Game Changers is Highsnobiety’s retrospective series highlighting the moments that changed fashion forever. From era-defining store interiors to Nike sneaker boxes and runway looks by Helmut Lang, Game Changers celebrates the things that we still reference to this day.
They say the eyes are the window to the soul. If that holds true, then you have to wonder what eyewear can tell you. What can a pair of sunglasses say about a person, and about the world at large?
At first glance, eyewear may seem ephemeral. A product of necessity, rather than desire; of function, rather than form — more a piece of equipment than a statement accessory, or even a luxury.
While sunglasses may have first been developed as — wait for it — a way to shield precious corneas from the glare of the sun, it’s fair to say that they’ve come a long way since the 12th century. Over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, in fact, sunglasses haven’t only changed as objects — in terms of design, of audience, and even in terms of purpose — but have also affected change: making waves in popular culture and even creating shifts in the fashion industry at large.
And so, we’ve comprised a list of the ultimate eleven pairs of sunglasses — clipped from who knows how many — that not only made a distinct impression at the time, but most of which continue to be tiny cultural totems today.
André Courrèges, Eskimo Glasses
In fashion, as with pretty much everything else, people often enter into things with good intentions and with absolutely no idea of the enduring legacy of their actions. So it goes with André Courrèges, the late French fashion designer who launched his own fashion house after 10 years working under Cristóbal Balenciaga, and single handedly revolutionized how women expressed themselves through clothing, moving away from the ingenue archetype that defined fashion in the years prior.
His legacy has stuck: striking-yet-playful crops and cut-out silhouettes, nods to futurism and to modernism are all regular tropes in fashion today.
Equally enduring, but perhaps less positively so, is the knock-on effect of Courrèges’ iconic 1964 “Eskimo” glasses. An undoubtedly arresting pair of shades, the glasses were modeled on potentially millennia-old Inuit snow goggles. Except, of course, they weren’t intended for the snow
So, while it’s true that we may never have had such resoundingly impractical silhouettes as shutter shades — more on those in just a second — without the popularization of these glasses by Courrèges, it’s also probably true that they were something of a gateway drug: an opening of the door for fashion to beg, borrow, and steal from various cultures and to trade in ideas of exoticism and orientalism. Or, as we more commonly think about it today, cultural appropriation.
Christian Roth 00050
Better known as “Kurt Cobain’s sunglasses,” these are the frames that came to both define and destroy an entire aesthetic.
With plaid shirts, ripped jeans, and tattered knitwear as the uniform du jour, the popularity of Nirvana in the late ’80s and early ’90s pushed grunge style into the mainstream. With the CR00050s, Cobain effectively tore down preconceptions that alternative dress codes meant sullen clothes. By the time of what would, tragically, end up being Kurt’s final photoshoot (captured by Jesse Frohman), those tropes had been trashed completely: decked out in a fluffy, leopard-print jacket and his go-to glasses, Cobain’s personal style had shifted from introverted to damn-right ostentatious, carrying the tide of fashion along with it.
These days, the original CR00050 has officially been discontinued. But its impact lives on: first in the Opening Ceremony re-release from 2010, followed some three decades later by Ambush’s namesake “Kurt” frames. Much like Cobain’s legacy, they’re not going anywhere.
Worn by The Notorious B.I.G. in his video for 1994’s “One More Chance,” these sunglasses are the epitome of Biggie’s devotion to vintage Medusa. They’re an iconic pair of shades, made even more iconic by their association with the Brooklyn legend and one of his best-loved tracks.
Moreover, they were one of the earliest signs of hip-hop’s adoption of luxury in pop culture, and set a precedent for the full-on rapperization of fashion, which still dominates the industry today.
David Beckham for Police
In putting this list together, one colleague called these glasses “Pure Y2K Porn,” and I haven’t really been able to think of them any differently since. The only thing more ingrained in the fabric of the early 2000s than Police sunglasses themselves is the vision of a mid-20s David Beckham, freshly shorn of his youthful curtains and butter-wouldn’t-melt look, decked out in a pair of Police sunglasses.
This isn’t so much about one type of lens, but about the foregrounding of a certain aesthetic that had been happily living on the fringes of style for some time: if you looked hard enough, you could see it coming — draped across Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden, back in 1999, and on his face in those Oliver Peoples 523s.
But, once Police and Beckham were driving, there was no time to get out of its way. This collaboration marked a whole new era for fashion: ostentatious tailoring, bleached hair, brightly-colored leather, and wide-open shirts. A kind of leopard-print maximalism that came to define an era. Which, were it not for the unstoppable force of 00s David Beckham colliding with Police’s surprisingly enduring brand, we might have never had at all.
Chloé Swarovski Crystal Heart Sunglasses
An emblem of the early 2000s, Paris-based fashion house Chloé made a game-changing entry into eyewear with its Swarovski rhinestone heart sunglasses; the twin flame to David Beckham’s ostentatious, overtly masculine sense of style.
Proof that it was, at once, possible to be both understated and tacky at the same time, these glasses came to define the style of a generation. Essentially a work of high fashion, the drip-down effect of these glasses not only put copy-cat shades into low price, mass-market stores like Claire’s Accessories and Target, but opened the door to hordes of young women, cavalierly applying stick-on crystals to more or less anything they could get their hands on — from bandannas to their own bodies.
When Trinidadian sprinter Ato Boldon took to the track at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, onlookers were stunned. Not so much by his speed (though he did come second for the 200m that year), but by his choice of headgear. And “headgear” really is the operative word here.
