EYE HEAR MUSIC
Larry Sands on creating music for the eye
By Gloria Nicola
e was grinding lenses at 15, doing refractions at 16 and had a chain of five optical stores by the time he was in his early 20s. Although he left the optical world in his mid-20s to start a rock band, Larry Sands returned to eyewear and has remained a stronghold for more than 30 years. Founder and CEO of the 14-store Optical Shop of Aspen retail operation, the country’s largest multi-state, high-end chain, and of the Optical Shop of Aspen International wholesale business, Sands has been instrumental in defining luxury eyewear and establishing eyewear as a lifestyle accessory.
Born in southern Missouri, Sands got his start in optical at an early age. While still in high school he took a course titled “Diversified Occupations” and worked in a local optical lab in Farmington, Mo. Although he says his interest in the course was enhanced by the fact that working in the lab allowed him to get out of school at noon, he admits he did learn a lot about the technical side of the business. After high school, he attended the University of Missouri where he majored in his first love: music. “I thought about going into music professionally, but I didn’t think there was much money in it,” Sands says. So upon leaving college he worked in an optical shop in Kansas City. “That widened my eyes about the potential in this business,” he comments. He then went on to open five optical stores—all in southern Missouri—by the time he was 23.
At 25, he sold the chain to stake out his place in rock ’n roll, forming a group called Bartok’s Mountain. He sang, played the guitar, wrote music and toured with the group, sharing bills with such rock illuminaries as Led Zeppelin, Vanilla Fudge and The Flying Burrito Brothers. “After about seven years, I felt that chapter in my life was over. I had done what I wanted to do. And optical was drawing me back,” Sands notes.
The eyewear business, Sands feels, is similar to music in many ways. “There’s enormous potential to be creative in both fields. I wanted to write a brand new song for optical,” he explains. The early ’70s felt like the right time to him. “There were lots of possibilities to do something different. Take something as simple as window displays. They were frowned upon at that time. People believed eye doctors should have an upstairs ‘professional’ office. Merchandising was considered a conflict of interest—like a medical doctor owning a drugstore,” Sands continues.
So, in 1970, Sands opened a boutique in Kansas City, Mo., called The Optical Shop. He followed with a couple more stores in the area. “I was trying to do something really different,” he says. “I was customizing lenses, custom-coloring frames and selling a lot of John Lennon-like metal-rim frames. But I didn’t feel I was reaching the fashion-conscious clientele I was looking for.”
So he went on vacation to Aspen to think about what he wanted to do with his life. “And, of course, since I was in the business the first thing I did was open the Yellow Pages and look for optical shops. There were none,” Sands notes.
At that time, Aspen was just a small ski resort, but it was beginning to attract international tourism. Although Sands was told no one bought glasses on vacation, he went against the grain and opened the Optical Shop of Aspen in a 300-square-foot space. “We became known almost over night. The store was different for the mid-70s. It had a living-room style environment. The timing was right for what was happening in Aspen and in the eyewear business,” Sands says. The Aspen shop is still there—in its third location—and now occupies 1,200 square feet.
While living in Aspen, Sands went on vacation again, this time to Scottsdale, Ariz., where he heard about a new type of shopping center in the making—the Borgata, a replica of an Italian village. The Optical Shop of Aspen opened in the Scottsdale shopping center in 1982, breaking another rule. “Harvard Business School teaches never to take the name of one city into another,” he says. “I’m glad we went against Harvard on that. Aspen has a special allure and evokes a mood and sense of style.”
|Larry Sands, at the Melrose store in Los Angeles, styles James Gandolfini for his role as Tony Soprano in HBO’s “The Sopranos.”|
He has continued to use the name with great success, expanding into other upscale tourist markets, including Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, Santa Monica and Newport Beach, all in California, as well as Kansas City, Phoenix and Santa Fe. Each shop takes a boutique approach and is designed to reflect the ambiance of its setting, mixing an eclectic array of materials from slate and concrete to granite and recycled brick. The result is a distinctive, inviting environment. “Each store has its own feel, its own distinctive attitude,” Sands explains. The Melrose location in Los Angeles, for example, features a hand-painted ceiling, slate floor with diamonds of green granite and blend of one-of–a-kind antique rosewood pieces, wrought-iron tables and chairs. There is also etched glass detailing in the windows and interior panels. The Newport Beach shop in exclusive Fashion Island Mall is a multi-level shop with a cappuccino bar, etched glass and custom lighting fixtures.
