On my first trip to Seoul last year, the most life-enhancing purchase I made wasn't a snail serum or 48-pack of sheet masks — it was a few pairs of sunglasses that didn't slide off my face. For the first time, I owned frames with handy nose pads that didn't detract from the design. I bought them from Gentle Monster, a South Korean luxury eyewear brand with a growing reputation for combining experimental design with high functionality. In February 2016, Gentle Monster opened its North American flagship in New York City, a few blocks away from Opening Ceremony, which it collaborated with on a spring/summer 2016 collection. Its designs — most of which are priced under $300 — are also sold online at Nordstrom and Shopbop, though you really have to try on a pair to understand how the brand is breaking boundaries in the eyewear industry.
What every Asian person with a broader face, higher cheekbones, lower nose bridge and a penchant for expensive designer sunglasses — especially of the oversized, "Jackie O" plastic variety — knows is that eyewear sans nose pads will inevitably slip off your face, with or without the summer heat. Growing up in sunny California as a Chinese American teenage girl, I envied my non-Asian classmates lounging casually by the pool in their Marissa Cooper-inspired Chanel knockoff shades. None of them worried about having a face that was "too flat" to hold up a pair of sunglasses, and I was too proud, as suggested by my parents, to buy a pair of "practical" sunglasses with nose pads. As it turns out, my experience was, thankfully, not unique.
In May 2004 in a blog post titled "My Skull is Such," comedian Margaret Cho griped about the lack of sunglasses that fit Asian faces: "Why can't I, an Asian American woman, find a decent pair of glasses that will: a) fit my face b) not give me a migraine whenever I put them on c) not slide down my nose d) not give me acne in the spots where the kidney shaped pads are placed on the glasses as if that would help me keep the glasses on my 'misshapen' misadventure of a head; safety brakes for my Black Diamond face, as the eyeglass industry refers to it e) allow me to see clearly." There are over four billion people living in Asia alone (not including people of Asian descent across the globe), so it couldn't possibly be due to a lack of demand for stylish sunglasses for Asian faces. The eyewear industry is estimated to gross over $40 billion a year, and only recently have major eyewear players like Safilo and Luxottica started gearing a few models for non-Western face shapes.
Gentle Monster, still considered new to the market, was founded five years ago by former English teacher Hankook Kim. It soared to success and brand name recognition across Asia in the most reliable way possible: when A-list South Korean actress Gianna Jun wore a pair on the popular K-drama, "My Love from the Star." "She liked what was on her stylist and she asked if she could borrow a pair," says VP of Communications Taye Yun. "That drama went global about three or four years ago, and since then, it's been crazy for us." The Washington Post estimates the K-beauty industry rakes around $10 billion in sales from the United States annually, so it's about time that the K-fashion industry becomes a formidable force in the market, too. According to Yun, non-Korean celebrities like Suki Waterhouse, Hailey Baldwin, Miranda Kerr and Jessica Alba have been spotted wearing the brand, and Korean American interior designer-slash-blogger Aimee Song of Song of Style is also a fan. "You can find it all on Instagram," he says.
The brand, which employs eight in-house eyewear designers, releases 350 to 400 — 30 to 40 styles with 5 to 10 color options — new unisex models made of cellulose acetate, titanium steel or stainless steel frames each year. Cellulose acetate frames are easily adjustable for different facial structures because they bend to shape without heat — and without breaking in the process. The black-shaded lenses are made by German manufacturer Zeiss, which also makes lenses for camera companies and NASA.
At the SoHo flagship, the most popular frames sold are the wire frames, like the geometric but delicate Love Punch sunglasses ($290), which stay true to Gentle Monster's "experimental" mantra while remaining light on your face. You may recognize the teardrop-cat eye Chola sunglasses ($645), designed as part of a collaboration by Chris Habana, because Rihanna's worn them in the past. The clear plastic framed Insight glasses ($190) are currently sold out online — possibly because they were featured in minimalist lifestyle magazine Kinfolk. Alongside the five mother-of-pearl-inspired styles for Opening Ceremony, Gentle Monster has another collaboration with a New York-based designer on offer: the Jacuzzi sunglasses from Hood by Air ($380), which resemble a cross between snorkel masks and ski goggles.
"We sought opportunity in a very flat and stable market, where eyewear was not being explored or experimented with excitement and creativity," Yun explains, noting that they are explicitly targeting "millennials" for an offline shopping experience. (In fact, rotating interior art installations at the New York flagship are specifically created with Instagram in mind.) For this reason, they try to keep price points relatively low. Yun notes that all 400 styles each year have nose pads for extra grip on your face, whether you're Asian or not. And if Gentle Monster can do this with just eight people on the visual design team, we hope it will become more commonplace in the eyewear market.