Larry Leight: Man of the peoples

By Harriet Walker

Larry Leight, co-founder of Oliver Peoples eyewear, is reviving the 'intellectual' eyewear of times gone by.

Shirley Mason and Elijah Wood in an Oliver Peoples campaign. Photo / Supplied
Shirley Mason and Elijah Wood in an Oliver Peoples campaign. Photo / Supplied

It is a truth universally acknowledged that wearing glasses makes you look clever and that wearing sunglasses makes you look like a poser. So Larry Leight, co-founder of cult shades label Oliver Peoples, hit on the genius idea of marketing a range of sunglasses that profess to be "intellectual".

"It's American intellectual," he says. "A look; a style of eyewear that doesn't really exist any more, but we focused on an intellectual, unisex, smart and simple-looking frame. Like Manolo Blahnik does heeled shoes or Levi's does jeans, we created something that will be forever known as a retro, intellectual category of eyewear.

"The recession had a lot to do with it," Leight explains. "When we first started in 1986, there had been a rough time on the stock market.

"During times like that, people go back to classics and things they really think are valuable. If you're going to spend money, you want something that will look good and last.

"Our frames are smart-looking, they go with everything, so they've always been bestsellers."

Since its launch in the mid-Eighties, Oliver Peoples has cultivated the sort of quietly cool, nonchalant reputation that every marketer yearns for. Its first store in West Hollywood's Sunset Plaza remains a site of pilgrimage for the fabulous and the fashionable.

"We loved it, that's all we knew," continues Leight. "The first kind of people who came were the ones who hung out up there every day; the writers and directors and producers of movies. Then the producers and stylists and propmasters came in and they were all buying the glasses. Then they would tell a flock of people and more would start coming in. Helmut Newton used to come, Elton John, Barbra Streisand, Sting, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Sharon Stone."

It's quite a roll call and fitting then that the brand achieved near cult status within only a few years of its inception. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Oliver Peoples is relaunching the vintage styles that made the name famous. "The 505, the O'Malley and the 1955," says Larry Leight. "Those were what people knew us most for. These are the styles that defined our brand and these went into the magazines.

"They were originally designed by us not to be 'vintage' but to look how we wanted at that time. It just turns out today they are our vintage, and everybody else copied them."

The conspicuous circular frames reference classic Twenties and Fifties Americana, with their fine metal legs and intricate detailing, and are part of a retro aesthetic picked up recently in the realm of sunglasses, with a general clamour for other relaunched styles such as Ray-Bans Wayfarers and Clubmasters.

"You've probably heard that word a lot - 'vintage'," Leight explains. "But what we have is heritage. The company is 25 years old and these were the first three frames we launched 25 years ago. They've been dormant for 15 years; they were the most famous frames in the mid-Eighties into the early Nineties and then styles moved on and we've always kept a bunch of them in the archive."

The styles are referenced in American Psycho - that paean to yuppie lifestyle - and Christian Bale wears a pair of the O'Malley frames in the film adaptation. "At that time, in the Nineties, for this look - the intellectual look - these were the best in the world. We did all kinds, from Andy Warhol frames, thicker ones, thinner ones, to metal, Lenin-looking ones."

And for summer, Oliver Peoples raises the intellectual bar a little higher, with a specially commissioned limited-edition frame in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the classic film To Kill a Mockingbird.

"Gregory Peck's son is an Oliver Peoples customer," explains Leight, "and he had the original prop from the movie, so we made the exact frame."

Profits from sales of the Peck family frame will go towards a scheme at the Los Angeles Public Library to encourage young people to read the great American classics.

This fairly sums up the motivation behind Oliver Peoples and its distinctive look. It is very much inspired by an affectionate remembrance of America past.

When Leight founded the company, he did so after buying a consignment of vintage frames. "I was an optician," he recalls, "my brother was an optician, my grandfather was - we worked at high-class optical stores, selling lots of glasses. And we started our own shop in 1986 with all these vintage frames."

In his role as buyer, Leight received a call from a merchant who had come by a stash of more than 6000 frames, dating from the Twenties and Thirties. He had been trying to sell them piecemeal with little luck, but Leight offered to take the lot off his hands.

"They were American frames," he continues. "American Optical is an old, old American name that made machinery and eyewear, mostly all metal, some plastics.

"Bausch and Lomb, too. That's the machine age, the Twenties and Thirties were all about USA-made frames. They made the ones the president wore, the ones John Lennon wore; all those metal, rimless-type frames from the Twenties that you see people wearing, the cat-eyes and the rimless ones mostly. They were really intricate frames, 18-carat gold filigree. You know, they were only $5 or $6 then, if you look in the 1935 catalogue. Today they'd go for $700. In fact, you couldn't even make that now - modern machines aren't set up to work that slowly or intricately."

And that consignment of bric-a-brac (one man's treasure, and all that) also gave Oliver Peoples its name. So who is Oliver Peoples?

"We could tell from all these old invoices and catalogues that Oliver Peoples was a person who must have been in the family," he explains, "a distributor maybe. I don't know if it was the name of a company or just the person who owned it. The guy who sold it all to us was like, 'whatever'. Ten years later, he was like, 'wow, look what those guys did with that'."

And from reclaimed specs to new-age high-tech, Oliver Peoples branched out in the following years, creating its own original sunglass and optical ranges. While many brands were managing production in Italy (then the home of eyewear manufacture), Larry Leight and his team took their production process to Japan, to find flexible factories prepared to render their idiosyncratic designs in plastics and Plexiglass.

"They were just making for themselves over there, but the Japanese were on to some pretty hip things, you know? Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto were just coming up."

But where those names are more associated with high fashion, Oliver Peoples deals in modern classics and dependable, wearable styles. "We're a Hollywood brand, of course, and all of our collections are based on old Hollywood glamour and glamorous figures and the reinterpreting of that look," says Larry Leight.

Whether on Gregory Peck, Brad Pitt or, more recently, Rihanna and Katy Perry, Oliver Peoples has a solidity, timelessness and progressive elegance attached to its name. Such is their fashion force, these sunglasses deliver a slice of LA intelligentsia to even the cloudiest summer's day.

* Oliver Peoples glasses are available at Gates Eyewear, 17a Remuera Rd, Newmarket, ph (09) 524 4962.

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