By James J. Spina
Portrait by Steve Melnick
“Hey, my brother... good to see you.” Whoa. Whoa. Wait a minute. Nobody is allowed to use that salutation on me except my real brother Dennis or perhaps Crosby, Stills and Nash... and Young... and Larry Sands.
And it IS Larry Sands of OSI (Optical Shop International) so let’s get started relaying multiple interview encounters over the last few months at his home in East Hampton on New York’s Long Island, over the phone calling to his home in Malibu, at Expo, at Silmo and in countless text messages where Sands just keeps reinstating his mission to “raise the bar when it comes to creating and selling eyewear that is the absolute best it can be with NO compromises.”
And he means it.
This is not Sands looking to review his whole history creating the Optical Shop of Aspen retailing dynasty. In fact, whenever we drift there in conversation Sands reassures me he’ll get me “all of that background stuff” (See the “Sands of Time” sidebar). No this story has a current agenda. “It’s my future and it’s my intention to stay as current as possible pushing a style and class of eyewear and sunwear with an identity equal to the most passionate eyewear consumers out there.” And Sands is looking to take no prisoners. “How do I make this clear that this isn’t just about me? The leaders in the optical industry, both the optical pros and the optical procurers, need to tap into that same driven passion. This is not the time to start depending on just insurance schemes and gloriously named designer brands being made like mass consumption junk jewelry. Hey, it’s the perfect time—a trying time—when eyewear players need to put up or just shut up. And that goes for anyone MAKING eyewear and SELLING eyewear.”
Sands is waiting to meet me in the lux/ludicrous lobby of the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. He’s peering into the window of the opulent optical shop located there and his vent of frustration is a window devoted totally to Chrome Hearts eyewear.
One of the perhaps 20 frames displayed is slightly askew. Sands is steaming. He asks if we have time to go in.
Larry Sands reads... especially 20/20... BIG TIME. He’s always quoting our stories and captions. He understands OUR mission. Shortly following our interview he emailed his own biography in a timeline. He knows we love that approach.
So... lightly edited, with 20/20 comments in italics, Sands through an hourglass:
Baby Sands lands in 1938.
So yes, he just PRoudly celebrated a BIG birthday.
Worked afternoons and Saturdays for an optometrist
(in Kansas City) while still in high school.
College, music major, didn’t graduate.
Had a chain of five optical stores called 20/20 Optical. All were in Southern Missouri. Easy credit of $5 down and $1 per week. Had a Jaguar with a telephone in it. Phone equipment filled the entire trunk of the car. Sold the stores to start a rock band (Bartok’s Mountain) Opening act for Vanilla Fudge, Led Zeppelin, and Sly and the Family Stone. And The Flying Burrito Brothers with
Gram Parsons... hence Sands’ insight into the whole L.A. SEEN and So-Cal So-Cool lifestyle.
At 30 Sands decides he has fulfilled his dreams of being a musician. That chapter of my life was over. I’d done what I wanted to do. Optical was drawing me back.
Back in Kansas City and Optical. New Store. Maybe the first optical boutique in the USA or WORLD. Lots of hippies. Wore jeans to dispense eyewear. Radical. Called my store Optical Shop. Catchy, not! But to the point. Opened three other stores in the area. Did my first acquisition. Bought an OD’s store in Kansas City (OD had died and store was bought from estate).
Went to Aspen. Noticed there wasn’t an optical shop. Opened one and stayed for
10 years – lots of movie stars, lots of musicians. The Eagles were trying to put together a band, weren’t The Eagles yet. Had a soft spot for musicians and gave them a lot of free sunglasses. Now I get free tickets. Early customers for custom eyewear: Senator John Warner (Mr. Elizabeth Taylor), John Denver. Everyone thought John’s Denver’s glasses were hokey, preppy, simple. They were actually 18K gold with the words ‘John Denver Rocky Mountain High’ engraved continuously around the eyewire. Elton John’s ‘Feather’ frames came from the Aspen store. Around 1975, called the stores Optical Shop of Aspen. Optical Shop of Kansas City was never in the running.
Franchised the Optical Shop format. Sold Aspen store as a franchise and sold seven others. Didn’t like it much. Not enough creativity. Bought Aspen store back in 1973. Aspen produced an incredible international trade for the next seven years and the store became famous. Was on the school board with John Denver, Hunter S. Thompson, Sonny Bono, Jill St. John—all Aspen locals. Served years on Aspen Mall Commission. Name is in bronze on a monument in Pepke Park. Lived my life in peace... until boredom set in. Opened a leather shop in Aspen called Silver Threads. Designed my own leather clothes featured in Playboy.
