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New Orleans entrepreneur gets serious about sunglasses

Stirling Barrett models his Toulouse frame in two-tone black with Havana tortoise.

Stirling Barrett models his Toulouse frame in two-tone black with Havana tortoise. Photo by Zack Smith.

A year or so ago, local artist and photographer Stirling Barrett decided that New Orleans needed its own line of sunglasses.

It’s not a fashion thing, really. He’s not a Ray Ban kind of guy. Even though his dad remembers him spending his first money, at age 10 or 12, on a pair of mirrored wrap-arounds, “I guarantee you they weren’t cool,” Barrett says with a laugh. “I’ve never been a trendy guy.”

No, Barrett’s new line of Krewe du Optic shades is more about, for one thing, climate.

“On a 100-degree day here, you leave your sunglasses in the car and they melt,” Barrett says. “Our glasses are made of a high-quality Italian acetate; hit ‘em with a blow dryer and you can bend them right back into shape.”

His Zeus CR 39 lenses, anti-glare and fabricated in various color waves, are built New Orleans-summer tough, he adds. “The lens is basically a number of layers, including a UV coating, a color coating and gradient.”

But Krewe sunglasses are also about attitude, says their maker. New Orleans attitude.

“”New Orleans people are accepting of everything; we’re not pretentious,” Barrett explains. “We’re not about trends. We’re individuals – no one here ever looks the same as everybody else. Our customer is anybody who enjoys handmade products, has enough interest to think about eyewear as a personal statement, and is looking for some fun.”

All of the unisex Krewe styles give a nod to their birthplace, with names like “Charles” or “Calliope,” “Toulouse”or “Fly.”  They come in a box bearing a photograph of the 1907 Rex Parade rolling down Canal Street, and all are built around classic stylings, updated with a little 21st-century flair. Like blue tortoiseshell frames, or champagne temples (that’s the arm over the ear) or an old-fashioned round spectacle outfitted with an oversized keyhole (that’s the part over the nose) so that it sits up a little higher on the face.

“Old school to new school,” Barrett explains. “We’re taking classics and matching them with unique finishes to come up with something very New Orleans.”

The New Orleans native and Country Day graduate had been kicking around the idea of designing a sunglass collection for a few years, he says. It’s not like he needed something to do: As a fulltime arts photographer, his painstakingly handcrafted photographic collages have become increasingly popular, winning Best of Show at the 2013 Jazz Fest.

But he had this thing about sunglasses.

“It’s the one thing you can wear everyday that can change your look more than anything else,” he says. A good pair of sunglasses is timeless, he points out, like a Chanel bag. “But you can’t sit a Chanel bag on your nose."

Sunglasses are so much more, well, in your face.

Barrett got serious about his sunglasses line a year or so ago. “I pestered Paul Wilcox, at Art and Eyes on Magazine, for weeks on end. From the beginning, he was instrumental in telling me what I needed, what sells. He was really influential in keeping my confidence up.”

But fledgling entrepreneurship took persistence. First Barrett had to find someone who could turn his scale drawings into three-dimensional computer designs, so he could send them to a manufacturer for prototypes. Then he had to find a manufacturer, a long process of trial and error and endless emails.

“It took awhile to find someone to work with me on high quality but a small scale,” Barrett says.  “I’m an educated risk taker, so this has been difficult.”

He rented office space at Beta, a shared workspace in the CBD, settled on three prototype designs, sank a lot of his photography earnings into merchandise and took the plunge. The Krewe collection made its official debut with a launch party on White Linen Night in early August, and now sells 10 styles online and at various boutiques around Louisiana.

“No other Southern company is doing this,” Barrett says. “There are few U.S. companies that make eyewear, and those that do are mostly in California and New York.”

He also feels the price point is right: At about $125 per pair, Krewe glasses are a quality buy, but not out of reach of the kind of customer who wants to make a fashion statement.

Now that his products have reached the market, he’s busy designing more. Two tear-drop aviator styles are on the way, as are three new color shades for lenses.

Meanwhile, here are his tips for choosing stand-out sunglasses:

  • The bottom of the rims should never hit your cheeks when you’re smiling; it’s unflattering.
  • The glasses should be comfortable on the bridge of your nose.
  • Oversized glasses are on their way out. Beware.
  • Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone; choose something that complements your style.

Most of all, Barrett says, “Wear whatever you choose with confidence, and people will think you’re cool.”

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]