Frames: Coco and Breezy Avatar from Eastern States Eyewear with Transitions (Coco);
Coco and Breezy Ostara from Eastern States Eyewear with Transitions (Breezy)
Photos by Christelle de Castro Makeup: Jhenelle Neon
On a warm summer Friday, I ventured into Bushwick, a hip art and music haven in Brooklyn where the duo resides. When Coco and Breezy arrive for their photo shoot, they excitedly but graciously tell me it’s been their dream to appear on the cover of 20/20. Hip-hop music blared as they danced and posed with carefree energy. It didn’t take long to get perfect shots—they are naturals in front of the camera. Post shoot, we head to their favorite vegetarian cafe for lunch, where they give me their story in full detail. Even while walking the streets of Bushwick, I’m impressed by how many people stop them to say hello. It’s clear they are neighborhood stars but to my surprise, the girls tell me most people there aren’t aware of their eyewear and social media personae. They prefer to keep a low key profile in their hometown, staying humbly grounded rather than flaunting their success and fame. To the people of Bushwick, Coco and Breezy may just be your friendly neighborhood gals but in the optical world, they are paving the way for the next generation of eyewear designers.
20/20: How and when did you become interested in eyewear?
Coco and Breezy: We were born in Indiana and grew up in the suburbs of Minnesota. As kids, our parents allowed us to elaborate on our creative style and really pushed us to be ourselves. We always knew we were different from all the other kids. We didn’t want to play with our friends after school, we just wanted to go home and design—play with a sewing machine, create and embellish things, make bracelets. In middle school, our parents encouraged us to be who we are and dress how we want, but it caused us to get bullied. That’s how we found our love for sunglasses and eyewear—we would wear them on our face, and they gave us a level of confidence we never had. We started buying vintage and inexpensive frames since we couldn’t afford to buy designer frames, and we embellished them with studs, jewels, spikes and chains to make them cool. That was before we even thought about designing eyewear, we never thought we would one day have an eyewear company. We didn’t grow up saying that we would be eyewear designers, but we always knew we wanted to be entrepreneurs and change the world somehow and make a difference but we didn’t know how at the time. Without our frames, we were just Corianna and Brianna, but when we threw the shades on, that’s when Coco and Breezy came out. That’s how we built Coco and Breezy, we had this insecurity and were always so shy, but when we had glasses on, we were able to walk up to anyone and be unstoppable.
How did eyewear as a business begin for you?
In 2006, MySpace was still really popular. We were 16 years old, and since we got bullied in school, social media and the Internet were our best friends. We had a fan base of over 30,000 followers, and everyone loved our sunglasses and our style. We were just regular girls working at the mall but online, we were a hot sensation. We embellished and wore our glasses, never thinking to sell them and start an eyewear company, but people were asking where they can buy our frames. At the time, we had no idea we were actually marketing and creating brand equity through social media, we were just being authentic and true to ourselves. The same people who have been following us since we were kids are still following us. Once we saw there was a demand for what we were doing, we knew it was time to start a company, so we sold our cars, quit our jobs and moved to New York with less than $1,000 in our pockets. We continued to embellish glasses but we had no idea how to actually produce eyewear. We received so many orders, and a lot of celebrities also started wearing our creations. That’s how we began to build the brand. Of course, you can never forget the first things you made because everything starts from somewhere, but they were still DIY frames—so they were hot, but as fast they were hot, they weren’t hot. They were a fad but they didn’t have longevity. At the time, we naively thought we were going to embellish glasses for the rest of our lives, but all of our mentors told us that’s not how we’re going to grow our business. Around that time, we met Selima Salaun on the street in Soho. She loved what we were doing with our frames and asked us to embellish her frames. After that, we had all these sketches of actual eyewear that we did, and we asked her if she can help us decide which frame to produce first. She went through hundreds of sketches with us—she believed in us and has become our eyewear mother. And Christian Roth and Eric Domege have also been so wonderful in supporting us. Every collection we do, we always ask for their feedback, and they’re always so quick to respond.
