VUARNET IS LAUNCHING A VERITABLE GLOBAL CHARM OFFENSIVE, SPEARHEADED BY ITS NEW CEO, LIONEL GIRAUD. A DOMINANT FIGURE IN THE SPORTING GOODS MARKET WELL INTO THE 1990S, THIS FRENCH COMPANY HAS A SINGULAR HISTORY. ITS RENAISSANCE WILL BE ALL THE MORE DRAMATIC.
The early days of Vuarnet were marked by genius, boldness, and collaboration. It all began in 1957, when optician, Roger Pouilloux, and student optician, Joseph Hatchiguian, invented a lens that blocked rays from the sun while enhancing contrast in the shade. An avid skier, Roger Pouilloux quickly realized that his invention was ideal for the slopes. Three years later, he supplied the French downhill ski team with his Skilynx Acier sunglasses for the 1960 Olympic Games in Squaw Valley. Jean Vuarnet won the gold medal, setting the stage for the birth of an iconic French company. “It’s a story of friendship and happenstance,” explains Lionel Giraud. “A Paris optician, who loves skiing, and Jean Vuarnet, who wins Olympic gold, meet and create a brand. The story is really quite incredible. Although this is now known as sports marketing, it was avant-garde for the time.” With its new name, the brand followed in the champion’s footsteps, and quickly took the world by storm. “I love the founding spirit of the Vuarnet brand. The people in charge were willing to take risks. It was a French brand, with a touch of California,” explains Lionel Giraud. Even though it was not a very large enterprise, the company decided that it should sponsor the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Vuarnet did not have enough cash, but the company’s directors signed an agreement giving the Olympic organizers 50% of its increase in sales after the Games. In the late 1990s, a dispute among the members of the management team caused the company to fumble. The business was split in two: eyewear on one side, sportswear on the other. More than 20 years would pass before Vuarnet regained its footing, and got back on track.
When the current team took over the brand, it decided to start by focussing on sunglasses, the company’s core activity. “Lens quality is the fundamental difference that makes Vuarnet a beloved brand. The company does not make plastic lenses; all of its lenses are made of mineral glass. Thanks to this material, our glasses offer greater clarity, much better protection, and are environmentally friendly,” explains Lionel Giraud. While the expertise was always there, the models created in the 1970s and 1980s now appear dated. “We’ve upgraded our factory, kept some of the models for their vintage appeal, and reworked our designs.” And Vuarnet is not stopping at glasses; it is also relaunching clothing lines. This spring, a partnership with a New York brand will produce a limited-edition collection of sportswear designed for the beach. However, the winter wear that made Vuarnet clothing so popular in European ski resorts will not reappear until late 2018. Aficionados of the brand will therefore be able to count on what Made in France does best: impeccable expertise and distinctive style.
“It’s a story of friendship and happenstance,” explains Lionel Giraud. “A Paris optician, who loves skiing, and Jean Vuarnet, who wins Olympic gold, meet and create a brand.”
The renaissance of this titan of French industry is no accident; there are many factors at work. An influx of capital and the arrival of Lionel Giraud, known for his business sense, have breathed new life into the company. Times and fashions have also changed. The collections of major brands like Chanel and Gucci are now inspired by athletic wear. As Lionel Giraud notes, “People today want the cutting-edge technology found in sportswear, but not the look. They want something they can wear in the city.” Just like the early days, when optician Roger Pouilloux donned his glasses to speed down the slopes, Vuarnet is appealing to active people who appreciate the brand for its technical excellence. They wear high-performance glasses for activities like skiing and sailing, as well as simple pursuits like strolling through the world’s major capitals.
It is perhaps this combination of style and technical sophistication that attracts celebrities, many of whom wear Vuarnet glasses, albeit relatively discreetly. Of course, there are also the exceptions, who openly display their fondness for the brand. In the movie Spectre, fictional jet setter James Bond battles his enemies, the wind, and the snow while wearing a pair of Vuarnet’s Glacier glasses (a prop selected by the film’s stylists—not a paid product placement).
Actor Vincent Cassel recently became the new face of the brand. Among his attributes, according to Lionel Giraud, are the fact that Cassel is French, appeals to both 50-yearolds and 20-year-olds, and is athletic. “He can be both elegant in a tuxedo and convincing as a surfer.” Although this choice may seem surprising, it is actually quite inspired when one reflects on the dual nature of the product and the serendipitous circumstances that have turned this high-tech invention into an everyday object.
How will younger buyers react to the iconic Vuarnet brand? Will it be associated with the trend towards all things vintage that characterizes much of today’s fashion? Lionel Giraud is not expecting this, although he is placing an emphasis on the company’s roots and its authentic products. Instead, he is hoping that Vuarnet glasses become a talisman, an emblem of the good life. “When I bought my first pair of Vuarnets at the age of 18 and wore them or put them in my pocket, they were a symbol of how much fun I was having. I’d like Vuarnet glasses to once again be associated with whatever makes people happy.”
It could take time to build this association between Vuarnet and the pleasures of life. Older generations may already be convinced, but young people have no ingrained affection for the brand. Vuarnet’s enhanced presence in Europe, social media campaigns, and a new office right here in Montreal to help win over the North American market are all points in its favour—as are the product’s longevity, its history, and, of course, the determination of Lionel Giraud!