The Sunglass Mafia 

From a Barton Perrira promo film

Silicon Valley insiders often talk about the PayPal mafia — a motley crew that came together at PayPal and then went on to build great companies, big venture firms and continues to wield outsized influence in the technology industry. From much-beloved icons such as Elon Musk to the controversial (and brilliant) Peter Thiel, the list is pretty long. PayPal, however, isn’t unique as a petri dish of innovation and launch pad for future businesses. Let me tell you about one such company that helped create the Sunglass Mafia.

My recent social media bemoaning about my ill-fitting glasses promoted David Barton — founder of David Kind, an online eyewear company — to reach out, urging me to test out his product. I ordered some glasses and have been suitably impressed. David Kind is an upscale, better-quality and less ubiquitous Warby Parker offering glasses that are mostly made in Japan and Italy. I liked what I saw, and decided to have a chat with David, wanting to know more about him and his company.

During our conversation, I learned that David has a degree in business, once lived in San Diego and had been working in the eyewear business for most of his post-college life. He got his start at Spy Optics (which is in the same space as Oakley) and later went to work for Oliver Peoples, a Los Angles-based eyewear brand that was founded in 1987 and whose frames have graced some of the most recognized faces on the planet.

As a brand, Oliver Peoples’ frames and sunglasses are so iconic that the company, which was founded on Sunset Boulevard in the late eighties by Ken Schwartz and Larry Leight, was acquired by Oakley for $47 million in 2006. Oakley itself was acquired by Luxottica of Italy, where Barton worked as a consultant for a few years before chucking it all to launch the David Kind brand. He is far from the first brand to trace its DNA back to Oliver Peoples. Others include:

  • Barton Perreira, co-founded by (designer) Patty Perreira and Bill Barton
  • SALT Optics, co-founded by Taylor Whisenand and David Rose
  • Garrett Leight California Optical, founded by Garrett Leight, son of Oliver Peoples’ co-founder, Larry Leight
  • Mr. Leight, a new brand by Larry and Garrett Leight
  • Buscemi, a luxury sneaker/shoe brand founded by Jon Buscemi, who previously worked for Oliver Peoples
  • David Kind, founded by David Barton

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It is not uncommon to see a perfect storm of talent, market opportunity, and creativity come together, a trifecta that attracts a very special breed of people, from designers to business leaders. In many cases, they all stay at the company for decades — Nike and Apple are two obvious examples that come to mind. In other cases, the entrepreneurial bug leads to new opportunities. The PayPal mafia has to be lauded for its diversity of ideas (but not gender or race). Oliver Peoples is one of those companies, too.

When launching Oliver Peoples, Larry Leight understood the value of fit but knew that to stand out in the market, they had to have a unique design aesthetic. Being based in the United States and being enmeshed with the culture of celebrity in Los Angeles added a degree of cool that attracted a lot of creatives to the company over the years. Some elements of Oliver Peoples DNA that can be seen in the younger brands include:

  • The fit is a design function.
  • The best manufacturing is vital.
  • The importance of great merchandising.
  • What it means to be a discoverable brand with relationships with influential people.
  • Uniqueness of retail experiences and their importance in expanding reach.

With Oliver Peoples as a launch pad, this next generation of eyewear brands is taking advantage of the fact that they are still independent and relatively nimble, while Oliver Peoples is now part of a mega-giant company. “Spin-off brands are doing something similar, but I’d say even better than what OP is currently doing from a design perspective,” Barton said.

There’s just one more thing — the city itself. Bernard Antolin, founder, and editor of AcquireMag, a lifestyle site, is an avid eyewear enthusiast and has some theories about why Oliver Peoples has been so successful. “LA is simply just the perfect place to start an eyewear brand,” he said. “Sun and celebrities. Celebrities have always been the biggest marketing tool for these guys.”

So it should come as no surprise then that we see all these cool new brands framing the faces of the A-list crowd. As for me, I still prefer to keep my brand choices private and not be part of the crowd, no matter how cool.

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