Jul 11, 2023

How Oakley got so cool

By Murray Clark

Put every stan of Oakley sunglasses in a room, and it’s quite the… coalition. There are cyclists. Which makes sense given the Californian label has long leaned into sports-specific tech. But there are also Aussie drug dealers, and Surrey dads, and Princess Anne, and paramilitary bros that believe it their God-given right to defend the great state of Wisconsin on a voluntary basis. It all feels very apocalypse B-movie cast.

But through the chaos, Oakley has been born again as a menswear blockbuster. Perhaps it was abetted by Prada’s reintroduction of wraparounds to runways post-2021. Maybe it was lifted by the never-ending gorpcore saga, in which creative execs on six figures like to dress as mountainmen who still like to use maps in the age of satnav. Whatever the reason, the brand’s stock has popped off with fashion types. It’s not so strange to see a pair of Oakleys at ringfenced parties or by rooftop pools for ‘guests only’. And for every true blue dad that wants his country back, there’s now a jacked guy at a queer rave, and a mulleted mid-20s art pedant in Hackney, and a willowy woman who relocated to Berlin to re-train as a DJ without a lick of German or vinyl – all of them recent converts to the brand gospel. Oakley is cool again. It has been for quite some time.

The slow return to hypedom has always been part of the battle plan, says Brian Takumi, Oakley’s Vice President of Brand Soul. It’s a very tech bro job title for a man that seems the polar opposite: he wears a baseball cap, a plain white T-shirt and he's very approachable. “I’ve actually been at Oakley for 25 years, and all that time has meant we can finally put pen to paper on what Oakley is,” he says over Zoom from a nook at the California HQ (Google it right now: it looks like a spaceship from the Alien franchise before said aliens came along and ruined everything). “One of our beliefs is ‘design for the future, deliver for the present’. Unfortunately for Oakley, it took 20 years for the world to catch-up to what we were doing in 1998, but trends run in around 20 year cycles. It took that long for people to say ‘wow, this stuff was pretty revolutionary’.”

It might sound like corporate nonsense. But Oakley was, and is, revolutionary in a very recent retrofuturist sort of way. Oakley’s archives serve as a reminder for our past predictions; old ideas of what our newer days would look like. We’ve yet to realise a world that looks like The Fifth Element. But the mid-aughts vision of that future has become iconic in its own right – and Oakley, with its moulded frames and vaguely bellicose model names like Jawbreaker, Crosshair, Plazma and so on – fits into that image of laser guns and video game babes.

As Gen Z excavates the Y2K phenomenon once more, Oakley’s unwavering faith in its own vision has seen the brand enjoy 2.0 success on a 1.0 blueprint. But simply reasoning the brand’s comeback to the hot trend time machine is reductive. While profit and loss reports are well guarded, various sources estimate Oakley’s revenue to break the $500 million mark, while parent company EssilorLuxxotica posted a 9.4 per cent rise in revenues last quarter to hit $6.49 billion. TikTok party boys in wraparounds are mad influential. But there has to be other forces at play to hit that sort of cash.

There’s the fact that Oakley doesn’t look much like other eyewear brands. Jim Jannard, a motocross fanatic that founded the brand in 1975 and sold it for $2.1 billion 32 years later, is something of a mystery in his post-shades life. After dropping out of the University of Southern California, he began selling motorcycle parts out of his car. The company was named Oakley after his dog. He began making skiing goggles and sunglasses that, after being worn by cyclist Greg LeMond from 1989 (he’s a big deal, he won the Tour de France three times), saw Oakley’s profile rise to become the label we know today. And it wasn’t just sunglasses: Oakley began reaching out into apparel, accessories and even sneakers that are still in production. For a time in the early 2000s, Oakley couldn't have flown higher.

In the grand tradition of Californian billionaires, Jannard did not respond to request for comment. But Takumi speaks highly of his old boss: “I was fortunate enough to work with [Jim], and his mantra was always ‘reimagine everything’.” He uses the Eyejacket model to illustrate this point. “Even when Jim was dominating the market, he challenged himself to say that sports performance eyewear didn’t need a shield. The Eyejacket was a dual lens, and a more traditional frame, but it had all the performance features of the other models like the polarised vision and the impact protection.” The bug-eyed, angled sunglasses could easily work on the Tour de France, or at 4am in a dance tent in a dark Glastonbury corner – such is the power of Oakley’s versatility.

