"C’est pas possible." That was the advice given to New Yorker Adelina Wong Ettelson a while back when she tried to purchase a pair of Jackie O sunglasses at a well-respected boutique in Paris.
Some time later and an ocean away, I can relate. Last year 113 million pairs of sunglasses were purchased across the United States. I was not one of those buyers, though not for lack of trying. A native of Miami, I’ve always had a thing for shades, but it’s a love-hate relationship. Love, because who can deny the cool appeal that comes with wearing the right sunglasses? On the flip side, chances are slim that I’ll find frames to fit my Asian facial features. The problems: a lower nose bridge and higher cheekbones than most Caucasians—for whom the majority of sunglasses sold in the United States are designed. Glasses tend to slide down my nose to rest uncomfortably on my cheeks or, as in the case of one Roberto Cavalli pair I tried recently, slip completely off my face to the floor.
Certainly it’s always dangerous to generalize about ethnicity-related matters. But ask around. My own anecdotal queries suggest that this is a topic to which many Asians can relate.
“You push sunglasses up, you walk a little bit and they come down again,” complains Vivienne Tam. “The bottom edge cuts into my cheekbones,” laments New York artist Annamarie Ho. Marketing consultant Susan Shin, meanwhile, has makeup-oriented grievances: “I have to rely on my cheeks to hold [the glasses] up, and my blush gets all messed up. When I blink, my lashes scrape against the plastic and I end up with mascara there.”
Not all gripes are cosmetic. Twinkle designer Wenlan Chia notes that often sunglasses drop so low, “my [line of] vision is one big frame.” Even comedian Margaret Cho has her own expletive-laced rant on the topic, titled “My Skull Is Such,” on her Web site. She writes: “Why can’t I, an Asian American woman, find a decent pair of glasses that will a) fit my face, b) not give me a migraine whenever I put them on, c) not slide down my nose, d) not give me acne in the spots where the kidney-shaped pads are placed on the glasses, as if that would help me keep the glasses on my ‘misshapen’ misadventure of a head...”
While plenty of people will sacrifice fit and even optimum vision for appearance, some women say, “No way.” According to accessories designer Joy Gryson, “Comfort is totally important. Otherwise it’s not worth it.”
China Chow, daughter of the famously bespectacled Mr. Chow, buys into that theory. Before she plunks down the plastic, she auditions the glasses. “I smile very wide to see if they’re going to move; that’s the test,” she explains, adding that the frames most likely to pass are aviators. In fact, that style and other metal variations were oft recommended by those interviewed for this story, including women of Asian descent and eyewear professionals. Cases in point: designer Thuy Diep and accessories designer Sang A Im-Propp, who both swear by their Ray-Bans with adjustable-wire nose pads.
But what if you’re not into wire frames? Years back, Anna Sui longed for the kind of wraparound sunglasses she saw on Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg, “but the fit was never right.” Nowadays, Sui can console herself with her own eyewear collection, even if the styles aren’t specifically targeted toward Asians. “The first thing I wanted to do were cat-eyes,” she explains, “because instead of pressing against your cheek, they swing up the other way.”
Back to my sunglasses woes—I haven’t bought any in years. The last time was as a junior in college, when I had my own wraparound moment with a Gucci pair that hugged my cheeks way too tightly and was soon relegated to a drawer. But now, with summer approaching, I’ve decided it’s time for one more try. I hit up all sorts of sunglasses stores in New York, from Chinatown shops to optician-owned boutiques such as Nakedeye and Selima Optique. I call up various firms—Robert Marc, Charmant, L’Amy, Luxottica, Safilo—and ask for advice. “Get the wire frames with those metal shanks,” every one of them answers off the bat. But I’m a fan of plastics, so I press on. I quickly learn to pay attention to the shape of the glasses. Large temple-to-temple curves often cause discomfort because Asian facial bone structures tend to be flatter; thus straighter frames better follow our contours. Another helpful piece of advice: The smaller the lenses, the less likely they are to hit the cheekbones.
According to an executive at a sunglasses manufacturer, the average consumer tries on four to six pairs when shopping. I’ve blown well past that statistic. At SoHo’s Ilori alone I spend hours donning frame after frame. Around the corner at Selima Optique, owner Selima Salaun pulls out a pair of Thierry Mugler wraparounds. “This is going to be a complete disaster for you,” she predicts in her rapid-fire French accent. She’s right. But all is not lost. She points out the flatter frames in her own line. Some, including best-sellers Ayumi and Miho, are named after long-standing Japanese clients.
