How to shop for…sunglasses

(and not lose them when you get them)

Alex English
Aug 6, 2019 · 7 min read

Sunglasses are like anything we attach to our body — a wearable art form and an extension of ourselves — so we should all take a bit more pains to find ones that really complement our personal style and frame our face…such that the check-out clerk at the supermarket comments on them and year after year and in picture after picture, they don’t grow boring.

When the time comes to buy new ones, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Where to go

Online? The mall? Warby Parker? The eyewear industry is in flux just like every other, so there are traditional avenues, new options, and paths on the periphery in order to procure a set of sunglasses.

First: the disruptor. Warby Parker set out to change how we buy eyewear, and it has largely succeeded. Its frames are all about $100 and can be tried on at-home free of charge or at one of its shops. The brand has made elegant, trendy eyewear accessible.

However, all of the frames are made in China, and while the designs are current, they come in colors and patterns that are generally safe, mainstream, and applicable to the masses.

I appreciate what Warby is doing, and it’s a great option if you tend to lose things and don’t want to invest too much in your sunglasses. But it’s not the place if you want to look unique or find high quality.

Next: the specialty chains (like Sunglass Hut, Solstice, Ilori). All owned by big corporations (like Luxottica), that also produce many of the designer sunglasses through licensing agreements. Again, not a terrible option, but generally overpriced and shop helpers are non-expert, unlikely to give honest feedback about how you look in those Tom Ford shield frames (just…no).

The local optician/boutique: these tend to be my favorite, as they stock more interesting, niche, and ultra high-quality brands you’ve probably never heard of. The best eyewear comes from Japan, France, Germany, and Italy (though much of the commercial stuff is also made in Italy), and it isn’t cheap. But it’ll also last longer, comes with a more robust warranty, and can be repaired, reconditioned, or adjusted in perpetuity.

Bigger cities tend to have more options for these kinds of stores, but even smaller towns like Tulsa, Oklahoma have a worldly selection at shops like Black Optical.

As for the means of procurement on the periphery…there are sites like Otticanet, that sell direct-from-the-manufacturer, so their prices are better. The only catch is, shipping takes a few weeks, since I would bet they only place their order with the brand when they receive the customer’s order. I’ve used their site twice (well three times if you count one return), and it’s worked seamlessly.

And then for you San Francisco folks, there’s also Optical Underground, a sort of outlet for deadstock, past-season eyewear (though more optical than sun) from the best of France, Japan, etc., even sometimes with the odd Tom Ford or Chanel selection. Their website is under renovation, but if you’re local, it’s worth a browse because the prices are really fantastic.

The right shape and size

Here are my rules of thumb when it comes to eyewear: you can pull off nearly any shape or size you want, if it meets one or more of these conditions…

  • Your eyebrows should be just visible above the top edge of the frames (unless they are purposefully oversized).
  • The sides of the frames should be more or less in-line with the sides of your face. In other words, the width of the frames shouldn’t grossly overshoot the width of your face. I have a narrower face, so I tend toward overall smaller frames.
  • Your eyeballs should fall somewhere around the middle or upper-middle area of the lens itself, not lower-middle.

Ever wonder what the numbers printed on the inside of a pair of frames mean? He Spoke Style has a good explanation. In general, I have found that a 50mm lens width is about as large as I can go without looking silly. The current pair that I wear have 47mm wide lenses, 23mm between the lenses (the room in the middle for your nose), and have a temple arm length of 150mm.


Here’s where it gets fun (and highly subjective). After you’ve committed to a ballpark budget, a general sense of size and maybe brand, you can get really crazy with designs.

The current pair that I rotate, with two different colors of the same frame shape, is the Oliver Peoples Gregory Peck frame for Alain Mikli, using the latter’s iconic vintage glass treatments. One is the Palmier Rouge (a charcoal, gray, and red sort of tiger stripe) and the other is Palmier Soleil (the same except in charcoal, gray, and yellow). I was tired of plain browns, faux-tortoise, and far too trendy clear plastic. This collaboration was perfect for me, so I bought two.

Me in Oliver Peoples x Alain Mikli Gregory Peck, Palmier Soleil

Of course, you’ll want to weigh things like: will this be your only pair of sunglasses for the foreseeable future, or is it one of many that you swap regularly? What colors complement your skin, hair, and eye tones? I have medium-light skin with areas that flush easily, dark brown hair, and blue-green eyes, so browns look better on me than black, which can be very severe.

I also have a preference for acetate (plastic) over metal eyewear, but both are equally dashing in general. Another thing to consider: if there’s metal trim, do you prefer silver, gold, or something like a matte black or gunmetal?

Some brands that I think are pretty great:

  • Oliver Peoples — along with decent quality and a distinct retro SoCal elegance, the brand collaborates with other hip brands and designers like The Row, Berluti, and Byredo. They’re available pretty widely, as well as at OP’s own shops (there’s one in downtown SF where they’ll clean and tighten your frames for free!).
  • Eyevan 7285 — Japanese, niche, gorgeous acetate treatments in tortoise and other designs. I found a pair of these at a resale shop in Milan for €30 and loved them hard until I lost them :(
  • Matsuda — all about the intricate Japanese metalwork.
  • Jacques Marie Mage — another LA-centric brand with a throwback (but thoroughly current) vibe. The frames tend to be on the heavy side, but I like the varied treatments and glitzy metals. Check this recent GQ article about JMM.
  • Mykita — for something more slight and precise, and Euro cool. Does collabs with Maison Margiela and Damir Doma.

Additionally, you may want to consider what all you plan to do in your sunglasses. If you’re more of the active, outdoors type, then a sturdier (while still stylish) pair might be best.

  • District Vision makes a stylish, high quality but also ready-for-action frame in a number of shapes and colors. Find them online or at Outdoor Voices stores.

There are many many more options than I’ve listed here, and it comes down to personal preference on price, design, and function. There are also plenty of fashion brands that make decent eyewear. Thom Browne’s is very high-quality, made in Japan. Prada, Céline, Versace, and Gucci all make fun things from time to time too.

How to keep track of your nice sunglasses

The thing I often hear repeated is “I don’t buy nice glasses because I lose them all the time!” Do you also lose your keys, your wallet, and your phone all the time too? Glasses should be no different.

Ways to remember your glasses: when they’re not on your face, hang them on the front of your shirt, with one temple arm down the inside of the placket. This works best for buttoned or v-neck shirts, but also works for crew-neck t-shirts, though it can warp the shape of the neckline, make it saggy.

Otherwise, carry the case around with you (in your satchel or gym bag), and as soon as they leave your face, pop them in their case. I do this if I transition from day to night without going home to change outfits. It’s an extra thing to carry around, but if it means not losing your favorite shades…

I also make a point, wherever I go, to mentally and spatially check for my wallet, my keys, my phone, and my glasses. Carrying a bag makes this checklist easier, but I also like to wear jackets with pockets to stash these things.

You have a lot of choices when it comes to buying sunglasses, so it’s important to set some parameters, have an awareness of the retail landscape, and make purchases you’ll be happy with for a long time. But most of all, make sure you have fun during the process and with the frames you choose!

Alex English

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Writer, thinker, aesthete. Website:

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