At the last few Balenciaga shows, a pre-runway of sorts played out outside the venue: Demna's designs were photographed in landscapes milder than the snowy, windy, muddy ones he'd created inside — and on very famous people.
At the brand's haute couture show in July, and again at its ready-to-wear show in October, paparazzi joined the street-style photographers to capture ladies like Christine Quinn, Alexa Demie, Bella Hadid, Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner and Naomi Campbell making their way in and out of the venues. Nearly all them (and many other showgoers) were wearing some version of Balenciaga's bold, alien-esque, Oakley-inspired wraparound sunglasses. What better way to be protected from the flashing lights than these goggle-like shields, akin to those worn by athletes and first responders to block blazing sun, bullets and even grizzly bear attacks? (Yes, that's a real story, and don't worry, no bears were reported at Paris Fashion Week.)
Thanks to all this Balenciaga-centric publicity and a broader Y2K resurgence in fashion and culture, wraparounds have become the eyewear silhouette of the moment, with Heron Preston, Maison Margiela, Marine Serre, Rick Owens and Ray-Ban — plus Demna and his famous muses — leading their revival. This may seem like an unexpected turn for what originated as a sporty performance item, but those in the know aren't surprised.
"It makes complete sense for these to be in the high-fashion space," says Dr. Vanessa Brown, senior lecturer at Nottingham School of Art and Design and author of "Cool Shades: The History and Meaning of Sunglasses." "It's [been] a long time since wraparounds were fashionable — and that makes something ripe to be re-purposed for fashion."
According to Katie Devlin, fashion trend forecaster at Stylus, wraparounds are coming back due in part to fashion's demand for functional and performance-led design. "We're seeing a kind of a sporty retro-future element," she says, "almost like a Matrix-inspired approach to Y2K."
In addition to Balenciaga's high-fashion version, Hadid — who's as much a reflection of the style trends emerging out of downtown New York as she is a major trendsetter — has also been spotted multiple times in actual Oakleys.
Demna has long been obsessed with sporty eyewear; the Georgian designer even collaborated with Oakley in 2018 through his first brand, Vetements. In the United States, though, these eyewear styles have earned more controversial associations in recent years — specifically with the alt-right, pro-law-enforcement and pro-Trump communities. This feels somewhat contradictory to their concordant adoption by A-list celebrities, even if theirs come courtesy of Balenciaga. So how did performance sunglasses go from athleticwear to MAGA-core to Balenciaga baddie?
According to Brown, wraparounds have always been historically significant in that they're arguably the last type-form to develop in 20th century sunglasses design. California-based Oakley is by and large considered the originator of this style; now owned by luxury corporation Essilor Luxottica, it's still known for its black- or rainbow-tinted frames, easily purchased at Bass Pro shops, gas stations and suburban car wash kiosks across America.
According to Brian Takumi, Oakley's vice president of brand soul and creative, founder Jim Jannard conceived the distinctive design out of a personal annoyance with the sun disrupting his peripheral vision while driving. As the story goes — and a rep confirmed it to Fashionista — Jannard literally cut goggles into a smaller shape and put coat hangers on the sides to build the first prototype. (By the time they hit the market, they were much more sophisticated.)
"Oakley is known very well in the performance space as having the best technology eyewear can offer," says Takumi.
As described in a 1997 Los Angeles Times article, the Oakley shades are built with "inhuman impenetrability," using aerodynamic elements that borrow heavily from aerospace technology. Their rounded shape helps the sunglasses sit close to the face, while their distinctive wrapping around the head provides peripheral coverage. They were designed strictly for function and performance, becoming the ultimate form of protection for an athlete's eyes from the harsh effects of activities like cycling biking, skiing, surfing and NASCAR racing. It wasn't long before they became a fashion statement as well.
As early as 1994, trendsetting celebs like Madonna, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman and even Princess Anne were photographed sporting Oakleys. Movie moments like Rodman in 1997's "Double Team" and Brad Pitt in 1999's "Fight Club" cemented the sunglasses as action-ready, futuristic and cool. As they became the accessory of the '90s and early 2000s, other brands, including Ralph Lauren, began offering similar styles.
Like most trends from that era, the wraparound began teasing its comeback as early as 2018, when Vetements dropped its Oakley collaboration (above) for Spring 2019. As they did in the '90s, celebrities have played a big role in their recent resurgence.
"The wraparounds are emblems of celebification — they hide and protect," says Shanu Walpita, trend forecaster and course leader at London College of Fashion. "This layer of celebrity concealment and curiosity is played up even more with the Balenciaga designer's famous friends donning the alien-esque shades."
While Demna is usually not one to extensively explain or contextualize his design and marketing efforts, the general consensus is that his latest collections are less about cosplaying a sci-fi dystopian future and more about living out the real thing, with constant surveillance and the persistent threat of environmental and societal collapse. "Balenciaga is the master of capturing, mirroring and subverting today's cultural zeitgeist, and also pushing it forward," says Walpita.
