Exotic, colorful frames make an impression
I will never forget the first time I saw a picture of socialite and famous patron-of-the-arts, Peggy Guggenheim, in her gondola in Venice. She was wearing enormous gold-framed sunglasses shaped like a lovely, mutant butterfly or bat wings.
The glasses had been designed for her in 1966 by artist Edward Melcarth, as an homage to the surrealist and abstract art she collected. She seemed to understand, long before the rest of us, that sunglasses could be wearable art — fantastical, phantasmagorical, and even humorous.
Those glasses have never been forgotten in the fashion world, and in 2014, Mylie Cyrus was spotted wearing a modern version with purple frames.
Fast-forward to my first years in New York City, when I got a chance to emulate Guggenheim in my own way. I met two Canadian-born sisters who had an apartment at the Chelsea Hotel — a landmark building that hosted everyone from Madonna to Leonard Cohen, Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin in the day.
Merrilee Lichtenstein-Cohen and Rachel Cohen-Lunning had founded Mercura Eyewear, and they became my good friends. The friendly, charismatic sisters had begun by designing elaborate, enameled metal jewelry, belts with huge metal and spangled buckles, and even headdresses and crowns.
By the time I met them they were already a favorite of celebrities, from Madonna to Grace Jones to Elton John, and their work had already graced the covers of magazines like Vogue.
Sometimes they used the face of the lens as a canvas — studding it with jewels or stones, so that when you put them on, you saw a dappled world. Sometimes they used the frames as scaffolding for gold or silver sculptural forms, and sometimes they distilled art into simplicity: teardrop frames, garnished with a teardrop leaf and two tiny pearls.
Merrilee had a Rapunzel-like tumble of red-gold hair, and Rachel long black tresses, and one of their bedrooms overflowed with clothing, shoes, belts, shawls, scarves and boots — it essentially functioned as an enormous closet. Glasses — works of art in progress — would be laid out on the tables, along with all the paraphernalia of a jeweler.
I would walk over to West 23rd Street, through the famous lobby where you still might trip across glamorous residents, and up the elevator to their place. We would spend hours chatting as we experimented with outfits and dressed ourselves for a night on the town. Sometimes we would pull a piece of their wearable art off the wall, and add it to our decor.
Yes, we wore sunglasses at night. I owned pairs studded with rhinestones, climbing gold leopards, tassels, colored stones, in all manner of shapes and sizes.
As a writer by profession, I was not flamboyant, but we all have an inner diva, and the glasses suited me perfectly. The dark lenses hid my eyes — those windows to my soul — but the spectacular and sly, amusing designs always brought attention and comments, along with big smiles and a request to try them on.
My friends Merrilee and Rachel shaped my sense of what glasses can be, and how to wear them. I’ve seen their designs in recent years on Lady Gaga (glasses based on geodesic sundials) and Michelle Williams. Even to this day, I keep a pair or two of their eyewear handy. They can dress up the most casual stretch blue jeans and cotton shirt.
Now that I need reading glasses, I shrug off the drugstore frames and look online for readers with a hint of art and humor. As I write this, I’m wearing red cat-eye readers with a delicate sprinkling of rhinestones. Regular glasses would never do.
Why travel in a gondola without bat-eye sunglasses? Why go through life with an ordinary frame, when you can don a spectacular one?
LOOKING FOR YOUR OWN SPECTACULAR GLASSES? Find an optical store near you.
Page published in September 2019
Page updated in January 2022