Tiny Sunglass Experts Warn: “I Don’t Think They Can Get Any Smaller”
Why is everyone still wearing sunglasses that barely shield your eyes from the sun?
Photograph by Marc Piasecki for Getty Images.
It began as most cultural movements probably begin: with an email from Kanye West. In a January episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Kim Kardashian, in a pair of small, sleek, rectangular sunglasses, told Jonathan “Food God” Cheban: “[Kanye] sent me like a whole email like, ‘You cannot wear big glasses anymore. It’s all about tiny little glasses.’” (Cheban, of course, was wearing glasses that looked big enough to eat this long bone rib eye.) West even provided a mood board: “He sent me like, millions of 90s photos with tiny little glasses like this,” Kardashian-West said.
West was onto something. Celebrities had been wearing distinctly smaller sunglasses in the last few months of 2017. Prada, Fendi, Balenciaga and others had shown them on the runways, and sunglass brands like Gentle Monster, Roberi and Fraud, Illesteva, and Le Specs were suddenly cult names, with customers shelling out upwards of $200 for minute frames that barely, if at all, shielded their eyes from the sun. Tiny sunglasses were on nearly every major model at the most recent fashion weeks in Paris, New York, London, and Milan. They have appeared on Beyoncé, Rihanna, Selena Gomez, and Millie Bobby Brown, and even received the coveted Double Hadid Endorsement.
“Wearing these smaller silhouettes puts you in a mood that feels very current,” said Vice President of Gentle Monster Taye Yun in an email interview. “Tiny sunglasses have become essential statement pieces that give attitude to any look.”
The frames first appeared in Balenciaga’s Spring 2017 menswear collection in June 2016—compared to some of the more recent frames, these look relatively enormous in retrospect—and a general late-90s athleisure-meets-sci-fi minimalist aesthetic among celebrities has bolstered the trend since. “It’s a natural trend, since the 90s had such a big moment this past season,” said Barneys New York Fashion Director Marina Larroude. Indeed, Kardashian-West said her husband sent her photos from the 90s, not recent streetstyle or runway images. (Tragically, we don’t know what images the email included, but both Julia Roberts in 1999’s Notting Hill in a Chanel beret and oval-harlequin frames, and Kate Moss in Calvin Klein’s mid-to-late-90s sunglass campaign, are Tiny Sunglasses Canon).
But while the 90s are certainly trending, it’s curious that tiny sunglasses have emerged as several mid-aughts brands are also having a fashion revival: Uggs, Juicy Couture, and Paris Hilton herself. In fact, Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia has been a particular proponent of some of the clothing that defined celebrity culture and its mall-bound discontents during the second Bush administration, collaborating with Juicy Couture as well as Crocs. At that period, giant sunglasses were a staple of the celebrity wardrobe—rarely did you see Mary-Kate walking to class at New York University, Kardashian walking two paces behind Paris Hilton, or Lindsay Lohan making history without a pair of huge sunglasses masking their faces.
With that in mind, Yun sees the tiny glasses trend as something beyond our 90s fetish. “I think it can be attributed to this idea of hyper-visibility,” he wrote. “Not everyone wants to be seen, but for those who do, it’s harder to disappear behind a smaller lens.”
In the mid-aughts, celebrity culture was about hiding—celebrities were dodging from the paparazzi, and large sunglasses provided a kind of protection from prying photographers. Sharing personal information with fans and the public was about carefully crafting campaigns to hide and reveal information in magazine stories and statements issued through publicists. Now the nature of celebrity has shifted. The relationship between celebrities and the paparazzi is such a cog in the machinery of fame that those images are styled. Celebrity is less about over-exposure and protection from it, and more about controlling that exposure yourself through social media. Celebrities tend to “speak out” rather than “give statements.” Fame is welcome so long as it’s in the control of the person courting it. “Look at me,” tiny sunglasses say, “but you can only see precisely what I want you to see.”
Like someone US Weekly would have pretended to worry about in 2006, tiny sunglasses seem to be getting tinier and tinier. Where will they go next? “I don’t think they can get any smaller, but we are seeing the trend continue to be strong,” Larroude said. So like someone with a social media presence we could describe as “authentic,” they’ll likely be around for a while. While Yun wouldn’t share specific numbers, he said that Gentle Monster’s “sales rose immediately after the launch” of their first small frame, the Palabra, in 2017, and that most of their tiny styles sell out shortly after their release.
Can we adapt the hemline index to map the nature of fame against sunglass size? If the glasses get bigger, should we fear for our celebrities? If the glasses become smaller, are they more empowered? Yun isn’t sure what the next of “moment” in sunglasses will bring. “We just have to wait and observe as tiny sunglasses surf the current ‘wave,’” he wrote. Cowabunga!