Unveiled in 2012, Google Glass was an example of a vision that failed: impractical, expensive, and ugly. The problem wasn’t only the design of the optical head-mounted display, but the privacy concerns it raised: the looming possibility of discreet, rolling recording. In 2018, the Silicon Valley giant announced that Google Glass will return – for the first time – equipped with AI and repurposed as a tool for the enterprise: for factory workers, surgeons, and airplane pilots. It’s much easier to imagine Glass in these settings, in part because they are remote from daily life, but also because since 2012 the world has become more tightly suffused with surveillance. The question of vision – what we see and what sees us – is crucial for understanding our present situation, and this goes some way to explaining why eyewear design has become one of the most exciting future-oriented trends.
In recent pop culture history, eyewear has been an integral part of narratives framing the near-future. In the 1995 cyberpunk anime classic Ghost in the Shell, cyborg protagonist Major Kusanagi regularly appears wearing large shield frames, while her sidekick Batou has artificially augmented eyes. The Terminator poster from 1984 depicts Arnold Schwarzenegger wearing dark shades with a red glare suggesting his inhuman secret, plus the data-infused second vision provided by his specs. In the Matrix trilogy, mined extensively for fashion references over the last few years, glasses not only serve to create immaculate style but to signify the ability to see through the machine-fabricated virtual reality that surrounds us. Glasses have become a symbol of transition into the post-human state. If eyes are a signifier of the human, dark lenses are the domain of cyborgs and avatars.
The current resurgence of 1990s cyberpunk aesthetics can be seen in the popularity of wraparound, shield, and racer sunglasses, as well as designs influenced by sports models for skiing and cycling. Balenciaga, Vetements and Prada have all released their own take on the style for Spring 2019. Their designs play with the aesthetics of functional clothing, but also channel 90s retrofuturism: a vision of tomorrow from the dawn of the digital age (think chunky laptops and the Intel logo) just a second before we knew what a subtle, boring corporate nightmare it was going to become (hello again, Google Glass). The changing nature of our vision is one of the most fundamental questions for today’s culture: from privacy and surveillance to augmented reality and deep fakes. At the same time, with Oculus Rift and other virtual reality headsets becoming more accessible, the cultural status of eyewear is shifting, becoming less a luxury accessory and something more experimental and aesthetically challenging.
Based in the South Korean capital Seoul, Gentle Monster has used eyewear frequently to construct utopian and dystopian narratives. Its latest, 13, is set in a world where the moon shifts off its axis, slowly floating away from the earth, creating a 13th month, “Undecember,” a crisis that tempts people into a dependency on either religion or technology. Defined as a creative collective rather than an eyewear brand, Gentle Monster produces eyewear which pushes boundaries visually – it could be a thin stripe of red glass or an intersection of two freakishly large circles – and technologically – as with their recently unveiled collaboration with Huawei featuring a Siri-like personal assistant and headphones embedded into the frame. They also employ elaborate store design and installations as additional tools for immersive storytelling.
“We’re pretty much fixated on the ideas of ‘future’ and ‘space’. We think of the present looked at by our future selves, the habitat and outfits worn to live on different planets, and try to push our imagination to create a strange but fun look,” the Gentle Monster team told me. “Despite the hyper-futuristic aesthetic of this collection, our message and approach aren’t necessarily just about the future, however. Every time we start a new collection, we think about how we can be re-born, how we can communicate with the world.” They also emphasise that the core of their futurism is deeper than just the aesthetics. It’s cultural and geographically specific. “Our take on the future gravitates towards technology, convenience, and connectivity. Hence the fastest internet in the world we have here [in South Korea]”.
London-based label A Better Feeling is also rethinking the place of eyewear in the fashion industry and the day-to-day life of their customers. Eyewear is the first product in a range of essentials meant to have an enhancing effect and become part of a modern-day self-care routine. Bold and boxy, the shades draw from tokens of old-school luxury – a detachable headpiece is inspired by jewellery from 1930s Japan, the sharp angles inherited from classic 1980s Italian sunglasses — reconfigured to suit the needs of the Gen Z consumer.
“When it comes to the future, I think about how people are going to utilize space, about minimalism and automation. In my head the sunglasses are customized for that era,” says A Better Feeling founder Xander Ghost. “I also take inspiration from other spheres, specifically kitchen design and minimal boutique architecture studios like Mar Plus Ask which produces very sharp, boxy interiors. I believe design is going to get more experimental as more people are exposed daily to content they wouldn’t have pre-Instagram.”
While Gentle Monster and A Better Feeling offer both challenging design and the high-end technology quality eyewear demands, designer Hinako Nakazawa offers a different approach. A Central Saint Martins graduate, Nakazawa started making eyewear to compliment her graduate clothing collection: rough wire frames with uneven fragments of coloured glass adorned by pearls and crystals. She draws inspiration from oil paintings by Otto Dix and Kajahl Benes, alongside sci-fi classics like Blade Runner, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and visuals from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune, which was never made. Assembled from discarded objects, her eyewear tells a story of the future which is little bit broken, but captivating precisely due to its fatal imperfections.
“I often go to vintage markets to get interesting materials like bits of a broken chandelier, old metal ornaments, and old wooden board game pieces. I combine the trashy vintage items and frames, and these unusual combinations turn into fun eyewear. They are never practical, but more like jewellery or wearable art pieces,” Nakazawa says. “To me, eyewear can be a purely ornamental fashion accessory, the same as an earring or necklace. Also, wearing eyewear is the easiest way to change a face, the same as make-up”.
Overall, experimental eyewear is part of a broader shift in the design of practical wearable pieces that coincides with the trans-human desire to augment, improve, and adapt our bodies. In the past few years, fashion has appropriated and created its own version of mundanity through normcore, eroding previous notions of the ordinary. Overlaying 90s futurist nostalgia, we have begun to dress like our own cyberpunk teenage dream, diverging from the utilitarian through an anarchic amalgamation of dislocated digital references. Or as Xander Ghost put it: “Crazy designs aren’t as crazy anymore, and what would have been a niche product 10 years ago has become wearable on a daily basis.”
- TextAnastasiia Fedorova