Sporting a pair of Oakley “OVERTHETOP” goggles, Ato effectively dragged sport glasses, kicking and screaming, down from the mountains and into the mainstream, at a time when overhead goggles were a completely foreign concept to most people. Found occasionally in gaudy science-fiction movies, but almost never seen in reality.
By 2018 — after Oakley’s own second-coming, featuring collaborations with Palace and A-COLD-WALL* — fashion picked up where the sportswear brand left off, with archive accounts returning to the OVERTHETOP, and name-brand labels picking up the trend some 19 years later.
For Spring/Summer 2019, the likes of Prada, Kenzo, and CMMN SWDN took up the mantle to ensure that sport shades, once again, would replace Matrix specs as the new dominant aesthetic.
Andy Wolf Ojala Glasses
“You cannot wear big glasses anymore. It’s all about tiny glasses.” Supposedly sent by Kanye West to Kim Kardashian back in early 2018, this is an email for the ages (if ever there were to be such a thing). Apparently accompanied by “millions of ’90s photos with tiny little glasses,” this officially marked the end of the reign of big, bold frames. At least temporarily.
Long before Kanye’s now-infamous prophecy, Austrian label Andy Wolf’s “Ojala” glasses had already begun to disrupt the big frame supremacy.
Worn by Rihanna at Cannes in Spring 2017, the miniature white-framed glasses instantly began sending ripples through fashion, pushing the micro-shades trend into the mainstream and officially beginning — for better or for worse — the renaissance of a Matrix-inspired style that had long been abandoned to 4Chan, now in the capable hands of brands with real sway and real cultural capital, like COMME des GARÇONS.
Oh, look: it’s Kanye again. But this time he’s not just raising eyebrows by telegraphing instructions to his then wife, he’s setting a trend for himself. Or, at least, resetting one.
Back in 2007, when Ye released “Stronger” alongside now-retired French sonic automatons Daft Punk, he also introduced shutter shades to the world. Rehashing a style first invented in the 1950s and which first became a notable trend in the 1980s, the custom-made Alain Mikli shades caught the attention of hip-hop fans, nu-rave kids, and those well beyond.
Naturally, the glasses had like-for-like copycats. From Hot Topic to pretty much every other mass-market and high-volume fashion business, the non-glass-glasses found their way onto the faces of 2000s uber-celebrities including Paris Hilton, Jack Black, and, some years later, even Barack Obama.
Thanks to Mikli — and, of course, Mr. West — we live in a world where utility isn’t just second to aesthetic, it can be easily relegated to the bottom of any designer’s concerns. Without “Stronger,” who knows if we’d have been treated to the style abominations that are Jeremy Scott’s “Hand Sunglasses” for Linda Farrow Projects, Mykita’s selection of blinded shades, or Marine Serre x Rudy Project’s sleek, half-moon printed lenses.
HOOD BY AIR x GENTLE MONSTER
Released in 2016 in collaboration with South Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster, Shayne Oliver’s HOOD BY AIR label didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel with these sunglasses. But it did make us reconsider just what, exactly, even constitutes a wheel in the first place.
A playful, futuristic take on shades that borrows from science-fiction, steam-punk, and the films of John Carpenter, the sunglasses were as much an examination of how far one can push the limits of a pair of shades.
The “Jacuzzi,” “Hirakish,” and “Marz” have been grandly described as the accessory of an “intergalactic metal welder” and a shared “vision of the future” between the two brands. Beyond that, they represent the arrival of a whole new wave of fashion — a kind of Berghain-light; Neue Deutsche Härte meets New York City club kids.
It’s also fair to say that they paved the way for Shayne Oliver to become Helmut Lang’s designer-in-residence, further pushing that aesthetic into the mainstream through one of fashion’s most esteemed and most adventurous labels that’s thankfully making a comeback.
First unveiled in 2010, the Prada Baroque sunglasses effectively fused the tacky excess of the late 2000s with the more subtle, down-tempo, minimalist aesthetic beginning to emerge and encapsulated by the likes of Raf Simons at Jil Sander during his later years with the brand. They’re the shades that straddle two worlds, standing with a foot in both but belonging to neither.
The sunglasses helped facilitate a shift with little-to-no bloodshed; the baroque detail — found in its curlicued arms and oversized round lenses — meeting seamlessly with monotone coloration and low-key, single-material construction to create a fusion of past, present, and future, all at once.
In many ways only really made possible by Biggie’s love of Versace, Pharrell’s 2004 collaboration with Louis Vuitton, the “Millionaire” sunglasses, represents an even bigger sea change for the luxury fashion industry.
Designed alongside NIGO of BAPE fame, the glasses — originally designed in black and gold, a subtle but fitting tribute to Medusa & Co. — are a symbol of the luxury industry, after decades of resistance and deeply-ingrained snobbery, finally embracing hip-hop and Black artistry in return. Not just as culturally influential, but, thanks to forward-thinking, streetwear, and popular culture obsessive Marc Jacobs, as a worthy collaborator.
As a moment of systemic change, the effect really can’t be overstated and, as a silhouette, their legacy is still very much on the minds of designers working today.
As recently as 2018, Virgil Abloh — now at the helm of Louis Vuitton men’s, an appointment which arguably couldn’t have even happened without the “Millionaire” — reimagined the sunglasses for a new audience in Spring/Summer 2019. It’s proof, if you need it, that sunglasses are far from ephemeral. They’re not only an essential part of contemporary fashion’s vocabulary, but cultural touchstones imbued with time and place: reflecting watershed moments and key events in our shared histories, even when they don’t have any actual glass to do the reflecting.