them for?
I’m making them for people who have their own style and are under the radar. You’re not going to see Brittney Spears wearing my glasses. If you wear Garrett Leight you won’t be wearing the same glasses as J. Lo. It’s for people who have their own style and don’t really give a shit.
What’s your stance on wearing sunglasses indoors?
If you can do it, I’m down with it. I’m cool with it if you can pull it off.
Even in the evening, when it’s dark out?
Oh, yeah I’m not really down with that. If it’s during the day and you’re out running errands and go inside, then that’s fine. But if you’re at a nightclub, that’s no good. You might slip on something.