And this crossover from field to fashion was, again, part of Jannard’s grand designs. “Michael Jordan was wearing the Eyejacket in places that weren’t the basketball court, that’s what made Oakley ‘fashion-adjacent,” says Takumi. “We got into that space by working with athletes who were relevant in pop culture – so you go back to MJ, Dennis Rodman, even Lance Armstrong. It was leveraging athletes instead of sponsoring movie stars, or whatever.”

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Scottie Pippen (left) and Michael Jordan wearing Oakley's X Metal Romeo in 1997 - a model that was re-released in 2021

From there, Oakley could market itself on its supreme technical functionality. But it was also a bit fun. For all the controversy, Rodman and Armstrong are but two athletes that have been anointed megastars proper: amateur athletes wanted to emulate their performance, and everyone else wanted to empty their wardrobes. Just this year, Oakley went custom for an appearance in Mission: Impossible 7, again banking on Hollywood currency while delivering sunglasses that can survive bullets, jumps, one-liners and all the other stuff Tom Cruise likes to do.

In April last year, Oakley launched the ‘Oakley Factory Team’ – an off-shoot project that focused on new riffs of Oakley classics. It was helmed by Kyle Ng, founder of trippy art and fashion collective Brain Dead. If Brain Dead could launch sell-out collabs from sources as disparate as the fantasy card game Magic: The Gathering, Marvel’s Doctor Strange and The Exorcist, there was a high chance it could successfully soup up Oakley, a commercial megabrand that still feels like a cult outfit. “I grew up loving Oakley. For Christmas, my uncle would just buy a duffle and stash random Oakley glasses, watches and clothes inside for us,” Ng says. “From around 2019 to 2020, I was buying up Oakley Flesh [sneakers], and we reached out to the brand just to have a conversation about collaborating… and then, well, they just proposed us re-releasing the Flesh.”

In a surprise to absolutely no-one, the reimagined Flesh sold out. Oakley was cooking on gas again. Despite attempting to re-break into a market as biblically flooded as sneakers, the Flesh was buoyant. And unlike the super functional sunglasses of yore, there was a softer, funner edge to Oakley’s revised sneakers. If the shades are for the apocalypse, these marshmallowy, undulating trainers are for clubbing in Neo Madrid (and, of course, intense outdoor trail running like every other bestselling sneaker since 2016).

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Menswear is a cacophony; new releases, re-releases and re-ups drop by the thousands every day. That makes it difficult for brands of any stature to cut through. Menswear have been uncharacteristically patient when it comes to Oakley. This brand was allowed to not get it right every single time. The admin of menswear channel Street Night Live (who prefers to remain anonymous), has long noticed this relationship. “It’s funny, ‘cos people who are into gorpcore are always into Oakley,” he says over the phone from New York City. “Oakley was making shoes in the late ‘90s and they’re not super new to this game. In the current sphere of sneakers, they fit the bill perfectly – people get the hype with this.”

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During the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, social media began to draw parallels between Oakley and both the law enforcement agencies and right-wing protestors that bought into the brand. The ‘Thin Blue Line Collection’ – shades that came with the namesake symbol of police support – have been favoured by American cops for years. They're still available online. And yet that hasn't seemed to affect Oakley's rep within the menswear community. “I understand the hate. Even then, ‘hate’ feels like a reach,” says Street Night Live. “There was some affiliation with the police and the military, but they can still be a fashion thing separately. People kinda jump on that hate train ‘cos it’s easy, especially online, but critically, the sneakers make sense: there’s mesh detailing, there’s a bulkier midsole, it fits properly. They work."

Regardless of one’s position, Oakley can’t be questioned on its authenticity. And it’s this very word that comes up time and again in this age of menswear. For brands to be taken seriously, they have to seem authentic in themselves. And Oakley, despite the renewed popularity, and the mid-aughts skew, and the re-focus on sneakers, still feels like the Oakley of yore. Maybe that’s why the Surrey Dads stand side-by-side with the mullet party boys and the rave gym bros and Bella Hadid and almost everyone else in the brand’s motley coalition. It’s an eternal odd squad – and that’s perhaps the most Oakley thing of all.