Although the business has evolved enormously since that first shop in Aspen, Sands has always remained true to his original philosophy: “You can’t be all things to all people. You have to target your customers and go straight for them,” he says. “Too many optical retailers try to carry the whole spectrum of product from low-end to what they consider high-end because they might lose a customer. No other business works that way. There’s a great divide between a $100 frame and a $1,000 frame, just as there’s a great difference between the customer who spends $100 and the one who spends a $1,000 for a pair of glasses. To try to be all things to all people is like having a store with Nieman-Marcus in one corner and Wal-Mart in the other,” he notes.
|Rich woods and frosted and etched glass provide a dramatic setting for the Optical Shop of Aspen’s Newport Beach (Calif.) location.|
Underlying factors in Sands’ philosophy are the necessity of understanding fashion and luxury. “Fashion, to me, is lifestyle. It’s reflected in everything we do—what we wear, where we live, what we drive. And luxury is a unique, timeless feeling in design that gives us a lifestyle focus,” Sands explains. “People say to me. ‘Teach me about fashion.’ I can’t do that. I always use the example of Frank Sinatra. He never took a singing lesson. He just sang. Fashion is similar to music in that way. It’s a matter of sense and feel. You either have it or you don’t. What I can do, though, is teach people with a fashion sense about luxury eyewear.”
Of the many customers Sands has educated about eyewear, he has a favorite story: “Our first year in business in Aspen, a rather shabbily dressed guy came into the shop, asking to see half eyes. We found him one he liked and then he asked for 10 pairs, exactly the same, including the color, so he could scatter them around his home in strategic locations. He turned out to be John Warner [at that time Secretary of the Navy for the Nixon administration, currently a senator from Virginia and one-time husband of Elizabeth Taylor].” He has remained a loyal customer and starts all his conversations with Sands with the request, “Make me look good for [his appearances on] C-Span.”
To reinforce Sands’ philosophy on fashion and luxury, the company opened a wholesale division called Optical Shop of Aspen in 1988. The division was conceived as an exclusive source for Optical Shop of Aspen and other retailers who think like Sands does. “We’ve sought out exclusive high-end fashion names we know our customers will respond to,” he says. “We want to be in control of what we stand for. When we see a direction in eyewear, we want to take it to the next step.”
Collections distributed by Optical Shop include Matsuda, Hiero and Kieselstein-Cord. The most recently acquired license, Chrome Hearts, will launch in March 2002.
To insure high quality, Optical Shop has its own full service lab in Aliso Viajo, Calif. “We really need more emphasis on quality,” notes Sands. “We’re seeing less and less in eyewear. That isn’t happening in other businesses. Luxury car makers still focus on quality. Harley-Davidson hasn’t shirked on its motorcycles. We need to make eyewear products that stand up to what the brand represents. Cartier is a perfect example of an eyewear line that has stayed true to its name.”
When Sands licensed the Kieselstein-Cord name six years ago, he had jewelry molds made for the turtles, alligators and frogs that appeared on the eyewear. He also had expensive hatbox-style packaging created. “It cost a fortune, but it was such a labor of love and so different for luxury eyewear that I didn’t care if the line made money or not,” Sands notes. “After a year, I changed my mind on the idea of not making money,” he laughs, adding that the line makes money without sacrificing quality.
“With our new Chrome Hearts line, too, we’re remaking a luxury lifestyle line with timeless design. We are using a lot of sterling silver and diamonds and rubies. It’s a great project for us,” he notes.
When Sands is working on eyewear collections, he looks to a variety of designers in the world of fashion and architecture for inspiration. “Corbusier’s buildings, his chairs, made a big impact on me,” he says. “Looking at his works gets my creative juices going. It’s like listening to good music.” He also admires the work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and designer Barry Kieselstein-Cord. “Take something as simple as a belt buckle. Barry has 20 belt buckles featured at the Museum of Modern Art,” he says. “And when it comes to men’s and women’s classic couture clothing, Giorgio Armani has set the standard for the rest of the world. His designs are so timeless they could be today, five years ago or 20 years from now,” Sands explains. “Actually, though, inspiration comes from everything I do, everything I read and see.” He relates a story about a half eye he designed with an alligator that clips to a blouse or jacket. I got the idea because my eyewear kept falling out of my pocket when I was on the golf course.”
As for the future, Sands says he never expected to stay in eyewear. “I’ve had a leather shop, clothing stores, restaurants. But I’m always drawn back to optical. There’s so much opportunity to create and so much more we can do with this business.”