Vuarnets were everywhere—with special lenses for the beach, ski slopes and being on the water. But the brand’s popularity extended far beyond these niche markets. Vuarnets became a must-have fashion accessory, often for people who weren’t the least bit concerned with protection from ultraviolet rays.
Beyond the ski and surf shops, where the sunglasses were wildly popular, other retailers got in the game, too, selling t-shirts, sweatshirts and sunglasses, strings, all emblazoned with Vuarnet’s familiar “V” logo. But just like the star athlete for whom everything came far too easily, Vuarnet’s run hit a wall in the mid 1990s.
Andre Magnan, product manager of Lanctot Ltd., the Montreal-based distributor of the brand in Canada, says his sales reps tell him Vuarnet didn’t change with the times, didn’t update its styles and didn’t aggressively defend its turf against a growing number of largely lower-priced and lower-quality competitors. “Vuarnets used to fly off the shelves here. We had people working day and night on them because they used to be so popular. After that, they went downhill,” he says.
Brands such as Oakley and Ray-Ban set their sights on Vuarnet customers and, in many cases, won them over with less expensive frames that didn’t offer nearly the same kind of sun protection, Magnan says. His company tried numerous ways to reclaim a beachhead in the sunglasses war, including offering consignment accounts to retailers, but with little success, he says.
“When you don’t pay for something, you don’t try to push it (on customers). A lot of it comes back. It wasn’t as effective as we had hoped,” he says, noting most of its sales today aren’t directly to the consumer but through big box giant, Costco.
He says part of the problem was the durability of Vuarnet frames and the lenses, in particular, which caused them to be priced on the high end. That characteristic didn’t play well with fickle fashionistas who wanted to change their look on a moment’s notice without breaking the bank.
“It’s nice that they buy it once but we want to have repeat customers three or four years down the road, not 15 years. The average person will change their (non-sunglass) frames in less than two years. We hope that will be the same for sunglasses,” he says.
Now, after Vuarnet has wallowed in the dark for more than a decade, Magnan says he’s hoping customers will see the light (figuratively speaking, of course) as part of the retro craze. With ’80s music and clothes back in style, Magnan is hoping Vuarnet can ride the wave sweeping pop culture with a new line-up featuring sportier and trendier frames. The brand is also going after the broader female market, which has recently re-embraced larger frames, he says.
“Any woman wearing sunglasses today, most of them are so big on their face. That’s what Vuarnet represented in the past and that’s what’s coming back today—large-sized frames that fit well and protect your eyes,” he says. To make sure Vuarnet doesn’t repeat its past mistakes, Magnan says it will diversify by staking out new markets, including children. He says sun protection has never been more top-of-mind for parents and fashionable Vuarnet frames at a reasonable price are filling the need.
“That’s where a lot of our sales are. A lot of times, it’s the parents who used to wear Vuarnet when they were young. ‘Ah, Vuarnet. I can get them for my kids.’ Hopefully, the kids stay on board for the future,” he says, adding that one thing it won’t tinker with is Vuarnet’s iconic Cateye model, a runaway craze in the 1980s that remains one of its best sellers today.
Rob Warren, I.H. Asper executive director for entrepreneurship at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, says Vuarnet’s timing with the retro market couldn’t be better. “As people get into their 30s, they start to look back. Their strongest memories are from age 12 to 16. They’re heavy for nostalgia, they want to relive it as adults,” he says.
Getting an endorsement from a current pop culture star would help the company tap into the all-important youth segment, he says. “When you want to reach young people, you want a cultural icon or a trend setter. If you can get somebody like [pop singer] Beyoncé to wear your product, then you’ll do really well in the urban market."
Magnan says the Vuarnet brand will remain true to its high-quality roots and that means it will continue to be a premium-priced product that won’t appeal to penny-pinching consumers. “People who are proud of what they’re wearing aren’t concerned about the price they’re paying, they’re more worried about the style and following the wave of what’s in style,” he says.