After you had your designs set, how did you begin production on your eyewear?
We had to teach ourselves how to produce eyewear. We had no idea how it went from a sketch to an actual product. Fortunately, our general manager and co-founder Duane Baker has an AutoCAD and architecture background. Breezy would start the design in Illustrator, and Duane finished it in AutoCAD. We then sourced factories and learned how to actually produce eyewear. We do everything in-house—designing, managing production and talking directly to the factory with no middleman.
Do you both design together in collaboration?
Breezy: I start with the first initial sketches. I’m constantly sketching eyewear and seeing things that can be part of our eyewear; I can look at a window and see how I can incorporate it into a temple. It starts in my notebook, I sketch it out first and then put it into digital format. From there, Coco and Duane review my designs and tweak them. Sometimes my designs can be a little too extravagant, so they just move a line and make the frame so amazing. Then we go through all the materials and pick out the colorways together. I lead the design and the colorways, but Coco and Duane have to approve them. We have a true collaboration. The best part is that sometimes we look at some of our designs, and we see where it started and how it was finished with one little tweak. It’s really beautiful to have another eye to change something up to make it even better.
Is your eyewear a reflection of your personal styles?
We definitely think so—a lot of people have the perception that we have a wild style, but in reality, they think that because of our eyewear. We could just be wearing T-shirts and jeans with our eyewear, and people will rave about our outfits. But it’s really the eyewear that’s the fashionable part. When we were kids, we came up with our own quote: “Our eyewear is the outfit, and your clothing is the accessory.” But we don’t design for ourselves, we really listen to our customers. Our customers range from Millennials to older generations. The way people are shopping now, it’s not necessarily about age groups or even genders anymore. People just want what they love. We utilize social media to ask our customers questions about what they want because we design for the customer. Breezy: There are some pieces I would never wear, but it’s still true to us because it might not be my style but I’m designing it from my heart because it’s my customer’s style.
You have cultivated a huge following on Instagram of close to 80,000 followers. Do you think this is the best way to connect to your fans and people who wear your eyewear?
Yes, because today people like things that are authentic; they really buy into the lifestyle. The best thing that we started doing last year is DJing at parties and events. This has really connected us to consumers because people no longer only want to go on social media and see ads and campaigns forcing them to buy. They want to do things that connect to the brand and get a feel for the lifestyle. When we DJ, we wear our glasses and it’s part of our look, but we’re playing and connecting through music. Our brand is heavily influenced and inspired by music because we collaborate with so many musicians, and many of them wear our product including Rihanna, Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Demi Lovato. Even in our design process, music is one of our top inspirations. There’s a lot of cross-branding because people in the music world know us as the DJs that have an eyewear company but people in the eyewear industry think we are DJs who started designing eyewear, but we always make it clear we had an eyewear company first so it’s been a great way for us to bridge the gap between music and the brand. Our brand isn’t just about eyewear; it’s about creating a culture, and eyewear is a big part of it.
Tell us about your collaboration with Prince.
Prince’s team had been trying to get in touch with us for a long time but we didn’t believe it was coming from the real Prince so we never followed up. Finally after he saw us with YouTube personality Shameless Maya, a good friend of ours, he reached out again. We were lucky enough to spend time with him in Paisley Park and whenever he was in New York. He asked us to design a sunglass that would cover his “third eye,” a spiritual state of enlightened creativity which he believed he possessed. Breezy showed him her sketches, and he said they were exactly what he wanted—a round sunglass with a third round lens attached above the bridge. It took awhile for the frame to be produced but it arrived on the morning of the day Prince was scheduled to perform on “Saturday Night Live,” his first TV appearance in many years. His team couldn’t guarantee that he would be wearing them but Prince invited us to the taping. When he appeared on stage and turned around, we saw them on his face and we both became emotional. Our dream was to design an iconic pair of frames for an iconic figure, and that dream came true. Shortly after, Prince encouraged us to produce the style for his fans but assured us he didn’t want anything from it. We knew it wasn’t practical for the everyday person to wear a frame with a third lens so Duane came up with the idea of making the third lens removable. This made the production process more complicated so it took a while to complete production on it. A few days after we launched the style on our website, Prince passed away. He had tweeted a link to our website just days before, and it crashed our site because so many people were going to it. As soon as we found out, we put a stop on all our marketing and press surrounding the frame. We didn’t want to sell product off of someone’s death, we only wanted his one tweet to sell the frame. He always said to us “You’re gonna make me famous,” but we always knew it was the other way around. He loved working with young talent and giving them opportunities. That’s why his death hit us so hard... it was such a genuine experience working with him.