Opened Optical Shop of Aspen in Borgata district of Scottsdale, Ariz.
Opened OSA store in Biltmore area of Phoenix.
Opened OSA store in Newport Beach, Calif. I’ve got five stores again. WOW. thinking of starting a band! Just kidding. Opened our own surfacing lab to service our stores. Hired genius and consultant to the Lens Companies, Jerry Thornhill.
Opened Sunwatch, probably the first store to carry 50 percent watches and 50 percent sunglasses. Now, 18 years later, called OSA Sun. Opened Melrose store in Los Angeles.
Opened OSA International, wholesale company distributing frame lines Kansai and Matsuda. Brought Matsuda to the forefront of optics. The license for Kieselstein-Cord eyewear was acquired in 1997.
Eight more retail stores were either opened or acquired between 1989 and 2004.
The crowning glory to my career was acquiring the license to a little-known brand called Chrome Hearts, an LA based luxury lifestyle line of clothing, furniture, jewelry and executive gadgetry. I have been a Chrome Hearts fan for over 15 years. Chrome Hearts represents everything I have always loved about life. All the leather, great jewelry and unbelievable furniture. The complete Rock and Roll lifestyle which (Thank you God!) I have always lived. For some reason Sands stops here. But these facts bring us up to date:
OSA opens on Lincoln Road in Miami. Chrome Hearts Ophthalmic debuts.
OSI acquires the Blinde license. Oakley purchases the retail division of Optical Shop of Aspen and then Oakley is purchased by Luxottica the following year. OSI with its wholesale frame division remains independently owned and operated.
Under Sands watchful eye new Optical Shops of Aspen open in Malibu, Scottsdale and East Hampton.
Remember that Oakley deal? That’s when Sands met and was impressed with Cosmas Lykos, Oakley’s VP of Business Development. A triumvirate bond is then formed which leads to the present OSI trinity of Sands, and OSI’s Troy Schmidt welcoming Lykos as an equal partner in the company.
The Chrome Hearts optical store opens on Madison Avenue in New York City.
When asked for some favorite pictures to illustrate this very personal timeline Sands provided a photo of himself with his wife Christina with their daughter Cheyenne and a photo of his son Austin on stage at the Troubadour in L.A.with his band Dose of Adolescence.
He goes in, goes into action and proceeds to politely rearrange the Chrome Hearts window, asks if he can adjust some of their other displays and then discretely announces there is a polishing cloth out of place in the display nearest the register. All is corrected and in his wake a whole store, its product and the potential shopping experience have been, shall we say, SANDed.
The next instance of intense awareness is the Blinde P3s on my face. “Who fitted those lenses?” Sands is staring at me with the same intensity you see on 20/20’s cover. “Next time just let me do it. They did a hot mount and it distorted the shape. It needs to be a cold mount.” Who knew? He did.
That attentiveness never lets up in anything Sands does. It shows up just a few weeks later as he methodically gets the new Chrome Hearts optical shop on Madison Avenue in Manhattan ready for its soft opening the next day. He cuts each of the roses (“Never just a dozen. A dozen is NEVER enough.”) for the cut-glass Chrome Hearts vase to an exact length. He details one of the sterling silver door hinges with a Chrome Hearts eyewear cleaning cloth. He studies every single black crystal on the Philippe Stark chandelier center-piecing the Maltese crossed ceiling frieze.
“You can’t let up. You need to constantly focus on every detail from a single pair of glasses on up to the biggest dollar deals in your life,” says Sands. And it’s easy to assume that focus permeated every one of his optical decisions in a way that cloaks his personal and professional life in the same way it does for a dedicated musician. “It’s all about every single note and if you sound a wrong one the whole song is ruined. And you don’t fix it by throwing money at it. You throw yourself at it.”
“Richard chanced the eyewear waters in a mismatch with another eyewear company,” notes Sands, “but our partnership was inevitable. I fell in love with the jewelry and the leathers the first time I ever laid eyes on the stuff. I knew I just had to do the eyewear.” From the get-go the OSI Chrome Hearts collection has been ever-increasingly lavish and cherished layers of new styles in a fantasy range of diverse exotic materials including rare woods, precious metals and jewels all accomplished with a care that literally goes beyond the bounds of absolute luxury.
“You can’t have limits.” For Sands that refusal to boundaries is the payoff for him, for the products, for his customers and for the actual retailing of the eyewear, which he considers the essence of a brand. “It’s how you sell it that defines the brand for the customer. And if you go all out the consumer just knows the eyewear and the experience of buying it and wearing it is worth it.”