Wraparounds are also unique in that, unlike other accessories that must remain connected to their heritage to retain their authenticity, they need not be presented in a sporty context to maintain their appeal. They've been able to adapt to a range of aesthetics and communities. (Per Walpita, this is due to "a series of interconnected fashion and cultural convergences.")
But as they've continued to gain momentum in the fashion zeitgeist, these frames have also, perhaps unwittingly, become part of the uniform associated with what some on TikTok are calling (of course) MAGA-core. TikTok user @Mareeezy jokingly labeled wraparounds "Insurrection sunglasses" in a post with over 1,600 comments. (A sampling: "I can't believe this is a universal thing. These are the official South African racist Oakley sunglasses." "Ah, yes, the ✨Democracy Blockers✨. Living in Florida, I'm quite familiar with these.")
The politically charged protests, rallies and riots of the the past few years have resulted in even more visibility for wraparound eyewear by Oakley and other performance-led brands via police officers and their similarly accessorized supporters. As actor and director Zach Braff tweeted following the 2021 insurrection in Washington, D.C.: "Not all Trump supporters wear Oakleys. But all Oakley wearers support Trump."
While there's no overt evidence that Oakley has done anything to perpetuate this association, it has made no secret of its support for military and police officers over the years. Members of law enforcement and the U.S. military can actually qualify for a discount through the company's Standard Issue program, and the brand sells a range of sunglasses and other products featuring a "thin blue line."
Per a recent Independent article (which includes several images of police and Proud Boys wearing Oakleys), this relationship began in 1990 when Oakley's then-CEO Colin Baden decided to double down on a competitor's (derogatory) pronouncement that "Cops wear Oakleys."
"We made our own signs that said cops wear Oakleys, and we had cops wearing Oakleys. It was very well received," Baden told the paper in June of this year. "It's a great legacy. If you want to see how good your eyewear is, put it on the battlefield and see how good it is."
Dr. Jonathan Square, assistant professor of Black visual culture at the Parsons School of Design and founder of "Fashioning the Self in Slavery and Freedom," reasons that conservative parties are willing to co-opt fashion items if they're not solely considered fashion items: "If items are viewed as useful, they aren't 'fashion' and can be adopted without fear of it being considered frivolous," he says. On a functional level, wraparound glasses do also offer protection from flying debris in rowdy, militaristic settings.
Racist groups also have a pattern of using aesthetics to broadcast their beliefs and, in some cases, as a recruitment tactic. From Boogaloo Boys wearing Hawaiian shirts to Proud Boys in Fred Perry polos, there's a long history of fashion and political subcultures co-opting from each other. Mirroring Fred Perry's struggle to untangle itself from white supremacist ideologies, wraparounds sunglasses have become so enmeshed with police, military and far-right extremists in the U.S. that it's created a marketing challenge for other brands with a similar aesthetic and function to Oakley's but differing values, like Pit Viper.
Can wraparounds simultaneously cater to one group without alienating or putting off the other? Their success in the fashion world seems to answer, "yes" — but how?
"It's like Hawaiian shirts," says Square. "They have been associated with the alt-right; at the same time, they're still coveted by a larger fashion-conscious consumer base."
There's also the question of: When it comes to accessories with controversial political associations, are consumers even aware of the history behind what they're wearing? Does a Balenciaga logo override any non-fashion connection? Are they thinking beyond aesthetics?
"Some are, some aren't," says Square. "If they are aware, they may wear them to subvert their negative associations."
Brown echoes this: "Fashionable people like to play with meaning, mess about with it, change it. They borrow things which have a lot of meaning to give an impact to their look."
This seems especially true of younger shoppers. Gen Zers — who likely weren't alive the first time wraparounds were in style — are exploring and connecting with Y2K cyborgian subversion, and may simply be using conservative symbols to add a tongue-in-cheek edge to their wardrobes. As Devlin, the Stylus trend forecaster, puts it: "The wraparound sunglasses are something that have been historically seen as uncool. Making it into an ironic fashion moment is so prevalent across youth in fashion culture."
"The dystopian vibe in the Balenciaga collection references 1990s/millennial doom and subcultural 'turning away' from mainstream optimism and consumer culture happiness, but it does this in a way that creates a heroic sense of preparedness," says Brown. "It's one of fashion's tropes, and one that sunglasses are used to telegraph — time and time again."
Even when adopted ironically, though, fascist associations in fashion can be dangerous, strengthening ideologies through unified clothing and worldwide shipping. Still, wraparound sunglasses can be like chameleons, changing with the times or being everything at once. They are nostalgic and futuristic. Uncool and of-the-moment. Authoritarian and rebellious.
Whether spinning on a Lazy Susan at a car wash or shining in a window at a luxury department store, the style transcends aesthetics, subcultures and price points, and its malleable connotations make it intriguing, subversive, contradictory — even a little dangerous. For fashion's most subversive designers and tastemakers, those qualities can be like catnip.
"Sometimes fashion can be accused of being irresponsible when it seems to popularize ideas that are problematic," says Brown, almost prophetically. "But it will always want to challenge what's considered 'good taste' by shocking audiences with unexpected choices."