New Orleans might be best known for its drinks, its food and a little event called Mardi Gras (perhaps you’ve heard of it?), but venture off of Bourbon Street and beyond the party scene and you’ll find a budding fashion industry that’s worth spotlighting. Leading the new crop of up-and-comers is Krewe du Optic, an eyewear label beloved by locals, New Yorkers and even Beyoncé. Not bad for a brand that got its start just over a year ago.
Created by 25-year-old Stirling Barrett as a way to extend his artistic talents into a post-graduation career, these hand-designed shades are inspired by the sights, sounds and — most importantly — the people of Nola. Whether it’s the circular St. Louis frame, the updated '50s Monroe cat eye, or the retro cool Olivier, each style comes named after a city street and tricked out with totally unique touches. Needless to say, these are unique, high-quality shades that you definitely won’t want to leave in a cab (or, if we're keeping with the New Orleans theme, on a streetcar).
Krewe is a Southern-rooted brand through and through — and being based in New Orleans rather than New York comes with its own particular set of challenges. We spoke with Barrett about the brand’s beginnings, saying no, and what happens when a Knowles wears your product.
Take us back to the beginning. How did Krewe du Optic come about?
We launched Krewe about 15 or 16 months ago. I’m an artist, and I was looking for a new way of expressing myself through my art. I was trying to find a way to produce a tangible product for a bunch of people, and sunglasses came out of that. I always felt like I had a pulse on eyewear, so it was a natural fit. We launched here in New Orleans, and our mission is to create modern, iconic frames that represent you — not the other way around. We don’t have any exterior branding or anything like that. We really and truly believe that people the pulse of the brand.
How much does living in New Orleans influence the brand itself?
I’m born and raised in New Orleans. I left to go to college in Dallas almost right after Katrina. Once I graduated, I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay there, move to New York, or go back to New Orleans. However, it really took me leaving New Orleans to realize how special the city is culturally, and how much I wanted to be back. Two or three years after I got home, Krewe was born.
What made you want to stay in Louisiana?
For many aspiring brands, the goal is always to move to New York. Funnily enough, I never really had that feeling. Not being a New Yorker can be just as much of a positive thing as it is a negative; the hardest thing about not being in New York or LA is just that: not being in New York or LA. It’s just about showing people the product on a website as opposed to in person. But the benefit of it is that Krewe truly is a culturally inspired brand. We want to represent the people, and the creative process is really inspired by the street culture of New Orleans. I don’t think that our designs would have been born out of me being in New York or LA; I think the designs would’ve been reactionary to all the stimuli that’s around. It’s such a great time to be in New Orleans, to be from New Orleans and to be representing the city for something more than tourism, which is exciting. But on the other hand, I do travel to New York all the time, and I’m just as inspired there.
How does being in New Orleans work from a manufacturing standpoint?
Since we’re such a global economy now, it’s actually simple. It wouldn’t be that big of a difference whether we were in New York, New Orleans, or pretty much anywhere else. All of our products are hand-sketched, and I draw everything. Then, we work with our manufacturer to source and create the product in Italy. So it really is kind of a global product. We only use the highest quality acetate and lenses, and the glasses' quality is number one for us. Handmade eyewear is a skilled process, and it’s something that is passed down from generation to generation. You really have to go to straight to the artisans in order to create that.
Besides local New Orleans culture, what else influences your designs?
People, for sure. For hundreds of years, New Orleans has been an inlet port of style, culture, food, wine — from cultures like African, Creole, French and Spanish. We have a tolerance for peoples' individual ways of doing things, and that tends to boil down to the way you dress and represent yourself. Not only am I inspired by the people who live here now, but also the people who lived here before us.
What types of challenges have you had to face since the company began?
[Laughs] Everything is an obstacle! Manufacturing is just a learning process. Our product is handmade, which means it’s a three to four month process to make a pair of sunglasses. It’s just tough to forecast and be ready and prepared about what people will want to see down the line. We’ve built the company on being "yourself," and often that means funky and fun colors, cool lens combinations and all these types of things. We might make a frame that we think is going to be amazing, but you can’t order 500 of it just because you just never know. Those logistical things — like what you want, how many you want — have been a learning curve for us. Also, we’ve had to make sure we keep the quality of the glasses no matter how fast we are growing.
How do you do that?
We get presented with lots of opportunities and trade shows, and it’s been a matter of being able to say yes in situations where you can, and having to say no when you don’t want to sometimes. You have to be able to say that this is the right opportunity for us as a brand right now, or “Damn, I wish we could do this, but this isn’t the right time.” Regionally we’ve had great success, but until this point we’ve been hesitant to expand out of our region because we want to make sure the product can correspond to the growth. We’re 15 months old, and most brands have already done trade shows. We’ve held off on that until now, because we want to make sure we can put quality products in every single store.
What’s your strategy for expanding into other regions?
Our online store is great. Anybody internationally can order online, and we’ve had a lot of success from places like Australia. Luckily we live in a global economy so you can order them everywhere. Next year we’re going to do some trade shows and expand into key accounts. Hopefully we’ll be sending some people on the road to do events nationally. But the bottom line is, we are a discovery brand. We don’t advertise, we’re all word of mouth, and we’re all pretty low-key. The best way for us to reach consumers is to touch people who we think will love the product. That’s going to be a big part of 2015. It’s going to be a year of engagement.
As a “discovery brand,” what is your biggest marketing tool?
Just word of mouth? I wish I knew! But I think it’s just about being ourselves, and people respect that. People respond to things that they like and that they think represent them, and that’s what we’re all about. We don’t want to have five logos on your face and have you walking around as a giant billboard for us. Beyoncé and other celebrities have been wearing our frames, which is blowing the brand up. It’s all super exciting, but we’re not pushing for that.
Wait, Beyonce is a fan?
She wore the St. Louis style in matte clear a few weeks ago. It was super cool. Stuff like that keeps happening, and it’s like we’re just on this roller coaster. But the whole thing is twofold: We want to connect with our consumers, we want to engage through social media, and we want to know where you are, how you like it. You can have a great story, but if you don’t have quality, then nobody is going to talk about it.