By Gloria Nicola

Sanford Hutton was literally born into the optical business. His father and grandfather were optometrists, and from the time he was very young, he assisted his father with exams. “The clinical aspect of eyewear was a part of me from the beginning. Even after I became a teacher (he taught science and social studies), I still helped my father with exams,” Hutton notes. He also worked in various boutiques and decided to become a licensed optician. That led to his passion for design.

“At the point I was working in boutiques (in the late ’70s), I became aware of how limited the color offerings were,” he explains. “There were basically four colors: tortoise, black and two fashion colors—maybe a shrimp and a blue, so I decided to design frames in simple, classic shapes in 25 vibrant colors, including cherry red, emerald green, cobalt blue and violet, thus creating an eyewear wardrobe.” Each style was offered as both an ophthalmic frame and a sunglass. The product was so successful a cult grew up around it, and celebs, top models and actors and actresses began seeking it out. “We were bringing color to an industry that was virtually without color,” Hutton continues.

Because of the popularity of the eyewear, he founded the New York City-based Colors in Optics in 1978. “And that’s how my business began,” he says. Boutiques, specialty stores and department stores (Bloomingdales was the first) began carrying the line, and optical retailers followed. “Because the glasses were trendy and timely and worked with the current wardrobe, stylists started using them in photos shoots for magazines such as Glamour and GQ. Our classic shapes and vibrant colors were captured and reflected in many movies, including ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘American Gigolo.’ Having eyewear show up on the big screen helped push the genre forward. It was a very exciting time for us,” Hutton notes.

To create the products he wanted, he bought a factory, becoming one of only five companies at that time to manufacture eyewear in the U.S. He also worked with factories in Italy to create customized colors. “I feel my knowledge of eyewear and my work as a licensed optician along with my interest in color came together in a concept that was fresh and unique for its time. We wanted to establish eyewear as an accessory and build on the idea of wardrobing long before it was thought of in that way,” Hutton says. “Having my own factory and working directly with other factories gave integrity to our product and helped convey the message we wanted to convey.”

The other key factor Hutton feels has given integrity to his business over the long haul is that it’s a family-owned company that has been able to survive and thrive for 35 years.

“It started with my grandfather and my father. Then when I came into the business, I moved it from a clinical focus to more design-oriented. Although I am still involved in design, I now do more of the corporate business. My daughter Jade, who is also a licensed optician, is immersed in the design of the ophthalmic styles, and her husband William has joined the company as an attorney. And of course my wife Rhona has taken an active stance in the business for many years. So although the tapestry of the business is changing and evolving, we are still strongly connected with our roots,” Hutton stresses.  

In response to innumerable requests, a few years ago Colors in Optics relaunched its Original Vintage Collection. The frames have the same names as the initial styles and include Orfina (an oversized rounded design), Bespeckled (a preppy shape) and 2424 (a softened rectangle). Each frame is accented with the original nail heads and offered in the same vibrant colors.

In addition to the Original Vintage Collection, Colors in Optics also has a variety of licensed brands: Jessica Simpson, Steve Madden, Rocawear, Vince Camuto and a children’s collection Crayola, which clearly reinforces the company’s passion for colors for all ages.
Asked what selling tips he has for ECPs, Hutton offers the following advice: “Practitioners need to take into account PDs, prescriptions, etc., but at the same time they need to be into fashion and style, and they must know their customers and understand what they are all about,” he notes. “Dispensers should also focus on products, presenting eyewear in such a way that it captures the personality of the collection. Consumers like to know what the brand represents. And it’s essential to help people choose the right colorations. Color is where the options are today, where consumers can exercise their freedom,” he emphasizes. “Colors are a way to give ourselves an identity that reflects our personalities and lifestyles.”

Hutton’s own favorite color is cherry red. “Red adds a lot of natural coloration to the skin,” he notes. “I also really like cobalt blue and emerald green,” he says. “Those are my three favorites although it’s hard to pick. I like wearing blues in warmer weather (right now I’m wearing aqua), and wine and bordeaux tones in winter.” Not surprisingly, his favored frame styles are classic vintage designs. He especially likes aviators and has them in all sorts of colors.

What would he do if he were not designing eyewear? “Maybe ride my bike more often. But I love doing what I do. We started out very humbly. I was working three jobs seven days a week (helping my father with exams, working in boutiques and designing products). Fortunately I think we have made a statement and created a personality with our brand.” He has hopes that this statement will continue into the future. “I have a one-year-old granddaughter Isabella, who whenever she sees me with a pair of glasses in my pocket, immediately takes them and puts them on. Perhaps there is another generation in the making.”