What better place to welcome the triumphant return of an iconic sunglass company to North America than the bright, vibrant environs of Sun Valley, Idaho? Especially as part of a three-day tutorial about the brand mixed with optimal spring skiing, craft beer boozing, and far, far too much food.
That was the fate that befell your intrepid Gear Geek earlier this month when Vuarnet hosted a handful of outdoor and fashion writers at the Sun Valley Lodge to show off the current line of sunglasses, and to preview models set to hit the market in 2017. (Mountain Hardwear provided ski apparel, which I’ll cover in an upcoming post.)
Vaurnet needs no introduction to those who remember them from the 1980s, back when they were the only pair of sunglasses that mattered. I yearned for a pair, myself, but had to settle with a white long-sleeved t-shirt emblazoned with their red “V” logo instead, since I was too young to have the discipline needed to save up and buy a pair. (Today, models start at about $160.) These were the sunglasses that ski instructors would squirrel their money away for half a season just to afford—the kind of shades that bartenders hope that fur-clad après fashionista would accidentally leave them behind and never retrieve ‘em from the lost and found. If you were alive in the 80s, you wanted a pair of Vuarnets.
The brand actually dates back to 1957 when two French optics wizards invented the Skilynx lens. But they became Vuarnet after French alpine skier Jean Vuarnet won the gold medal in the downhill at the 1960 Olympics while wearing a pair of those shades, the same model now known as the 02s.
From that point, the brand’s fame grew within the ski scene—and grew, and grew, rising to a veritable cultural fashion phenomena in the 1980s. But at some point, the brand leveled out here in the States, in no small part because of the influx of other optical lines. Then Vuarnet lost its North American distribution, and effectively disappeared off the retail shelves.
During that time, the performance sunglass market has shifted almost universally toward polycarbonate lenses, not glass. The plastic lenses are lighter, sure—but they’re also cheaper to make, and often that price reduction isn’t passed onto the consumer.
Vuarnet doesn’t cut any corners. The company purchases real glass—in four-ton blocks because that’s the smallest unit available, and use the highest-quality mass-tinted materials. Each lens takes a week to craft, following a 17-step process that removes all hints of distortion or awkward visual transitions to deliver optimal clarity that lets you see what’s actually there.
Unlike polycarbonates, which coat their lenses, Vuarnet melts the silicone so that it fills the pores of the glass itself—the tint and polarization never fade. And since they’re glass, they’re practically scratch-resistant and can be cleaned with any sort of fabric or paper rather than that small square of microfiber cloth you always lose. Vuarnet’s lenses block 90 percent of harmful infra-red rays, a feat impossible with plastic.
During those sun-blasted days in Idaho (and in all sunny days since my return), the lenses offered stellar clarity. Yes, Vuarnets are heavier than the plastic models—but that’s a negligible trade-off.
But none of that would matter if the sunglasses didn’t look good. And while Vuarnet has more than 50 years of styles to draw upon, some of the best designs date back to the company’s first years. The 02 model is the same design as the first pair worn by that Olympic skier, and the round-lens Glacier model—complete with artisanal leather side shields—will look just as good on you as they do on James Bond or the next up-and-coming mountaineer.
If I had to pick one, I’d gravitate to the 03, which was launched in 1962, inspired by the aviator shades worn by U.S. Air Force pilots. A bit bulky and supremely comfortable, they come with a pop-up nose piece and polarized lenses. Hell, if they were good enough for The Dude in The Big Lebowski, they’re good enough for me.
In addition to the classic lifestyle line, they also offer wrap-around sport models that help shield your peripheral vision from glare and wind. And they’ve also introduced 11 new frames this year, with another 10 coming in March 2017, including the soon-to-be classic Cable series with wrap-around wire ear loops a killer red-white-and-blue design.
Nathan Borchelt is a gear-obsessed travel writer and adventurer whose collection of shoes, backpacks, jackets, bags, and other “essential” detritus has long-outgrown his one-bedroom apartment (and his wife’s patience).