Salaun sends me to her friend Toshiyuki Hamaguchi, president of the nearby eyewear store Facial Index New York. There, Hamaguchi tells me he offers sunglasses in two versions: for “lower bridges” and otherwise. He clues me in on key differences. In addition to a smaller curvature, European bridges on glasses usually range from 20 to 22 millimeters wide, while those on his Japanese frames are 16 to 18. “And it’s all about angles,” Hamaguchi adds, explaining that the tilt of the frame matters, as does the angle of the side arms, relative to my ears. He brings out a boxful of tiny plastic nose pads and shows me how he can add them to an acetate frame to create a perfectly fitting nonwire pair. (Nakedeye and Selima also offer this service.)
Back at home, I do some research online and find an Oxford University graduate with degrees in anthropology and psychology who recently launched an eponymous sunglasses line tailored to the Asian customer. “It came out of my own frustrations of bad fit,” says Fei Wang, a native of China now living in London. “I thought, I’m going to do this myself.”
Turns out she’s got the right idea, as a number of eyewear giants already sell different fits for their markets in Asia. They are decreasing the frames’ curvatures, beefing up the molded nose pads or narrowing the bridge sizes.
Good news, right? Sort of. Though most of these styles aren’t readily available in the U.S., some firms do provide options in markets where the Asian population is high. Oliver Peoples, for example, carries a large selection of Asian-fit glasses at its South Coast Plaza boutique in Costa Mesa, California, and a smaller smattering at its Madison Avenue outpost in New York. Some large manufacturing companies, however, are only making Asian fits for their labels with high brand recognition among Stateside Asian consumers. For Safilo, that’s Gucci, Dior, Giorgio Armani and Yves Saint Laurent.
But there’s another reason consumers aren’t more aware of these specialized frames: Marketing such a fit is a delicate matter. “You’re targeting an audience here,” says Safilo’s vice president of product design and development, Timm Parker. “The last thing we would want to do is offend them. We’ve debated this internally a thousand different ways. I mean, what’s the right word? Asian fit? Custom fit? Special fit? Alternate bridge? We haven’t come across something everyone feels comfortable with.” It goes without saying that Safilo has yet to advertise the category.
Oakley does market its particular styles as “Asian Fit” on its Web site and explains the various differences between those constructions and its non-Asian types. But the decision to go with the Asian-fit name hasn’t been without controversy. According to Wade Cleveland, the firm’s eyewear business unit manager, Oakley has received several complaints about the moniker, primarily via customer letters. “A long time ago we tried to use the term ‘alternative fit,’ and that turned out to be worse,” he says.
Marketing strategies aside, perhaps more manufacturers should take up the notion of sizing. Marchon, for one, provides millimeter measurements of its sunglasses’ bridges, lenses and temples. But if they do, it will be largely up to the person behind the counter to steer a shopper toward the right frame. Thus, sales training is key, a sentiment echoed by one exec after another. It’s a lesson I learn on my own, while on the major-store circuit. At one spot, two associates are utterly lovely, but their sales strategy quickly devolves into having me try on as many glasses as possible to see which will work—a disheartening affair by the end. At another, a salesperson who is far too overworked leaves me largely to my own devices after an initial push toward a pair with metal nose pads. And at a third, a young woman ushers me to sunglasses by Derek Lam because “he’s Asian American,” then to Oliver Peoples because they’re “made in Japan.”
This is an issue that resonates far beyond the sunglasses industry. In April 2006 Hong Kong Polytechnic University launched a roughly $800,000 initiative that scanned the heads of 2,000 people across China. Size China, as the database is called, has already been approached by the World Health Organization to work on special face masks for SARS and avian flu. Other possible products, reports Size China, include helmets, headphones and head-mounted microsurgery tools.
So why should fashion, usually at the forefront of what’s next, come so late to the game? “We’re getting to a junction where we need to figure out how to call attention to this,” says Safilo’s Parker, “so the consumer can come into the store and find [a fit] without looking for a needle in a haystack.”
Armed with my research from this story—and seven years after retiring that failed wraparound style—I buy my first pair of sunglasses. Actually, make that pairs: one chic plastic style from Chloè that has a fairly flat frame (a very important feature, I’ve learned by now) and another from Oliver Peoples with adjustable-wire nose pads. Finally, it seems, shady days are here again.