And that license must be really worth it for Sands. During some recent negotiations looking into the potential of OSI’s being the eventual eyewear home of a VERY famous brand known for its desirable orange gift boxes, Sands decided to lay out the whole scenario of incorporating this much sought-after license to Stark. Stark’s advice to Larry was “you just gotta do what you gotta do.” Sands followed his ‘heart’ and walked away from the deal. The ‘orange box’ remains empty when it comes to eyewear.
That determined and sometimes scary stare captured on our cover is actually total intent rather than—for want of a better word—dement. Though obviously a business magnet driven to personal success, research for this story uncovered numerous instances of Sands’ valuable input. Long renowned as an apex of luxury eyewear, Cartier has tapped into the very sources of materials and resources used by Sands for Chrome Hearts and Blinde. That same easy relationship also exists in some current non-official and official affiliations with both Oakley and Luxottica; interesting considering the potential complications that could have shadowed the deal of Optical Shop of Aspen’s retailing biz being sold to Oakley followed by the rabid-file union of Oakley with Luxottica.
“There’s no underestimating the magnitude of those business deals but the fun part of it,” according to Sands, “is making the logistics work to everyone’s benefit. Of course, I need to watch out for me first but in the long run the climate for everyone involved gets better if the whole universe of eyewear kicks it up a notch beyond perfect.”
Ok. Stop with all that peace, love and understanding jive. Isn’t there a slew of opti-bodies out there you just can’t stomach Sands? Aren’t you the proverbial go-your-own-way guy scary enough to actually dig in and think nothing of getting physical and throwing out a pesty retailer when they started to make a ruckus at your Expo West Venetian Suite two years ago?
That confrontation actually did happen, but throw out a bunch of high-profile “deluxe” names to him and Sands mellows with sincere fond compliments. Highest regard is lavished on the iconic Christian Roth but Sands delivers detailed finery on a range of characters and companies including Robert Marc, the l.a. Eyeworks gals, Alain Mikli and Ira Haber. (“He was the best Avant-Garde rep. He was like that guy in ‘The Graduate’ smiling the word ‘Plastics!’ every time he came in the store.”)
He’s also quick with a twinkle of praise and powerful perspective on industry trendsetters Tura and Silhouette for the vital part those entities delivered in the early days when Sands’ optical retailing was building the “selling foundation of dispensing only the best eyewear and sunwear to people willing to realize that their very identities are at stake when it comes to framing their faces.”
Literally playing word association with him, product details from the past gush for everything from AO’s SkyMaster (a young guitar slinger Sands’ is wearing it in a group shot of his rock band) to Shuron’s Freeway USA. (“Whole eyewear collections have been built on the look and attitude of the Freeway. That frame should get an award at every single Silmo.”)
Most of his observations are delivered with a satanic chuckle with him invariably winning the anecdote via near card-shark tactics. “When Robert Marc first gave in to the temptation of selling Chrome Hearts he insisted on no cross details. So we delivered frames with the equally cool but NOT as irrevant fleur-de-lis. Hell. Both represented the brand and it was just a matter of time before Robert came looking for the cross. Of course, I had to up the minimum and the price!”
Huge chunks of the interview/photo shoot afternoon in East Hampton are devoted to mini tours of all the archival framed, wall photos of Sands’ rock daze, his family and a variety of artifacts from his cherished stream of optical stores. It’s as if he’s rummaging in his own digs. In the same way he constantly rummages through a tattered leather note book where he writes down all of his (most-times) risqué frame names. “I do my best work right here looking out over that pool. I load up the stereo [basically an 80+ thousand dollar sound system, the likes of which I’ve never heard better in my life] with some Wilco and I think about how damned cool and foolish it is to spend nearly $13 million opening up a 250-square-foot store on Madison Avenue.
“But it is what I do. It’s not the money. You can throw money at garbage all day and it is still just garbage if you don’t love it like an irrational nut. And I do.”
There’s an elaborate and decadent Chrome Hearts guitar strap hanging up on the wall that separates Sands’ sound system emporium from the kitchen. I’d estimate it costs round half as much as a new Mustang. He bought it for his 22-year-old son Austin who just completed the rock and roll Warp tour. “He gave it back to me saying he hadn’t earned it yet. I give him credit for knowing his road’s just started so I’m holding on to it until HE thinks the time is right.”
Hook up a guitar to it Sands Man. You’ve earned the right to wail again with your own unique guitar solo. Hit that whammy bar. The roaring sound of distortion is you raising the bar for everyone in optical.