Since you’ve had so many iconic mentors in your young career, are you open to giving back and mentoring others?
Yes, the reason why we’re doing this is we’re creating a culture but eyewear is our main focus, and we want to create that culture to help people. We chose eyewear but it’s really about following your dreams and being able to put your mind to it. We meet a lot of young people who want to start an eyewear company but don’t know how. Some people might feel intimidated to share knowledge and information, but for us, we share our factories and help other friends who are interested in production. We even invite people to our office to look at our material samples and use our resources. We also have a couple of brands that we do private labels for, and we help produce their eyewear. Most of them are Millennials, and our goal is to help them get started.
How do you think Millennials and those in your generation relate to eyewear today?
Millennials love eyewear and bold pieces. Even people who aren’t necessarily into fashion love a bold frame. The younger generation doesn’t want to spend a super high-end price for a frame. They like transparency and want to know who the actual designer is. They want that emotional connection with the brand so they’re not just buying the eyewear, they’re buying into the culture and the lifestyle.
How will you continue to grow in the industry?
It took us a long time to get accepted into the eyewear industry because we started off in fashion… We knew that it would take some time. We still remember the time we found out you were coming to our launch event at Specs New York—we were so nervous but excited. It was so difficult for us to merge into the optical industry but as soon as 20/20 started writing about us, that was how we got our first push and acceptance. It almost seemed unreal to be in the magazine, it seemed so untouchable to us. Now we’re not even in any fashion stores, only optical shops... that’s what we wanted. 20/20 really helped us bridge that gap between eyewear and fashion, because eyewear is more than style and fashion, it’s also a medical device to help you see and protect your eyes. That’s something we’re really passionate about—sharing the knowledge about eyecare. We want to help teach Millennials that it’s so important to get your eyes checked and protect your eyes out in the sun and also from blue light emitted from digital devices.
And now we have an amazing partnership with Eastern States Eyewear, introduced to us by our close friend Yoel Heistein, whose shop Specs New York was the first optical store to pick up our brand. Yoel introduced us to ESE president Paul Shyer and managing director Jason Shyer. We had always done well with distribution in Europe, Asia and the Caribbean but distribution in the U.S. was an issue for us. Eyecare professionals started becoming more familiar with us after seeing us in 20/20 and from our Transitions campaign, but it was still difficult to get into optical shops here. Because Eastern States has established long-standing relationships with optical professionals, they really trust ESE especially in bringing on a new brand. This past Vision Expo, they really helped us open a significant amount of new accounts.
What can we expect from your first optical collection set to debut this fall?
A lot of people were wearing our sunglasses as optical frames but this is the first full optical collection that we are doing. We’re really excited about it—they still have our Coco and Breezy stamp on the frames, but they are more classic with a modern twist and accented with a lot of details we are known for. The optical styles are a little bit smaller and thinner and more comfortable on the face but there also some larger styles as well for people who prefer those. They will also come in really cool colorways and laminations.
Do you have the “twin” connection? Are your personalities different from each other?
We definitely have that connection. When we do photo shoots, as you saw earlier, we don’t even have to talk, we just naturally moved our bodies to complement each other. We do have different personalities, but we share the same values. Coco: I’m more shy sometimes and an introvert compared to Breezy. Breezy: I’m more modest and confident, and a little more bold than Coco is. But it works for us. It can’t be two of me and two of her... it’s a perfect combination. We’re a combination frame! ■